"The Pride Of Clarksville" — Theatair X And Its 50-Year Fight To Stay Open

Sep 28, 2022 at 12:34 pm
Theatair X in Clarksville, Indiana.
Theatair X in Clarksville, Indiana. Photos by Nik Vechery.

Driving north on Interstate 65, you might drive past the basic red and white billboard and never notice it. It’s a simple logo for Theatair X, with the tagline, “The Pride of Clarksville!” Amidst a flurry of commercial businesses on either side of the highway and a multitude of other billboards screaming about a wide variety of products, the sign doesn’t stand out.

But the adults-only Theatair X literally sits in its shadow. If you leave the main highway and find your way to Indiana 31, you’ll drift just outside the bluster that is Clarksville, Indiana, with its chain restaurants, big box stores and traffic. Driving north, you’ll pass a White Castle, a tire center, a business called Big Tex Trailer World and a Furniture Row warehouse store. Off the road a bit are a couple of small hotels.

On your left, it’s just a railroad track and trees.

And if you didn’t see the sign on the highway (or its southbound companion identifying Theatair X as a “Clarksville icon”), you may just drive past Theatair X, the former open-air drive-in theater, which sits between a clump of brush and a roadway overpass.

The oddly-shaped building is a faded peach color with a single door surrounded by signs touting an adult bookstore and “video peep shows.” A thin, cursive neon sign with the business name isn’t on in the daylight.

The place looks perpetually closed, if not abandoned altogether. But if you turn into the parking lot and drive around back, you’ll find yet another door — darkened, so that it’s impossible to see in. That door is surrounded by signs with messages like, “No guns” and “No camera phones.” A sign over the door simply says, “Bookstore Entrance,” and also warns, in unnecessary quotation marks, “Not responsible for damage to vehicles on lot.”

On a recent afternoon, a single red pickup truck parked outside the door. A pair of semis, one pulling a Dollar General store-branded trailer, sat farther back. The lot is quiet, and it’s still unclear from the rear view if the business is open or closed.

And then you open the mysterious door and step inside to a surprisingly clean and modern retail space which looks roughly 2,000 square feet, with a soft lavender color scheme. The contrast is startling to the point that it’s almost reminiscent of Dorothy first opening the black and white door and stepping into the Technicolor Land of Oz.

Behind the counter sits a bearded young man eating a fast-food lunch. Beyond the check-out counter is a hallway with a sign signaling that’s where the peep shows happen. Along the many aisles are countless numbers of sex toys, from dildos to butt plugs to sex swings.

The place is quiet and highly organized. The clerk, who is polite and ready to help, takes a break from his lunch to let me know that the peep shows are “closed indefinitely.” Why? Because this obscure business along a backroad in tiny Clarksville is embroiled in a contentious legal battle with the town.

What many don’t realize is that for the past 50 years, local governments, from Clark County to the town of Clarksville, and Theatair X, have been engaged in a series of such battles, with the municipalities trying to find ways to close down the former drive-in that once showed X-rated flicks like “Deep Throat.” Through the years, various owners of the business trying to duck legal punches and leap over zoning hurdles to stay open, while decades of court cases and numerous arrests have played out over the last half century.

While Theatair X still advertises peep shows, its video booths have been “closed indefinitely” amid an ongoing legal dispute with the city. - Nik Vechery
Nik Vechery
While Theatair X still advertises peep shows, its video booths have been “closed indefinitely” amid an ongoing legal dispute with the city.

Remaining Open

Before we go back to the beginning of Theatair X’s long and debauchery-filled journey, let’s zoom into the current legal battle, one that threatens the businesses’ improbable run.

The current trouble started in 2018, when the Clarksville Police Department did an undercover investigation that resulted in two arrests. A week later, after obtaining an inspection warrant, Clarksville Building Commissioner Rick Barr observed more than 20 holes in walls that connected separate viewing booths in the Theatair X building, a code violation in city speak (or in layman’s terms, glory holes.)

In an unsafe building notice, Barr wrote the holes were “obviously made with the knowledge and intent of the owner.”

Shortly after, Barr issued an order suspending Theatair X’s adult business license, although, according to court documents, Theatair X did not stop operating during that time.

During the suspension, David Mosley, an agent representing Theatair X said the business had trouble closing the holes in the past. According to court documents, Mosley wrote: “In the past X has put metal plates over the openings but these get whittled off or pulled off.”

The business did eventually repair the holes, and after another inspection by the building commission, the suspension was lifted.

In January of 2019, Midwest Entertainment Ventures, the company that was then behind Theatair X, filed an application for an annual adult business license. The following month, Clarksville Police officers charged several patrons for public indecency and public nudity after officers observed a man and a woman “engaging in sexual intercourse in the middle of the theater” as well as other patrons “openly masturbating.”

