PHILADELPHIA—The last triple-X movie theater in Philadelphia was on its way to becoming a part of history until, at the last minute, the city’s zoning board approved a variance to expand the space significantly. Despite continuing opposition from a neighborhood group, it now looks as if the venerable Forum Theater on Market Street will be around for years to come.
According to an article by the Philadelphia Inquirer architecture critic, Inga Saffron, the battle over the Forum is all but over, since it is very rare for the courts to reverse a zoning board decision. In March, a Common Pleas Court judge upheld a decision made in 2009 by the zooming board to allow the theater’s owner to raise the roof by three feet.
“That sounds trivial,” she wrote, “but, as theater attorney Ronald D. Patterson told me, the extra height would enable his client to insert a mezzanine and increase the operation's total floor space by about 80 percent.”
The extra space will allow the theater to construct a new second-floor stage as well as install private viewing booths. In exchange for the variance, the theater’s longtime owner, Anthony Trombetta, said he would do away with the Les Gals, another strip club he owns on Market Street. According to Saffron, that allowance by Trombetta gave the zoning board the justification it needed as cover for its decision.
“The board's logic, according to court documents, was that a one big porn palace was better for Market Street than two small ones,” she wrote. “In allowing Trombetta to enlarge the Forum, city planners and the zoning board went hook, line, and sinker for his argument that a consolidated porn operation would benefit Market Street.”
But it’s not as if the theater, or its owner, is an unknown quantity to anyone in city government or local law enforcement. The Forum Theater was opened in 1975, and has been exempted from more recent zooming changes because of its grandfathered status, “despite the encroachment of upscale condos on nearby streets—despite the opening of a celebrated public high school on the next block north.”
From the very beginning, however, the club and its owner have enjoyed a colorful reputation. Saffron writes that Trombetta was convicted on a federal prostitution-related charge in 1975, has a long history of alleged mob ties and was even labeled by the Meese Commission as Philly’s porn king. According to police records, she adds, two women were arrested in Les Gals as recently as 2008 on charges of prostitution, and the place is well-known as a destination for those looking for a sexual liaison.
As all of the other adult movie theaters succumbed to competition from the internet, the Forum held on, and now the fear for the local neighborhood group, as well as for Saffron, is that the sexual activity that has reportedly taken place in Les Gals will be transported to the Forum’s the new booths.
“Perhaps the Zoning Board of Adjustment doesn't believe porn hurts neighborhoods. It also approved a flashing digital billboard for Club Risque on a site that directly faces the Baptist Worship Center in Bridesburg,” she wrote. In New York, she continued, Mayor Giuliani worked proactively to clean up Times Square. In Philadelphia, she added, market forces had to do the trick.
“And now we have City Hall doing its best to undermine the cleanup,” she lamented.