Revisiting Grindhouse Glory Days with 42nd Street Pete Chiarella
The Haunted Cinema (THC) – Ghastly and I are so glad that you agreed to stop by for a chat about your experiences on 42nd St during the grindhouse era. Before we dive into your story, tell us a little about 42nd street as it was back in the days of Grindhouse theaters.
Pete Chiarella (PC) – All of those theaters were opulent back before the crash in the 30’s. they were all bought up and changed over to whatever they could get away with. I started going there in the late 60’s, thats when all the great exploitation stuff seems to have started. Films changed on Wednesdays and you had a new film usually backed up by an older film that distributors knew would draw people. Theaters lined each side of the street from 8th Avenue to Broadway. Between the theaters were Adult Book stores, liquor stores, stores that sold fake IDs, knives, brass knuckles, martial arts weapons , and back date magazines. As things progressed you had massage parlors, peepshows, live sex shows, bogus electronics stores and other stuff.
THC – What were some of the better known or more notorious theaters from that era? Do you have any stories that you can share about them?
PC – The Anco was right on the corner of 42nd & 8th. I was young and stupid and got robbed the first time I was in there. I was too clean cut and that made me a target, I didn’t stay clean cut for very long after High school. If you fell asleep in that place, junkies would slice open your pockets with a razor. the exit led into an alley that ran behind the other theaters on that side of the block. if you got robbed, the robber would book out the exit and sneak into another theater. Cops wouldn’t chase them because they’d never catch them.
The Liberty was in the middle of the block and was THE place to see sick shit like Caligula, which ran for almost 3 months straight, Make Them Die Slowly ran for 10 straight weeks, then was brought back again for about 3 weeks. The Apollo seemed to have Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS run there every couple of months. The Harem was one flight up and was open 24/7 .It was very dark and populated by Time square flotsam. it showed 3 or 4 porn films nonstop. The Venus was on 8th avenue and opened at 10am and closed at 7am. a lot of the theaters opened early because people working late shifts would go see a movie before going home.
THC – They call you 42nd St Pete. How did you get that nickname?
PC – I created that name as a joke on Mike Vraney from Something Weird Video. It stuck and became an extension of my personality. i never thought anything of it when I created it, but fans seemed to like it, so I keep it going. I never had a clue how far I could take it, but hey, it worked.
THC – Talking about “Grindhouse”, that term gets thrown about all the time with modern directors like Tarantino or Eli Roth claiming to make Grindhouse films. What is Grindhouse, and how do you feel about “modern Grindhouse”?
PC – First off, fuck those guys, there is no such thing as modern grindhouse. Grindhouse, to me, was a huge bunch of genres like spaghetti westerns, cannibal films, biker films, mondo, sexploitation, kung fu, sword & sandal, blaxploitation , hard & soft porn etc..
These genres worked because no one had ever done anything like them before. They were new, different, and shocking. They all had a shelf life of about 5 to 7 years. When people tell me they are making a “grindhouse” film, I usually ask them where they found a time machine. Not to piss on anyone’s parade, but if you’re making a movie, just make it. The grindhouse scene back then can never be duplicated, for a lot of us, it was a lifestyle to go and see 2 or three films every week.
THC – You can’t talk about Grindhouse and 42 St without talking about the rise (and fall) of exploitation films. What are some of your favorite exploitation movies? What made them so good?
PC – What made these films so good was that no one had ever done anything like this before. Some of the better ones were Last House on the Left, The Defilers, Ilsa, The Scavengers, The Flesh Trilogy, the Olga films, and a lot more.
THC – What is the legacy of exploitation films and their importance in cinema?
PC – After Jaws came out, Roger Corman said “They finally figured it out”. The major studios took exploitation. polished it up, or should I say watered it down and made it go mainstream. elements of rape, racism, sex, and extreme violence all started showing up in mainstream films. Hey, when Paramount made bank on Friday the 13th, every fuckin week there was a new slasher film out. Blood & gore always sold. Blood Feast supposedly ran for 3 months straight at The Rialto. The last wave of films on 42nd Street was the shitty slasher films and the really extreme Italian horror films.
THC – You hung out with quite the cast of characters in your time on 42nd St. Who are some of the folks that had the biggest impact on who you are now? What was their impact on you?
PC – Actually no one I met hanging out drinking and smoking. Norman Brill, from Liquidators, was a mentor of sorts. Later in life I met David Friedman and he was a mentor to a bunch of us. I was mentored in the hustling merchandise business by a bunch of crooks, lol. I hung out with a couple of barmaids/hookers and fellow drunks and pot heads. I wasn’t really influenced by anyone, I learned how to hustle and made a living doing it.
THC – You were there at the beginning of the home video market and are still involved today. Tell us about those early years of home video and you came to be involved.
