Exploring Harvey Weinstein’s roots as a flesh trade landlord in pre-Disney Times Square

By some strange coincidence, a week or so ago, just after hearing that Harvey Weinstein had been arrested and charged with rape, I was listening to an old podcast about the evolution of Times Square, and his name came up in connection to a strip club called the Melody Burlesk, later to be known as the Melody Burlesque.

Weinstein, according to almost every account you’ll find in print or online, launched the entertainment company Mirimax with his brother Bob back in 1979 using the money they’d made in Buffalo, New York, where they produced rock concerts under the name Harvey & Corky Productions, along with a man by the name of Corky Burger. [Harvey Weinstein, who had grown up in Flushing, Queens, had gone to Buffalo to attend the State University of New York at Buffalo.] Wikipedia, for instance, says, “In the late 1970s, using profits from their concert promotion business, the brothers created a small independent film distribution company named Miramax, named after their parents, Miriam and Max. The thing is, that might not be entirely true… at least according The Rialto Report, a website dedicated to the preservation of New York’s “golden age of adult film”… the source quoted in this podcast I was listening to.

While Weinstein may have technically started Miramax in 1979 with money from the concert promotion business, it seems as though the company didn’t really hit its stride until years later, when the now-discraced Hollywood mogul sold a seedy piece of Times Square real estate he’d owned to Holliday Inn for $35,000,000, funneling those funds into his then fledgling entertainment company.

Before we get into that, though, let me go back a little bit, and explain how it was that I came to be reading up on the evolution of Time Square, from vaudeville to porn.

Remember how, the last time I got sick with a cold, I told you how I stayed home and watched The Sunshine Boys? Well, that sent me down a vaudeville rabbit hole, which, at some point, delivered me at the doorstep of Josh Alan Friedman, the former editor of Screw magazine, and brother of artist Drew Friedman, who, coincidentally, just a few weeks ago shared a really lovely story on Gilbert Gottfried’s Amazing Colossal Podcast about how, as kids, he and his brother had spent a day with Groucho Marx. [Their father was author Bruce Jay Friedman, who, among other things, wrote the screenplay for Stir Crazy.] Specifically, I’d started listening to audio recorded by Josh Alan Friedman in and around Time Square during the 70’s and 80’s, especially his interviews with people who had witnessed the transition from vaudeville to burlesque, and, in turn, from burlesque to porn. [Freidman’s book, called Tales of Time Square, had come out in 1988, but he’d just released these taped interviews of is a few years ago in the form of a podcast. The series is called Tales of Time Square: The Tapes.] And it was in an episode of Friedman’s podcast titled “Gentle with the Girls” thad Weinstein’s name had unexpectedly come up… Here’s a short clip.

I know it’s a little thing… this link between Weinstein and the porn theaters and strip clubs of old New York… but I couldn’t help but think, as I was listening to the story of how stripper-turned-businesswoman Madeline “Dominique” Droege would climb onto the young Weinstein’s lap and pay him $16,000 in cash each month for rent, that perhaps there’s something to be learned from this early chapter in Weinstein’s life that might shed some light on how he became the serial abuser we know him as today.

For those of you still wanting more, the following comes from The Rialto Report.

…Of all the theaters, the most legendary was perhaps The Melody Burlesk (sometimes spelt ‘Melody Burlesque’) on Broadway at Forty Eighth. It started out as a last holdout of old school burlesque in 1973, but it soon succumbed to the linked forces of libido and commercialism. Times were changing.

It was the first to introduce audience participation, calling it ‘Mardi Gras’, which allowed dancers to sit naked on customer’s laps for a $1 tip. It was an immediate success; it brought in more customers, and it meant that the club could pay the dancers less. And soon the customers were encouraged to do more than just entertain a dancer in their laps.

In 1983, a scandal erupted. The ownership of the Melody Theater was revealed to include a public figure. A chorus of surprised public officials erupted. But the show must go on – especially when it was this profitable. The Melody became the Harmony and operated in other locations in Manhattan, until it was closed down for good in 1998.

For the last 15 years, the Harmony was owned and run by an ex-dancer, Madeline Droege, known to all as ‘Dominique’. She took the club from the old school cash machine of the 1970s to… the all new cash machine of the 1990s that was attacked by New York mayor of the time, Rudy Giuliani, as being a “corrosive institution”.

In her first full interview, Dominique talks to The Rialto Report about the life that led her to become a dancer, her experience at the Melody and Harmony theaters, the background business deals, the busts, the money, the scandals, the loves, the end, and… Harvey Weinstein too…

The following is a quote from Droege.

“…I had the last year at 48th St. alone after Bob’s passing. Harvey Weinstein was our landlord. Back then he owned the Paradise Arcade which had the first video game machines. He also owned Mama Leone’s restaurant which was down the block.

Harvey was a nice guy but he’d increase our rent as he saw we were doing such good business. I’d pay him the rent in cash each month. When he came to collect, I’d run up to him, give him a big hug, jump in his lap, and fan his face with the $16,000 rent money while he smiled broadly. He always dealt with us directly.

Every year, he’d come in and say, “Do you want to buy the building?” At first he wanted $3,500,000 and I didn’t have that yet. The next year, he came in again and the price had gone up. One year he’d say “Okay, it’s six point eight,” and the price would keep going up.

