Nestled in the heart of West Hollywood on Santa Monica is a monument that has remained as a reminder of days before casual encounters on Craigslist or quick Grindr hookups. A throwback to the 1940s, the splendor of the building has been dimmed with buckets of purple paint and dark, tinted windows. The theater, which used to show indie flicks and art house films was one of the Pussycat chain of theaters and one of the first film houses to show Deep Throat. It has now become a spot for men to return wearing large sunglasses and oversized trench coats looking to get off on a Saturday afternoon.
Having walked past the spot every time I wanted to pick up some bread, I began to wonder what Stud’s was, exactly. It seemed obvious what a porn theater would have to offer viewers, but in a time where someone could click a few buttons on their computer and have high-resolution sex right in front of their face, what drew them to the dark hallways of a public theater?
Before going, I asked a friend what they thought about Stud’s. My friend was going through his Grindr messages, deciding which one of 30 torso pictures he was going to respond to when he said, “Eh, it’s just men who don’t get any at home, and I’ve heard it’s dirty.”
I went anyway.
Stepping into Stud’s Theater I was greeted by a welcome committee of four men sitting on a plush couch talking in a lit entryway. They were all wearing trucker hats and vaping. They called out “Good afternoon!” like I had just stepped into a bakery or florist shop instead of an adult movie theater.
When you walk through the front door you find yourself in a singular hallway at the end of which is a corral door. To my right was a machine that hummed loudly, proclaiming that a film at Stud’s would run me $20, and yes, they take debit cards.
I swiped my card and out from the machine popped a coin, its tarnished edges rubbed down. A man behind the door wearing a Mets cap said, “You sure you want to go in?” I wasn’t, but I handed him the coin anyway. No one told me the “rules” of Stud’s, which led me to believe that maybe there were none, but I was informed that condoms were available if I needed them. “Have fun,” said the man who had taken my ticket, “next time bring me back a girl.”
The actual screening section was pitch black. I used my hands to guide myself to the first room emitting a soft glow and the echoing sounds of a woman either being plowed or bludgeoned to death. The first theater could fit around 15 people, give or take, and as I entered I made eyes with two older men holding their limp dicks in their hands. They nodded at me as I entered and then went back to the film of a woman being gang-banged on a pool table by five men.
Neither of the men was touching the other, and I got the strong sense that there was an understanding that went on in this room. No one touched each other. Everyone was welcome to watch. Every man kept to himself. As I turned to leave the room a man was fondling himself by the door, too shy to step into the light, too forward to stay at home and jerk off by his lonesome.
I slowly made my way to each screening room, shocked. The theater all the way in the back was the largest and clearly had been the original screening room. Chandeliers hung from the ceiling. On the screen were two faux-soldiers rubbing each other through their camo cutoff shorts. I could make out the tops of men’s heads, sitting low in their seats.
From the people I encountered at Stud’s, I could tell an older crowd usually ran this joint. After five minutes of watching the two men on the screen suck each other off, I moved toward the front of the theater and saw more men rubbing themselves over the soft hum of cinematic moans. Not every guy was pleasuring himself. Many sat with bags of popcorn in their hands, as if they had come for the film’s plot.
I ended up sitting next to what I had assumed was an empty seat. Behind me a man sat with popcorn in his hand, and I tried not to think about what was on the crunchy seat I occupied. I scanned the crowd and noted there were more people in the theater than I would have expected, more than 30, meaning, at $20 an entrance fee Stud’s wasn’t doing too poorly for itself.
Feeling a hand on my leg, I almost kicked out in fear. A man was kneeling in front of the man behind me, sucking him off, and this was my invitation to join. Not sure what to say I stood up and walked quickly to the front of the theater. It was at this moment that I began to realize that being sucked off while watching a film was not uncommon here. It seemed like everyone had decided this was OK here, because as I stood in front of the screen an adult film in and of itself unfolded before my eyes. On a leather couch to my left there was a man eating another man out; both looked over and watched as I watched them.
As I began to head up the rows, hand after hand held out for me, inviting me to join their orgy. A man at the back of the theater turned to me as I stood there, “You looking for company?” he said, directing his eyes towards the bulge he kept rubbing. “No, thanks,” I told him as I began to head to the last room in the theater, “You got a nice ass, too!” he called after me.
The long hallways between the theaters were “cruising areas,” for men, and although I wasn’t looking to play, I could begin to understand just how liberating and exciting it would be to find sex in the dark, musty theater. There was something about running into anyone there that I began to feel – the draw of the unknown.
On the last screen was a transsexual flick. In the back of the theater sat a businessman looking both bored and intrigued by my presence. He remained fully clothed as I watched the screen for a few minutes. I wanted to ask him why he was there if not to join others and get off, but I wrote it off as perhaps the TV in his hotel room was broken.
Stud’s, before that day, had always been a relic to me, something the Internet and time had left behind after PornHub and Grindr were born. It seemed like a dusty memento from before technology permitted us to access sex at the click of a button. Until I went in I had no idea just how prevalent cruising culture was, how much of a thrill it was to step into the darkness and experience that anonymity.
It’s easy to dismiss the patrons of Stud’s – like my friend did – while we live in a world where we get our rocks off by locking our doors after meeting up with casual strangers for awkward small talk and stiff sex. The theater serves as an aging flagship of sorts for people who still want something beyond Grindr, that throwback to the non-judgmental mindset, the immediate freeing of inhibitions and the ability to snack while you’re getting sucked off.