PC – I always knew that someday someone would figure out how to watch a movie on a TV set. We used to buy 8mm monster films back in the day. Then when video hit, I was hooked. A VCR was $800 and weighed 60 pounds, or so it seemed. A blank tape was $20. The first two tapes I bought were Night of the Living Dead and Assault on Precinct 13, $59.95 each. i wanted to open a store, but your $$ was in porn and towns had ordinances prohibiting that. So, I started taking tapes to Flea Markets. I was the first guy that did that. I’d buy out stores, take what I wanted for my collection, then sell the rest.
THC – You had a retail video store called Past Midnight Video. How did that come to be, and how long did you own it?
PC – That store came out of the Flea Market. I had been setting up in front of an indoor flea market. I had steady customers and was doing good. Then the manager bailed, and the landlord took it over. I was given a choice, take an indoor booth or leave. So, I took a small booth and that led to a bigger store sized booth. I was there for about 12 years. My connection to Chiller Theater got me more customers. It was great, but then all good things come to an end sadly.
THC – Today, it’s nothing to go online to Amazon, or similar sites and find just about any movie available on DVD or Blu-ray. Obviously, that wasn’t the case in the early days of home video. How did you find titles to sell or rent? How long did it take Hollywood to see the potential in the market?
PC – I spent a lot of time making solid connections with stores and distributors. Porn paid the bills, and I knew what would sell. Horror and Cult were huge and Norm would call me when he cleaned out a store so I’d get first pick. Local stores would have three of each big rental but would sell me the extra ones when the rentals slowed down. It’s the one business that I never lost money on. I could repair tapes. use broken tapes for parts. It was actually a fun time.
THC – I have heard you talk about New York City Liquidators. What was this company, and what impact did it have on you and your business?
PC – Well, the owner, Norman Brill, had a place called Norman’s House of Deals on Broadway. He got busted for phony Rolex watches. Someone told me that they could get me new releases cheap. He showed me a list, so I gave him an order. All the tapes were in Clamshell boxes, obvious bootlegs. So, we had a screaming match and I told him no way I was paying for them. But he let it slip where they came from.
So, I find the place on West 27th Street, New York City Liquidators. I go in, introduce myself and tell Norm what I do and what I can sell. So, he gave me a good price on a case of porn VHS and the relationship started. I was there every week as he would get new deals, buy out video stores and get other stuff I could sell. We would try to get over on each other, sometimes he would get me, other times I would nail him. We became best friends.
One time I walked in when he just opened, 7am. He asks me “do you have $500 on you?” I say “yeah, why? he says “just give it to me, your gonna spend it anyhow.” So, I give it to him, he pays to guys who just brought in something he wanted. So i ask ‘what the fuck was that all about?’ He says “ I don’t want those assholes to know I have any cash around this early’ . And yeah, I would have spent it there as he said. Liquidators supplied my business until I had to close it, then Norm offered me a job there and I took it.
THC – You can’t talk about these times without talking about the Mob. Was organized crime prevalent in the industry at the time? Did you ever have to worry about them?
PC – The mob owned the porn business. Guys would come into the store on Sundays with pastries. I’d take one, thank them, then go to my office. Total respect as I knew who they were and kept my mouth shut. I grew up around people like that, so I knew silence was golden. Being a stand-up guy as Norm would tell them, they knew I had a lot of connections and would come to me with a few deals here and there. I never wanted in or anything like that. It was just business. As long as everyone is making money, there were never any problems.
THC – The 42nd street of today bears no resemblance to the times you are talking about. What caused the decline of the era? Was it government, the rise of home video, or some other reason?
PC – People will tell you AIDS, Crack, greedy realtors, etc. The bottom-line, as distributor ,Terry Levine , said in an interview, was money. for the size of the area, the tax revenue didn’t add up. No one was paying taxes. If they had, no one would have bothered them. But the area was not kept up, theaters were falling into ruin and the movies that drew the crowds were now on home video. Why risk getting stabbed by a crackhead when you could watch the movie in your home? It was always dangerous there, but crack made it worse. When i was buying from Norm and others, I kept a knife, a bat, or some weapon close by.
THC – Even after the decline of Grindhouse, you stayed active in the business. Talk about how you had to change to keep up with times.
PC – After Liquidators closed due to Norm dying, I was looking to move out of the area. Before that I had done the SWV thing and was hired by Alternative Cinema to write liner notes for some Nick Phillips films. I approached Mike Raso, the owner, about starting a line of 8mm stag films on DVD. I put up some money, he put up some money and we created the 8mm Madness line. I approached it from a historical standpoint, I mean 8mm porn is the great granddad of VHS, DVD, and now Blu-ray. It worked and there have been over 2 dozen releases. Then the torrent sites fucked it all up. As of this year, I’m no longer putting them out, which sucks, but I’m tired of getting ripped off.
THC – One of the projects you are known for is your magazine, Grindhouse Purgatory. How did that magazine come to be?
