'Queen of the Deuce' - A Must-see Queer Documentary

“Queen of the Deuce” via IMDb.

Lesbian visibility week (it really should be at least a month, don’t you think?) may be over, but there’s another unsung lesbian hero who deserves your attention – the late Chelly Wilson. If you loved Rachel Mason 2019 doc “Circus of Books,” then Valerie Kontakos’s “Queen of the Deuce” (Greenwich Entertainment) will be right up your alley.

The very definition of a tough cookie, Chelly Wilson, born of Greek Jewish heritage to Ladino-speaking parents, is described, early in the doc by her grandson David as being the most “ungrandma” grandmother a person could have. She had no choice but to be.

Wedded young in an arranged marriage, admitted tomboy Chelly left a husband and son (Dino), behind while escaping the Nazi occupation of Salonika. She eventually left for America, leaving her daughter Paulette with a gentile family to keep her safe, while she got settled in New York.

The first of Chelly’s businesses was a hot dog stand on Dyckman Street. To understand the unintentional humor here, it’s important to explain that Chelly later owned and operated most of the gay porno theaters (and a few straight ones) in NYC near 42nd Street (aka The Deuce). She even resided in a sprawling apartment, with her lesbian love Noni Kantaraki, above the Eros 1 Theater. But more on that later.

After getting a gett from her first husband, Chelly married Jewish British movie theater projectionist Rex Wilson, with whom she had a daughter named Bondi. This entrée into the world of movie theaters provided Chelly with her greatest business opportunity. By 1965, as American mores were evolving, and adult films were becoming popular, Chelly purchased several movie theaters, including the Cameo, Tivoli (later renamed the Adonis), Eros, Venus, Lido West, and Lido East. She also began producing and distributing porn movies. In addition to that, she had other businesses, including a popular Greek restaurant, that attracted a celebrity crowd including Jackie and Aristotle Onassis.

Of course, the Times Square of the 1960s and 1970s bears little resemblance to that of today. The presence of the thriving porn industry was also associated with sex work, and hustlers and hookers lined the block. The election of Rudy Giuliani as mayor of New York in the early 1990s led to a massive Times Square clean-up (also known as the Disneyfication). As always, Chelly was able to adjust, and was fortunate to have real estate investments.

While it is hinted at throughout, the subject of Chelly’s queerness is addressed almost an hour into the movie. Out and proud at a time when it was uncommon, her grandchildren Dina (daughter of Paulette) and David (son of Dino) speak with pride when discussing their grandmother’s lesbian life.

Informative and entertaining in the best ways possible (the animated sequences are a particular highlight), “Queen of the Deuce” takes its place in the pantheon of must-see queer documentaries. 

Rating: A-


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