An undercover detective who was there testified that he had been to the theater to make arrests on “about a half dozen occasions.” He also said he once assisted in the arrest of a patron who had assaulted an undercover cop by touching him in a sexual way against his will.

Barr issued a notice of intent to revoke Theatair X’s license for operating while suspended and allowing sex acts on the property.

Midwest Entertainment Ventures claimed that they were not properly notified, that there was no evidence that they “knowingly allowed” any illegal conduct and there was “a multiyear effort by the Town to harass, annoy, persecute and destroy the licensee’s business.”

In May of 2019, the Town Council of Clarksville unanimously voted to revoke Theatair X’s adult business license.

In August of 2021, Clark Circuit Court Judge Vicki Carmichael affirmed the town’s decision to revoke the license, writing, “[Midwest Entertainment Ventures] has been willfully ignorant toward knowledge that sex acts occur in the premises. For years, Theatre X maintained glory holes in the walls between its viewing booths and provided theater rooms with no oversight or enforcement concerning sex acts that occur there.”

Shortly after the ruling, a company called Clarksville Ministries took over Theatair X.

In September of 2021, a federal judge ruled that the Town of Clarksville had to grant Clarksville Ministries a temporary license. They did, but that same night, the Town Of Clarksville passed a zoning ordinance that changed the distance that adult businesses must be from residences and certain other uses from 500 feet to 750 feet. Theatair X couldn’t possibly comply with that, because it’s less than 750 feet from Clarksville Lofts development.

Right now, the situation seems to be in a bit of legal limbo, as the process draws out in the courts.

According to a lawyer for the Town of Clarksville, Theatair X is currently operating without a license, but the town is currently choosing not to enforce that during litigation,"but has the option of commencing enforcement upon seven days' notice."

A movie listing for the “Theatair Drive-In” in the Courier Journal in November 1970, shortly before the theater began showing pornographic movies.
A movie listing for the “Theatair Drive-In” in the Courier Journal in November 1970, shortly before the theater began showing pornographic movies.

Prelude To Porn

Theatair X began innocently enough as Theatair DriveIn, a family outdoor theater — with the obvious play on “air” in the name — operated by K. McAllister & Robert Harned. According to CinemaTreasures.com, its capacity was 232 cars, and the base of the giant screen also had a family restaurant and concession stand. Dinner and a movie? You could enjoy both in one spot.

The drive-in was so popular that a second screen was added in 1949 and the capacity ultimately increased to nearly 1,500 cars, with Theatair’s new owners, Municipal Enterprises at Indianapolis, proclaiming it “the largest open-air theater in the world,” according to an article in The Courier Journal. But as Americans more and more turned to television for viewing entertainment over the next decade and a half, the 1960s became difficult for family drive-ins. Interstate 65 construction picked up during the 1960s, and one of the screens would ultimately come down.

By 1966, the theater had added a “dance patio,” but the projectors would soon shut down, and in 1969 the property had been dubbed Theatair Flea Market, a weekly “auction house,“ and was described as a “formerly twin drive-in theater” in classified ads of the time.

But the flea market was short-lived — the theater returned to showing films in late 1970, re-identifying itself as, simply, “Theatair,” once again playing the latest big screen releases. But, in November of 1970, something abruptly changed. Movie listings in the Nov. 13, 1970, Courier Journal indicate that Theatair screened three movies that weekend: “Sand Pebbles,” starring Steve McQueen; “Bandolero,” starring Jimmy Stewart and Raquel Welch; and “Frankenstein Created Woman,” starring Boris Karloff. Listings for the following weekend of Nov. 20, 1970 – with the name of Theatair still not sporting an “X” – list these X-rated films as those featured on the outdoor screen: “Sex of the Angels,” “The Christine Jorgensen Story” and “What Do You Say to a Naked Lady?”

The surrounding community reacted quickly and angrily. Public backlash led to the formation of a community group calling itself Citizens for Decency, who were hellbent on shutting down Theatair, which by May the following year was advertising itself as Theatair X for the first time.

Around that time, an early sign of the coming trouble showed itself in the form of a letter to the editor in The Courier Journal. Louisville resident Edwin Jon Wolfe went to Theatair to see the documentary “Woodstock,” but he got a surprise in the form of “at least half an hour of stag movies” for previews.

“I think it’s a low blow to use a fi lm like ‘Woodstock’ to forcibly turn people onto a two-bit stag fi lm operation,” Wolfe wrote.

He wasn’t the only one who complained. Along with the cries from the so-called Citizens for Decency, Clark County prosecutor Dan Donahue quickly joined the fray and began a years-long legal effort to shut down Theatair X.