PC – I wanted to buy the rights to Screw Magazine. A bunch of us were trying to do that. I had known Al Goldstein and he had let me in the office to do research when I was doing the SWV Blue book. No one seemed to know who really owned it, then I got a price, 150K. i was told not to go for it, that the deal wasn’t legit. one of the guys, director Andy Copp died. So, we did the first GP as a memorium to him. That was it, I had no expectations until people started asking me when was the next one coming out. Now I’m like ok, this is good, but even though I know a lot, I never claimed to know everything. So I thought if SWV and Screw hadn’t opened the door for me to create, where would I be? So, I opened up GP to anyone who wanted a shot at writing. We had growing pains, some people stayed. others left but right now I have a great bunch of writers that know their shit and are passionate about what they write.
THC – Describe Grindhouse Purgatory magazine. What will a reader find between the covers? How can people find the magazine?
PC – GP covers every aspect and every genre of grindhouse films, plus NYC stories of me hanging out in places and pro wrestling. We are up to 14 issues and have covered a shitload of cool stuff. The nicest thing said to me by fans is that we turned them on to something they had never seen before. We got the Ted Mikel’s interview that he refused to do with Fangoria. Gary Kent occasionally writes something.
You won’t find ads on every page. You want an ad in GP? You have to earn it. You have to have a cool product and be fan friendly. Grindhouse Releasing, SWV, Shock Cinema, Severin, and Alternative Cinema get free space because they don’t fuck people over. You can get GP on Amazon, but if you want it direct from me, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’ll give you a better deal.
THC – The Cinema Wasteland Show in Ohio is in my backyard. You have a long history with the convention. How did that come to be?
PC – I met Ken Kish, the promoter when we were both at Chiller. I had an open invite to come up, but it was a long fuckin ride from Jersey. So, the show that i did make was the one where they had the black out. Chiller & Monster Mania became too big and I had a falling out with them, long story. Wasteland had the old school party atmosphere, so the next show I took a table and have been here ever since. I missed one show because I was recovering from a cancer operation, and I missed the last show because of another health issue. I gave up vending because I can’t sit in one spot for 3 days anymore. I’ll be at the next show but won’t have a table. I’ll just be hanging out with friends, but i never turn down anyone who wants to shoot the shit with me.
THC – You mentioned being a movie collector? Tell us about your collection and are you still hunting titles?
PC – Yeah, lol, that’s why I started the VHS business, I’d skim what I wanted out of deals. Then I swore I wasn’t going the DVD route, but so did Frank Henenlotter. He came into Liquidators and said, ‘Pete I just got The Wolfman on DVD and it’s beautiful”. I was like ok,fuck me, he we go again, so I replaced my VHS with DVDs and now we have Blu rays, so here we go again I was collecting 16mm films too, but that got to be too much work and too pricey to get good films. As for hunting titles, yeah, still looking for stuff that slipped by me back in the day. You have to remember that a lot of these films ran a week, then you never saw then again . There is still a lot of stuff that has never resurfaced.
THC – What’s the last movie you watched? Do you watch modern films?
PC – Godzilla King of the Monsters, and no, I don’t watch much modern stuff. I’m not paying $15 to watch a projected DVD, I like watching real film with the splices, scratches and burns on it.
THC – You are a busy guy that doesn’t seem interested in retiring. What projects are you working on now? What do you have on the back burner?
PC – If a shark stops swimming, it drowns, I don’t want to drown, Hell, I survived two murder attempts , 911, a major car wreck and cancer. I just found what I really like to do is write and that’s what’ve been doing. The next GP is a tribute to Sid Haig, who was a friend for a few years. We lost touch toward the end, but it was an honor to call him a friend.
I just finished a follow up to my autobiography, A Whole Bag of Crazy, I have a YouTube Channel 42nd Street Pete’s Grindhouse Purgatory and my post-apocalyptic spaghetti western trilogy , Gunfighters of the Drunken Master just came out. Like I said, I keep on swimming.
THC – How do you want people to remember you? What do you hope your legacy will be?
PC – Well, I never sought out this so called fame, it just happened and I went with it. I don’t have an ego; I try stuff and so far it has worked. My thing is that if I turned you on to a film, a book, a magazine, made you smile, pissed you off, well that my reward. I have never charged anyone for a signature or to take a picture with me. When I was selling, I gave people the best deal I could. I know I have my detractors, but I have found over the years that if people can’t get something out of you for nothing, they bad mouth you. What do I want my legacy to be? Simple, just respect what I did, same as all the guys who came before me and are no longer here. These are the heroes, the guys that took chances and did great things with very little money. My whole thing was to keep something I love alive. I would like to think I have succeeded. And to close this, to the fans and anyone who has dealt with me, thank you, it will be 30 years of me being 42nd Street Pete this year. Without you, there would be no 42nd Street Pete
THC – How can people contact you?