When Lake Worth was ‘the skin flick capital of the country’

Downtown’s playhouse building used to be a controversial smut palace called the Playtoy.


This year marks the 90th anniversary of the former Oakley Theater in Lake Worth, the oldest building on the register of the Art Deco Society of Palm Beach County. The 300-seat theater at 713 Lake Ave. is now the Lake Worth Playhouse, a venue for live, and generally clothed, performances.

But who knew the building was once at the center of a celebrated trial involving “Deep Throat,” the most famous pornographic movie of all time?

Nowadays, there’s no limit on the explicit “adult material” any schoolboy can view on his cell phone while he waits for the morning bus. But in the late 1960s, a viewer had to sneak into a poorly lit, seedy “art theater,” wearing a fedora low over his eyes in hopes no one would recognize him.

And where would you find such filth? At the Playtoy.

Ground zero for ‘war against rot and corruption’

The Playtoy — it was the Playboy for a while until some lawyers pointed out that the name was taken — became the maelstrom of a battle between community standards and personal freedoms. Even before that, it had a past both famous and infamous.

The Oakley Theatre was built for a then-astonishing $150,000 by Illinois brothers Lucien E. and Clarence E. Oakley. It opened Nov. 3, 1924, with a silent movie based on the Broadway play Welcome Stranger. The new $10,000 Wurlitzer pipe organ accompanied a five-piece orchestra from Fort Lauderdale.

It took a hit in the 1928 hurricane and was rebuilt — but the Depression was waiting in the wings.

In June 1931, two years after the great 1929 stock market crash, Lucien Oakley committed suicide at his Federal Highway home. To this day, some believe his ghost haunts the theater. Clarence Oakley died in July 1932.

After it was the Oakley, the place was the Worth, a standard movie theater. Then it was the Capri “art house.” That’s a euphemism for you-know-what.

And then, in 1968, it was the Playtoy.

City leaders had enough and declared “an all out war against rot and corruption.”

The Lake Worth Ministerial Association and the Christian Men’s Association implored city commissioners to call on then Gov. Farris Bryant to establish a state censorship board because of the “sordid and immoral films” flickering on the big screen right downtown on Lake Avenue.

Palm Beach County prosecutor — and later legendary judge — Marvin Mounts pursued an injunction, arguing that the film “Hot Spur” was “lewd, lascivious, sadistic and masochistic and appeals to prurient interest.” The theater argued the state’s obscenity statutes were so vague as to be unconstitutional.

“Hot Spur” is relatively tame by today’s standards — Amazon calls it “a sadistic, dirty western” where “the only things cheaper than lives were the women.’”

The Playtoy’s lawyer: none other than Joel Daves, who would go on to be West Palm Beach mayor from 1999 to 2003.

On July 19, 1969, the day before Americans left for their first landing on the moon, the Fourth District Court of Appeal upheld a restraining order against the theater, saying it “recognized a modicum of power in the state to protect its citizens — particularly the younger ones — from the demeaning influence of obscenity.”

“I love my customers,” Playtoy cashier Lottie Bruns told the “Miami Herald” in November 1970. “They’re wonderful people, And they like me. We get old people who can hardly crawl. It’s only a movie. They just don’t want to sit home alone. I feel sorry for them.”

The Herald reporter described the clientele that afternoon: “a long-haired ‘hippie’ type, a black construction worker, an executive in white slacks and blue boating sneakers.” It said evening shows sometimes attracted “giggling women with boyfriends and husbands.”

Former Lake Worth Mayor Dennis Dorsey now swears police would position an officer in the parking lot, armed with a camera with no film, just to put the fear of God — or the gossip network — into patrons, in hopes they’d become ex-patrons.

The theater was raided in 1970 and again in 1971.

By the fall of 1972, after two raids in as many weeks, the city was looking for ways it could legally run the theater out of town.

“Lake Worth has become known as the skin flick capital of the country,” growled Dorsey, then a city commissioner. Dorsey, who in the ensuing decades would run a funeral home just west of the city, had been on the council for all of a year. He later admitted he’d never been to the Playtoy.

“I have nothing against sex, that’s for sure,” fellow commissioner Bob Thomas chimed in. “But in a small town like Lake Worth, I just don’t think we need this business. Let them find some place else to do their trick.”

‘Deep Throat’ sinks the Playtoy

What eventually did in the Playtoy was nothing less than the most outrageous film of its time.

In January 1973, a judge threw out charges in one of the November 1972 raids. But six months later, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling strengthened prosecutors in obscenity cases. And in October of that year, authorities went to the Playtoy seven times on consecutive weekends and seized six separate prints of “Deep Throat.”

They arrested five theater employees who they claimed had shown two segments, each 10 to 15 minutes long, of an 8-millimeter print of the movie, which was shot in six days for $22,500 in South Florida starring Broward’s own Linda Lovelace.

Under the laws of the time, employees caught showing the films faced up to 60 days in jail and a fine of $500 — about $3,000 in today’s dollars.

In a November 1973 trial, the judge dismissed charges against projectionist William Titus’ wife Carolyn, the theater’s cashier, because there was no evidence she knew the contents of the film.

Defense attorney Robert Saylor demanded Palm Beach County Judge Howard H. Harrison declare a mistrial for William Titus. Saylor said one of the jurors had looked away, and occasionally covered his face with his hand, and hadn’t watched the whole excerpt of the film. The juror “may have missed parts which show serious artistic value,” the attorney said.

The juror “may have missed parts which show serious artistic value.”

But Titus was found guilty. Assistant State Attorney Carl Harper warned anyone else thinking of screening “Deep Throat” that they show it “at their own peril.”

Four decades later, “It shows how society has evolved,” Saylor recalled. “You can watch the stuff on TV now.”

In December 1973, Playtoy lawyers, in a deal with prosecutors, agreed that the convicted William Titus would pay “a nominal fine,” charges against the other four workers would be dropped, and Playtoy would shut down.

Cleaning up the smut palace

It stayed shuttered until the following summer. That’s when the city, in effect, cleansed its palate.

The nonprofit group Lake Worth Playhouse paid $60,000 to buy the dormant smut palace with a plan to convert it into a venue for “legitimate theater.”

The playhouse company had been around more than a quarter of a century. It had first performed a few blocks away at the Lake Worth Civic Center and had most recently been presenting plays in the auditorium on the top floor of Lake Worth City Hall.

Former council member and mayor Dorsey is unrepentant about his crusade against porn.

“At the time, the majority of the people in Lake Worth were retired,” Dorsey said. “We had a higher average age per capita than St. Petersburg.”

He does insist that what people watch on the Internet at home is their business. His beef now, as it was then, is with an establishment like the Playtoy operating on Main Street — or, in this case, Lake Avenue.

“People have their choice, and there’s certain communities I guess that fits in,” Dorsey said. “I’m still opposed to that.”



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