What became even more problematic was that as the years trickled by, the theater’s reputation began to get worse. Former Rep. Richard B. Wathen, a long-tenured local Republican lawmaker, was vocal about supporting a state bill intended to outlaw theaters like Theatair X, calling the business “a hardcore bookstore and center of prostitution” in 1973.

It was around this time that Theatair X played host to an early local screening of the well-known porn film “Deep Throat,” starring Linda Lovelace, on May 17, 1973. The screening was packed, according to media coverage of the time.

“Deep Throat” would cause a national debate that sparked much litigation throughout the country, with varying results. But for those who attended the screening at Theatair X that night, it was simply entertainment.

“I just read today that a Boston judge ruled it to be obscene, so it’s gotta be good,” Kentucky resident Richard Bennett told The Courier Journal at the screening.

The drive-in was surrounded by a fence that shielded cars passing on I-65 from seeing the big screen, but it only helped draw more attention, as the fence didn’t exactly cover everything. And area teenagers would drive down Indiana 31 to find — or create — breaches where they could peep through the wood fencing.

Meantime, police were keeping close tabs on the going-ons at the theater. Not long after the “Deep Throat” screening, local police arrested the manager and projectionist, and police began confiscating the films. But one by one, the theater thwarted Donahue’s attempts to close the business. By 1978, it wasn’t even clear who owned the theater, leaving the prosecutor flummoxed. By that time, the U.S. and Indiana Supreme Courts had lightened restrictions on what constituted pornography, and Donahue’s efforts slowed.

During the 1980s, there was little legal effort to shut down Theatair X, although the reputation persisted. By the end of the decade, the movie screen had been torn down and the business model turned toward video rentals. As Clarksville’s commercial sprawl crept up around the theater, most believed it would squeeze the life out of the business. But it continued.

Into the 2000s, frequent arrests plagued the theater, with men being arrested and charged with crimes like public indecency and drug possession. The discovery of so-called “glory holes” in many of the peep-show video booths also raised concerns of prostitution. Clarksville police conducted multiple raids and made multiple arrests into the 2010s, including arresting men who were performing sex acts on themselves and each other.

A civic group calling itself ROCK (Reclaim Our Culture Kentuckiana) entered the fray in opposition to Theatair X during this time and openly criticized the Clarksville police chief’s handling of the business, leading to a lawsuit and continued attempts to take down Theatair X. But no one could. And today, with the peep show booths at least temporarily closed, the business remains open as a retail shop.

click to enlarge Theatair X’s “The pride of Clarksville!” billboard is visible from I-65. - Nik Vechery
Nik Vechery
Theatair X’s “The pride of Clarksville!” billboard is visible from I-65.

The Never-Ending Fight

Just a few hundred feet away from that oddly shaped building that houses Theatair X is the Furniture Row store. Speaking to a manager of the business, who asked that their name not be used, it seems, at least in recent times, Theatair X has been a quiet neighbor.

“I think if they were causing issues, it would be different,” the manager said of how Furniture Row views Theatair X. “It doesn’t really affect us.”

In an e-mail interview with LEO Weekly, Michael Sanchez, who identifies himself as the president of Clarksville Ministries LLC, called Clarksville officials and their attempts to close the business “bigoted” and “hate-filled.” His reasoning is that he regularly claims Theatair X is supported not only by customers who have the right to purchase the store’s retail offerings but also by the LGBTQ community, even telling LEO it is “an adult retail store and LGBT social center.”

Evan Stoner, president of Southern Indiana Pride, disputes the latter claim.

“I do not have all the details regarding the pending litigation but from what I can tell from publicly available information, the LGBTQ community is being used by the owner of that business as a means to give his lawsuit more legitimacy and attention,” Stoner said via e-mail. “It’s very sad to see our community used in such a way that degrades the seriousness of important LGBTQ advocacy in our country. That is not being an ally and actually hurts our community.”

Sanchez is also listed as CEO and/or contact for businesses called Janra Distribution Inc., Janra Holdings Inc. and Janra Enterprises Inc. on various online corporate databases. Based in Henderson, Nevada, Janra Distribution identifies itself on its website as “one of the world’s largest integrated distributors of adult novelties.”

If this assertion is true, it would seem Sanchez has the financial firepower to continue the 50-year fight against Clarksville’s efforts to shut it down.

Clarksville’s zoning chess move in 2021 seemed to seal Theatair X’s fate, but the courts once again delayed — or possibly stopped — the town’s efforts. Clarksville’s communications director, Ken Conklin, said the city would not go on record for this story due to the ongoing litigation.

For his part, Sanchez vows to fight on.

“The bigots and censors on the Town Council have spent the last fifty years failing to shut down our store because they believe that its residents should have fewer freedoms in the name of moral purity, and we expect that until the taxpayers tell them that there are better ways to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars, the battle will continue.”

Scott Recker contributed to the reporting of this story. •

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