The Chain-Smoking, Jewish Grandma Who Ruled ’70s NYC Porn

Greenwhich Entertainment
Greenwhich Entertainment

Survival often requires boldness, and no one proved that more than Chelly Wilson, a Sephardic Jewish Greek grandmother who became the empress of Times Square pornography during the 1970s. Queen of the Deuce is an affectionate portrait of Chelly as a one-of-a-kind trailblazer who lived life to the fullest, and always on her own iconoclastic terms, all while also providing a vivid snapshot of New York City during its daring and dangerous pre-sanitized era.

Directed by Valerie Kontakos with warmth and humor, it’s a documentary that celebrates its subject and the metropolis she loved—and which loved her back in kind—with the very sort of warts-and-all acceptance that Chelly herself showed to everyone in her orbit.

A non-fiction biography about “the most un-grandma person that anyone could have,” Queen of the Deuce (in theaters and on Apple TV and Amazon May 24) opens with anecdotes from Chelly’s grandchildren Dina Pomeranz and David Bourla, who have fond if bewildered memories of visiting her as a child at her NYC apartment.

Located above the Eros, one of the six area theaters she owned, this residence was, per David, a mixture of Trumpian gold kitsch and gaudy Greek architecture and artwork, making it “a mélange of strangeness.” In this abode, which was accessible via a tall, narrow staircase that led to a door decorated with locks, “caricatures of caricatures” roamed about, smoking, eating, and gabbing in voices turned deep and raspy by copious cigarettes. It was a veritable carnival of outlandish personalities, and behind the clan’s Christmas tree, the kids would spend time watching surveillance footage of the theaters’ entranceways on black-and-white video monitors, trying to count how many men went in and out with raincoats and umbrellas.

Film still from Queen of the Deuce
Greenwhich Entertainment

This was quite an upbringing for Dina and David, although it paled in comparison to Chelly’s own origin story. As recounted by her daughters Paulette Pomeranz and Bondi Wilson Walters, her son-in-law Don Walters, additional business associates and admirers, and Chelly herself courtesy of a 1983 interview that Don convinced Bondi to conduct with her mother, Chelly was born in the Greek city of Salonika, now known as Thessaloniki, whose large Jewish population spoke Ladino (a Judeo-Spanish language) and was extremely religious.

A tomboy who wore pants and her hair short, and always had a cigarette or a cigar in hand, Chelly was ambitious from the get-go. Thus, when an unattractive Frenchman pushily came onto her on a train, and then visited her home to ask for her hand in marriage, she recoiled. Nonetheless, her father welcomed this request and Chelly reluctantly agreed, and over the next few tumultuous years—filled with fights and separations—she had two kids with him, Paulette and Daniel.

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Despite being a big-hearted woman, Chelly wasn’t really cut out for motherhood, and following a divorce from her husband (who took Daniel), she left Paulette in the care of a gentile friend named Yaya. This wound up being the shrewdest decision in a life full of them, given that on the eve of World War II, she entrusted Yaya with Paulette, telling her not to hand the girl over to anyone but herself. When relatives later arrived to collect Paulette, the girl stayed put, thereby sparing her extermination at Auschwitz at the hands of the Nazis.

Film still from Queen of the Deuce
Greenwhich Entertainment

Meanwhile, Chelly emigrated to NYC and worked overtime to make ends meet, selling hot dogs and soda at the same time that she struggled to contribute to the Greek war effort by assembling a newsreel-clip movie (“Greece on the March”) that led her to film projectionist Rex Wilson, whom she subsequently married.

When the war ended, Chelly retrieved her two children from abroad and brought them to New York City, where she became a one-woman entrepreneurial “force of nature.” Thanks to her connections, she eventually came to own a collection of movie theaters. By the end of the ’60s, playing Greek imports was far less profitable than showing porn, and over the next two decades, Chelly (partnering with daughter Bondi) served as a one-stop shop for X-rated material, producing the movies, distributing them, and owning the theaters where they ran.

This made her a well-known and beloved figure on and around the Deuce, which was all the more impressive considering the roughness of the scene; as Show World Center manager John Colasanti recalls, walking across Times Square during this period was scarier than any of his experiences in the Vietnam War.

Queen of the Deuce teems with home movies and old photographs, archival footage of New York City during its rough-and-tumble phase, and snippets of the (increasingly more hardcore) porn offerings that were Chelly’s stock-in-trade. Still, the woman depicted in Kontakos’ film isn’t a sleazy smut-peddler but a caring, generous, ambitious wheeler-dealer who played cards (and got into figurative bed with) the mafia, lived openly and unashamedly with a variety of lesbian lovers, and seized every opportunity to make money, including with her Greek restaurant Mykonos. She was tough yet fair, imposing and compassionate, and someone who dedicated much of her life to bolstering her Greek community even as she enthusiastically embraced her chosen status as an American.

Film still from Queen of the Deuce
Greenwhich Entertainment

At multiple points, Dina discusses her evolving view of Chelly’s feminism, but Queen of the Deuce doesn’t have to strain to position her as precisely the sort of larger-than-life “ball of fire” character who transformed the fortunes of 20th-century immigrant clans and, in doing so, the face of this nation.

Colorful in the many clips of her holding court in her apartment, surrounded by her motley crew of allies, Chelly was a firebrand worthy of the cinematic treatment she receives here. If Kontakos’ film is a bit rough around the edges—and doesn’t dig quite deeply enough into a couple of corners of her amazing tale—it resounds with full-bodied care and reverence for her numerous accomplishments, only some of which had to do with scandalous adult entertainments.

From its fitting animated sequences to its closing scene, in which David shows off the homemade sci-fi movie set that he’s been building for a forthcoming feature, it exudes a brand of messy, funny kookiness that would make Chelly proud.

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