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Last erotic theater closes in Portland, Ore., where ‘porn palaces’ once transformed city

When the Maizels family started screening “Deep Throat’’ at their family-owned theater in 1972, people in Portland, Ore., flocked to the box office as ushers checked IDs and handed out tickets to one of the most famous pornographic films ever produced.

‘‘There were lines, literally, around the block,’’ Dayle Maizels-Tyrrell said. A recent college graduate at the time who occasionally sold buttered popcorn and candy from the concession stand inside the Oregon Theater, she remembers the nervous chatter as customers waited to enter the red-brick building.

‘‘Everyone wanted to say, ‘I’m not standing in line to see the movie, I was just walking by and saw this line and I wanted to stand in it,’” she said, with a chuckle.

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It was the height of the city’s adult-entertainment industry. Portland, once dubbed the ‘‘pornography capital of the West Coast” by The Oregonian, had 18 theaters dedicated to X-rated movies by 1974, and even more erotic bookstores and arcades that screened shorter sex tapes to small audiences. But by 2007, after industry-wide battles over zoning regulations and shrinking profits, only the Maizels family’s Oregon Theater remained.

Last week, Portland’s last ‘‘porn palace’’ abruptly locked its doors after the owner went into foreclosure on Feb. 13. The unexpected closure finally brought an end to the theater’s decades-long struggle with censorship and the economic challenges wrought by the VCR and, later, the Internet. The closure marks the end of the adult theater’s 50-year run in Portland, and the Maizels family’s century-long role in the film industry.

The erotic theater helped shape the city’s tolerance for oddities and pushing boundaries. The pornography peddlers that flourished in the ’70s and ’80s fought censorship in a series of lawsuits that relaxed Oregon’s obscenity laws. Most of the adults-only theaters and bookstores that once incensed morality-minded residents have since closed. But the legal defenses the industry mounted for free speech paved the way for the city’s storied strip club industry.

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Built in 1925 by Maizels-Tyrrell’s grandfather, Isaac Geller, the Oregon was an old, one-room theater originally designed for live-action Vaudeville shows. Geller opened similar theaters scattered throughout Portland — including the Walnut Park Theater and the Aladdin, which also later became adult-film venues, his granddaughter said. Geller opened similar spaces throughout Portland before passing them down to his son, who rebranded them as movie theaters in the 1950s. But when corporate multiplexes began opening with multiple theaters and hundreds of seats, business began to flag.

That’s when the films shown at the family-owned theater got a little more risque. Maizels-Tyrrell told The Post the first controversial film her father showed at his theaters was a 1967 Swedish movie called ‘‘I Am Curious (Yellow),’’ which contained nudity and sexually explicit scenes. Although police in Boston raided a theater to confiscate the film’s reels and an arsonist set fire to a Houston theater showing the movie, Portlanders embraced it.

‘‘In the first three days, it did more business than some of these really fine movies made in two weeks,’’ she said. ‘‘So, we started playing adult movies.’’

The theater screened ‘‘Deep Throat’’ for more than a year. It also played ‘‘Behind the Green Door’’ and many other films from the ‘‘golden age of porn’’ that stretched through the 1970s into the mid-’80s.

Not everyone supported the racy adults-only theaters, especially in their heyday. Despite the city’s rebellious streak, reflected in its unofficial motto ‘‘Keep Portland Weird,’’ the Rose City was a working-class town at its heart and many residents held traditional family values in high regard. City officials tried to chase the theaters out of town with zoning regulations and censors cracked down on lewd films, live nudity, and exotic dancing.

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Neighbors complained about unseemly customers hanging around the theater. They worried about kids seeing the theater’s ads or being approached by leering men.

Several lawsuits stemming from the city’s attempts to stamp out sexually explicit entertainment paved the way for Oregon’s lax censorship rules. Erotic bookshops and adult-film theaters, including the Oregon, fought censors in court after police confiscated sexually explicit films and books. In 1986, the City of Portland was entangled in three civil lawsuits involving erotic bookstores, strip clubs, and alcohol-free ‘‘juice bars’’ that offered ‘‘live nude performances.’’

The following year, the Oregon Supreme Court issued two setbacks to Portland’s efforts to rein in vice.

The state’s top court ruled Star Theater, which showed pornographic films and hosted performances by nude dancers, was protected by a line in the state constitution. It went even further in defending an erotic bookstore repeatedly raided by police: ‘‘In this state any person can write, print, read, say, show, or sell anything to a consenting adult even though that expression may be generally or universally ‘obscene,’’’ Justice Robert C. Jones wrote in the court’s opinion.

The legal precedent of those rulings, which The New York Times characterized as ‘‘total freedom of expression,’’ effectively ended the city’s attempts to regulate adult theaters into extinction and paved the way for the bustling strip-club industry that continues to thrive in the ‘‘strip club capital of America.”

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But the good news was short lived for adult theaters like the Oregon. As VHS players became ubiquitous, fewer people ventured to the adult theaters. When the Internet came along, business lagged even more.

In the late ’80s and early ’90s, ‘‘The Internet wasn’t that big,’’ said Maizels-Tyrrell, who had taken over the business with her brother by then, ‘‘but you could buy the videos at the video stores. Then, they had a few adult channels on demand. But it wasn’t like now.”

By 1981, all but five of the city’s pornographic theaters had already closed, mostly due to economic strife, according to a dissertation written by Portland State University graduate student Elizabeth Morehead, who went on to do research for the school’s Institute of Portland Metropolitan Studies. The holdouts closed one by one, leaving the Oregon Theater as the city’s last dirty-picture show.

Maizels-Tyrrell sold her share of the business to her brother in the early 2000s, she said. As profits sank, she said her brother changed the theater. The adult films became raunchier, she said. The Oregon even started advertising live sex shows.

Those efforts to draw in customers, who had mostly fled for the privacy of their own homes, did not appear to keep the theater afloat. Maizels-Tyrrell said she found out the theater had closed on Thursday after her sister found a story in Willamette Week announcing the news. She tried to call her brother, but he didn’t return her call.

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