STICKY SEATS

The Big Daddy of Drive-In Porn Theaters

How a small-town Midwestern businessman saw cash in putting flesh on the outdoor screen and rode that to the charmed life of playing golf in the Central American jungle.

Harry Mohney is golfing in the Costa Rican jungle and can’t be disturbed.

Such is the lifestyle and riches of pornography. A look at his bio—founder of the Erotic Heritage Museum in Las Vegas and the Déjà Vu string of strip joints/book stores—warrants his title as the Howard Hughes of porn, a man who has eclipsed even Larry Flynt in the skin game.

Mohney’s legacy was launched on a lone drive-in movie screen in a Durand, Michigan, cornfield. Anyone who watched an adult film at a drive-in can thank Mohney, as he’s the man who set the table for drive-in owners all over the U.S. to pack their lots with patrons looking for some cinema skin. Mohney is the Daddy of the Adult Drive-In, starting with the Sceen Drive-In in Durand in 1966.

For a brief period in the late ‘60s through the early ‘80s, the adult drive-in was a staple of the American cinema landscape. It’s gone the way of the typewriter and the Walkman but like any nostalgic treasure, it’s still fondly recalled, discussed in chat rooms and on Twitter. And it’s sent Mohney into a lifestyle that most only dream of.

For the Transit Drive-In Theater in Lockport, New York, “Deep Throat’” was a Godsend. It was the depressed ‘70s and everyone in the business was hurting. The theater north of Buffalo been operated by the Cohen family since 1957 and the frozen hell of winter meant lights out for almost half the year. And the other half wasn’t doing so well either. Until a guy came by in the summer of 1972 offering a way to pull in some cars in those frigid winters. He arrived bearing dirty movies in a 35 MM format.

Pretty soon, Macy Cohen, the patriarch of the Cohen family, was nicknamed ‘the porn king,” for he saw money in that smut. He was arrested by the county sheriff’s department. The film was confiscated. He was the Larry Flynt of upstate New York.

“His friends even gave him a t-shirt with that on it,” says Rick Cohen, Macy’s son, who took over the family theater in 1987. “Man, we packed them in there in the middle of the winter, 10 degrees out, to see adult movies.”

The Cohens and a host of other operators of drive-in theaters in the ‘70s, can thank Mohney, a small-town Midwestern businessman who saw cash in putting flesh on the outdoor screen and rode that to, well, golf in the Central American jungle.

Along the way, Mohney has endured the requisite First Amendment challenges, fair labor lawsuits and a tax dodge conviction that put him in prison for a couple of years. Mohney has been accused of unsavory and illegal activity for most of his life as a pornographer, from money skimming to cavorting with known Mob figures.

Fittingly, in June he was given a spot on the Las Vegas Walk of Stars, joining the company of Liberace, Sammy Davis Jr., and Engelbert Humperdinck. His bios, though, pimp his multi-million dollar empire of skin sans his entry point, a lone screen that still stands erect, like a porno sentry, in Durand, Michigan, 80 miles northwest of Detroit.

When Mohney came to the game in the late ‘60s, it was a turning point for the porn industry. The cities were fair game for porno features. But the venues drew constant heat from the cops.

“People were worrying about the adult film industry being in these downtowns and people wanted to show their films without worrying about endless trials,” says Rev. Ted McIlvenna, president of the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality in San Francisco. “These drive-ins were the combat zones outside the cities.”

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!

Daily Digest

Start and finish your day with the top stories from The Daily Beast.

Cheat Sheet

A speedy, smart summary of all the news you need to know (and nothing you don't).

By clicking “Subscribe,” you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason.

Mohney opened the Sceen Drive-In in Durand and began showing what became known regionally as the “Durand Dirties,” an all-porno marquee of adult titles.

“Michigan was the center of it,” McIlvenna says. “Harry made some money in natural gas exploration and he invested in property in Durand and people picked up on that.” The adult drive-in theater offered a venue for the dirty movies that were previously being shown at carnivals and in clandestine basements, where anyone could afford an 8MM projector, a bed sheet, and some beer.

Following the lead of Mohney, more drive-in operators started showing the dirties as the ‘70s progressed. Some converted full-time to the genre and some, like the Transit in Upstate New York, were part-time players, showing Disney in the summer and Linda Lovelace and Marilyn Chambers in the winter.

But soon came the logistics problems that Mohney didn’t have to face.

Many of the theaters, used to showing the “The Sound of Music” or the latest John Wayne flick, had screens that could be seen in passing by motorists. When the porno hit the screen, they hadn’t thought a whole lot about the new problem. Today, it would be lawsuit territory when little Johnny saw a tit and became a craven sex addict at 10.

Back then, well, it was a little less uptight and litigious.

The porno drive-in peaked at 70 theaters showing exclusively adult fare in the mid-‘70s. They endured the routine community outrage from the closeted curious and indecently indignant, fighting court squabbles with narrow minds and meddling instincts. The profits being made were significant enough to fight that fight.

“They could handle the legal battles,” McIlvenna says. “Hollywood came in and started making movies and there were 50 entrepreneurs making films, and they needed places to show them. Harry Mohney was buying those films and sending them everywhere. And he knew drive-ins.”

In Dallas, the Linda Kay Drive-In sat on a state highway frontage road where passer-by could view the screen on a good night. For some reason, the locals never made a fuss until the very end, when the local cops raided the place after a complaint over the public showing.

In Selma, Alabama, a local preacher asked his congregations to spy on the 80 Drive-In Theater to provide info to law enforcement to shut it down. The 80 was showing family fare for the early shows, then shifting to the XXX stuff for late shows. It survived into the ‘80s even as its movies could be seen by highway passersby.

“That was a big problem a lot of these theaters faced, the public’s ability to see the screen that could get you a public obscenity charge,” Cohen said.

In Springdale, Arkansas, the Tri-City Drive-In had a novel solution to that problem: it put up 50 individual screens around its grounds that delivered a crude rendition of the movie print.

“Cars would park in front of the screens,” explained Ken Teutsch, a local who worked at the cable access station in the ‘70s. “It only barely worked, you had to be directly in front of it.”

The American porn drive-in went the same way as the sticky floored cinema and the boutique book stores: the Internet killed them, hard.

“You can’t even get any money for a drive-in projector from adult place these days,” says Vere Chappell, a California-based broker if vintage erotica. “Even if they’re in working order, they’re just junk, and there were a whole lot of them when the drive-ins started going out of business.”

Drive-in sites have been bulldozed, turned into malls, churches and cornfields. Mohney’s Sceen was a golf range for a while. Now he has a couple of rickety green wooden buildings at the base of his still-erect screen. He still owns Modern Bookkeeping, according to state records, and the folks there are secretive

“My supervisor said you have to leave the premises immediately or we will call the authorities,” a woman, who is clearly not in the skin business, told me when I knocked on the locked, security-coded door recently.

An aide to Mohney said there could be no interview as Mohney is “…in the jungle and very difficult to get in touch with.”

Then there’s the Apache Drive-In in the unlikely location of Tyler, Texas, which is now the last bastion of the adult film drive-in theater. The Apache operates today and by all accounts, draws well in the East Texas region.

“Yes we show all adult features,” said a gentleman answering the phone. Before I could explain my call, he said, “We don’t want any advertising and don’t want to be in any newspapers.” And he hung up.

They don’t need advertising? Apparently, explicit fornication still sells in the movie business, outside the home. And it still makes people really uptight to talk about it.