‘Queen of the Deuce’ Tells the Story of a Queer Woman Who Created a Porn Empire

When I was a kid, my dad told me stories about The Deuce. For those who don’t know, that was the name for New York City’s famed Times Square area prior to the 90s. The Deuce was seedy — full of porn theaters, strip shows, and dancing women. It had little in common with the place where my friends and I would hang out until all hours, enjoying dinner at Applebee’s and then loitering at the Virgin Megastore. By my teenage years, there were traces of The Deuce that had been left behind, but I always wanted to know more. That’s why I was immediately intrigued by the new documentary Queen of the Deuce.

Queen of the Deuce is the story of Chelly Wilson, “a Greek-born, Christmas-celebrating, Jewish grandma, who married men but was openly gay.” During the 60s and 70s, Wilson created a porn cinema empire and in this doc Wilson’s story is told by her children, grandchildren, business associates, and at times Chelly herself.

Wilson’s origin story is fascinating. The documentary never states her birth year, but she was born to a Spanish-Greek, Sephardic Jewish family. Her first language was Ladino, a Jewish dialect, and she eventually learned French and Greek. When she was a young woman, her father arranged for her to marry a man who she openly despised. In old audio footage, she explains to her daughter that she found him “repulsive” and would recoil whenever he tried to kiss or touch her. Her daughter claimed that the only reason Wilson married this man was because she respected her father, and he arranged the marriage. She then had a son with this man, but when their son was young, she left them behind and went to Paris. Wilson only returned to Greece because her father was dying.

Her husband tried to withhold their son unless she stayed with him, which resulted in her getting pregnant with her oldest daughter. She again left her husband, this time getting a Jewish divorce that allowed him to remarry. He got their son, and she got their daughter. But Wilson quickly realized that she didn’t want to be a mother, she wanted to be a business woman. So she left her daughter behind with a woman named Julia and set sail for America. This was 1939, just as World War II was spreading across Europe. Wilson lost her parents and siblings in the Holocaust, but thankfully her children survived.

The documentary doesn’t say this explicitly, but based on commentary from her daughter, you can draw conclusions that when Wilson moved to the States, she also shed her Jewish identity. Her daughter who was born in the U.S. said she didn’t even know she was Jewish for some indeterminate amount of time. Given the time she emigrated, it’s certainly not a surprise that she put that life behind her for safety reasons. No one ever says if she reclaimed her Jewish identity at any time in her life, but she was always very proudly Greek. After the war was over, she brought her two kids to the States, even though she had started a whole new family. She was financially successful, so she knew she could care for everyone. And care for them she did.

Wilson then went on to create her porn empire on 8th Avenue in Times Square. She owned five or six theaters in the neighborhood that showed pornographic films, many of which were produced by Wilson’s production company.

After watching Queen of the Deuce I feel like I had a lot more questions about Chelly Wilson than I did when I started watching. Many of the things that made her the most interesting were either passed over quickly, or not as deeply examined as one would hope. The film is short — it has a runtime of 75 minutes — and there were some pivots they could have avoided to give more time to the more fantastical parts of her life.

Wilson bought a failing movie theater on 8th Ave and 44th St., the Tivoli. She renamed it the Adonis and began showing pornographic films. But she would also show Greek cinema on the weekends. No one talks about how she came to buy any of her theaters, or what made her want to own one. Porn theaters were plentiful around The Deuce, but how would a middle aged Greek woman get involved in such an industry? Everyone said the business was lucrative and she got off on making shrewd business deals, but you don’t just wake up one morning and decide, Hey, I’m going to own a porno theater!

Everything is casually mentioned: sexuality, feminism, and the way tastes towards porn and sex were changing in the 60s and 70s. People mention these important topics that would certainly color how Wilson did business, but they’re never examined. There’s a clip from a gay male porn movie, but no one talks about how gay male porn shaped her business, or how attitudes changed before and after Stonewall. They barely mention the 80s, and there’s no mention of the way AIDS ravaged the city and began shifting attitudes around gay sex for men.

Queerness is barely touched, despite the logline selling Wilson as a woman who was “openly gay.” It’s almost treated as unimportant to those closest to her (her daughters and grandchildren). Everyone approaches it as “oh yeah, Chelly was gay. She had women who lived with her. Whatever, we just didn’t talk about it!” There is a lot of “it was a different time” when it came to talking about Wilson’s sexuality. Really, it just felt like no one wanted to talk about it.

A queer woman owning a string of porn movie theaters is absolutely fascinating. I would have liked to know how her sexuality impacted her business. As she dealt mostly with men, did they know she was gay? Did it change how they treated her? How did she move through the world as an openly gay woman in the 60s and 70s? If she always had a gaggle of lovers around her, was she ever in love with any of them? What kind of relationships did they have? Her younger daughter said they sat down for a talk in the 80s to record Wilson’s story while she could still tell it, and yet, there is nothing in her own words about her sexuality. Did her daughter not ask, or did the filmmakers feel it was unimportant?

The story ends quite abruptly. Business started to wane in the 80s, and then in the early 90s, The Deuce changed drastically. When Rudy Giuliani became mayor, one of his first orders of business was to clean up Times Square and make it more family friendly. Disney was ready to expand to Broadway, and they certainly couldn’t convince families to take their children to a place where there was porn everywhere. Many of the theaters Wilson owned are now restaurants or stores, but there is no word on how that happened. There is barely even a mention of how or when Wilson died.

Queen of the Deuce feels like a first attempt at telling the story of a woman who was almost too fantastical to be real. At times, it feels like it’s more about the people who knew her and their feelings than it is about her. It’s so rare that we get to hear stories about our queer elders, and I wish I knew more about Chelly Wilson. Instead I’m just left with more questions.

Queen of the Deuce is now available to rent. 

Before you go! Autostraddle runs on the reader support of our AF+ Members. If this article meant something to you today — if it informed you or made you smile or feel seen, will you consider joining AF and supporting the people who make this queer media site possible?

Join AF+!

Sa'iyda Shabazz

Sa'iyda is a writer and mom who lives in LA with her partner, son and 3 adorable, albeit very extra animals. She has yet to meet a chocolate chip cookie she doesn't like, spends her free time (lol) reading as many queer romances as she can, and has spent the better part of her life obsessed with late 90s pop culture.

Sa'iyda has written 125 articles for us.

1 Comment

  1. The purpose of making a documentary or biography is to answer unanswered questions, not to create more questions.
    After reading your review, I also have a lot of questions. Especially your last questions.
    (I would have liked to know how her sexuality impacted her business. As she dealt mostly with men, did they know she was gay? Did it change how they treated her? How did she move through the world as an openly gay woman in the 60s and 70s?)
    But after reading your review, at least I understood that this biography is not going to answer them and it’s a pity.

Contribute to the conversation...

Yay! You've decided to leave a comment. That's fantastic. Please keep in mind that comments are moderated by the guidelines laid out in our comment policy. Let's have a personal and meaningful conversation and thanks for stopping by!