The Pioneer of Porn

What do you say to a naked lady? For more than 30 years Leroy Griffith has been saying, "You're hired!"

The City of Miami has suffered its own humiliations in trying to go after Griffith. In 1987 officials had confiscated movie projectors, a refreshment stand, and other property from his Pussycat theater. Griffith, who'd just won a court fight with the city over his right to exhibit a film called Three Ripening Cherries, was accused of owing more than $50,000 in fines dating back to 1978. The city bungled part of the collection process in a technical snafu, so Griffith ended up accountable for only $21,400. An auction of his theater equipment was conducted to satisfy that debt. The city was chagrined to learn that the winning bid came in at only $13,500, but not nearly as chagrined as learning that the winning bidder was Leroy Griffith himself, who neatly shaved another $8000 off his penalties.

The Pussycat, on Biscayne near 79th Street, has proved to be a quagmire for the Dade State Attorney's Office as well. When Griffith bought the theater more than two decades ago (it was then known as the Boulevard), the film being shown was Patton. It ran for a few days before Griffith renamed the place and changed the screen fare to something less violent than George C. Scott's famous military biopic. When the neighbors declared war, the government charged onto the field.

Between 1976 and 1987, the Pussycat was raided eighteen times. Griffith's lawyers were kept busy, and state prosecutors were kept at bay. Efforts to pin him with a felony for screening two obscene movies within five years collapsed when Griffith's attorney simply pointed out that too much time had elapsed between incidents. When prosecutors then indicated they might like to charge him with a simple misdemeanor for the more recent indiscretion (showing the film American Babylon), his attorney, David Shenkman, argued it had been two years since that film had been confiscated, thus denying Griffith his right to a speedy trial. The judge agreed and threw out the case.

But the state wasn't ready to give up. On April Fool's Day, 1987, the State Attorney's Office filed a ten-page complaint demanding that the Pussycat be shut down. This time the charge was brought under the very serious Florida Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act (RICO). The state felt that because Pussycat had been raided eighteen times in eleven years, it must be an ongoing criminal enterprise. "That's not what the RICO Act was put in for," Griffith now says. "That's how they use the law, to go whatever way they want to go with it."

They didn't go far. For reasons neither side will discuss today, prosecutors agreed to allow a judge to dismiss the complaint.

Leroy Charles Griffith was born on March 26, 1932, in Poplar Bluff, Missouri, due south of St. Louis and a bit north of the Arkansas border. His father was a theater owner, and Griffith says his childhood was normal, until he was seventeen and left for St. Louis and a job at the Grand Burlesque Theater. "Live entertainment," he sighs, a current of nostalgic fondness running through his voice. "In those days, they had probably 30 people in the cast, a chorus line, an orchestra, two comics, a singer, a vaudeville act, and then five exotic dancers. It was a good show."

But an elaborate show, Griffith learned, was not where the money was to be made. The reliable profits came from the concession stand. "That's where I was," he explains. "In between acts, the pitchman would sell prize packages, candy, stuff like that. Concessions was where the real money was, just like it is with regular movies today."

After working his way up to concession manager, Griffith began socking away money and expanding his vision. By his midtwenties he had acquired his first theater, in Detroit, and he had found his life's path. By saving money and identifying what he calls "legitimate" theaters that were going out of business, Griffith quickly built an empire. "These places would go under," he recalls, "and I'd go in and take over and make them successful with an adult policy." Soon he controlled venues throughout Ohio, in Philadelphia and Indianapolis and Chicago. He had visited Miami, liked it, and, on one trip in 1961, he noticed the Paris theater at 550 Washington Avenue was for sale. He leased it, then bought it, originally staging burlesque, including the legendary Tempest Storm.

But back in the early Sixties, Griffith didn't call it "burlesque"; doing so would have been against the law. "You couldn't even use the word," he recalls. "I had one big stage show called The Top Stars of Burlesque,' with Blaze Starr and all these people. I told the city, It's not burlesque. It's the top stars of burlesque. There's no law against the people of burlesque.' The city decided they'd fix me by charging me $1000 for a special license to do the show. I said fine. I was going to have to pay $1600 for a regular permit anyway."

Despite the offended sensibilities of Miami Beach officialdom, Griffith was on his way. In addition to bringing in live acts, he began showing movies, and covered both ends of that business by producing films and then exhibiting them in his own theaters. "You were lucky to see breasts at all in those," he remembers. "We shot at nudist camps and so forth. We even shot at the Seaquarium once."

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