We were on a month to month contract. Then we heard that he had some really big shot looking for the building and there was a price war. He sold the building for $35,000,000 to Holiday Inn. They’re still there now.

Harvey came over and said, “I sold the building. This is it. You’re out. You got a month to leave.” That was in 1988. He then went on to Miramax with all that money…”

Again, I’m not sure what all of this means. I was just fascinated to learn that Weinstein, in his early years, had owned a building in the old, pre-Disney Times Square that I found so absolutely terrifying in my youth. [My dad worked in New York City starting in about ’78, and he’d take us in a few times a year, just to scare the shit out of us.] It might be that he was completely removed from the mob-connected “house of prostitution” that operated under his roof, but I get the sense that there’s something here worth looking into… As for the old Melody Burlesque Theater being a “house of prostitution,” I took that phrase directly from the charges against Assistant Attorney-General of the State of New York Frederick Cincotti, who was discovered to be the secret owner of the Melody Burlesque Theater at 205 West 48th Street. Mr. Cincotti, according to the charges filed against him, “knowingly advanced and profited from prostitution by managing, supervising, controlling and owning a house of prostitution“… all while being Assistant Attorney-General of the State of New York. And, by the way, it was Cincotti who had a reputation for being “gentle with the girls,” not Weinstein.

[It’s not exactly work-safe, but you can find snapshots taken inside the old Melody here.]

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29 Comments

  1. Jean Henry
    Posted June 6, 2018 at 10:45 pm | Permalink

    In May wayward youth I didn’t a significant amount of time in the East Villlage on NYC and ate daily at the same diner as Gilbert Gottfried. (B&H dairy— $2.50 for soup and challah with butter) He has good stories. Everyone listened. Wish I could remember them. Will check out podcast.
    I’m not surprised about Weinstein. Lots of people made Bank on adult film in the 70’s. the Deuce was a pretty good show covering that evolution. And relevant now to the problems with FOSTA and the ‘crack down’ on the sex trade.

  2. Sad
    Posted June 7, 2018 at 6:25 am | Permalink

    Maybe it was the research for that show that transformed James Franco from sweet boy to monster.

  3. Jean Henry
    Posted June 7, 2018 at 7:46 am | Permalink

    Sad— Franco’s accusations long pre-date the show. And they weren’t so monsteroud as bad form. And very typical, especially in Hollywood. By your definition (not mine) of monster, many sweet boys are monsters. Most are in fact, given the right circumstance. The point of me-too is to change the cultural standard going forward. Revisiting what crossed the new line (even if typical) retroactively is really about articulating the pain point and so the new line. It’s not meant to demonize particular men or all men. You can relax a bit about that. You can not, however, relax into the idea that calling James Franco a monster means you aren’t one.

  4. Sad
    Posted June 7, 2018 at 8:02 am | Permalink

    Seth Roger said he’ll still work with him, so there’s that.

  5. iRobert
    Posted June 7, 2018 at 8:16 am | Permalink

    Well, I’m glad we have that straightened out.

  6. Jean Henry
    Posted June 7, 2018 at 8:38 am | Permalink

    Sad– Everybody is still working with him. Deuce is on. He still stars directs. He’s not a victim. I’m sure he’d tell you so himself. Why do you choose to illustrate the entire me too movement with one of the more questionable instances? There’s a big difference between a man pressuring a woman to have sex and forcing her to or threatening her if she does not comply. Do you believe Mr Weinstein was railroaded and victimized as well?

  7. iRobert
    Posted June 7, 2018 at 9:48 am | Permalink

    James Franco still has his youth, good looks, and charm, so he’s safe…for now.

  8. Jean Henry
    Posted June 7, 2018 at 10:42 am | Permalink

    Turn around’s a bitch, eh, I Robert?

  9. iRobert
    Posted June 7, 2018 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

    Ain’t that the truth!

  10. Jcp2
    Posted June 7, 2018 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

    As a former New Yorker married to a former native New Yorker, we very much prefer the new Times Square to the old Times Square.

  11. Jean Henry
    Posted June 7, 2018 at 7:11 pm | Permalink

    I prefer the old East Village.
    I kind of loved the old times square and penn station and grand central but I was a reckless and naive youth fascinated by drag queens. I don’t know what to make of the new Times Square. It’s like a foreign land.

    Detroit was and remains better in most regards anyway. If you don’t want to get famous or at least to the top of your field, and aren’t from there, I don’t know why anyone would live in nyc for long. As is most of those I know who ‘made it’ left as soon as they could hold relevance/status and do so.

    Was this story about New York. Ah yes, NYC and relentless ambition.

  12. Posted June 7, 2018 at 7:27 pm | Permalink

    I didn’t know the old Times Square as an adult. When I was of age, and going into the city to see shows and the like, it was around ’85 or later, and nothing I wanted to see or do was near there. I do, however, remember going before that with my dad and being terrified. I don’t think most people can probably appreciate how terrifying that city was for a kid with a panic disorder in the 1970’s. (We lived way out in the country, in New Jersey, without neighbors, having left the suburbs of Atlanta.)

  13. Iron Lung 2
    Posted June 7, 2018 at 10:13 pm | Permalink

    The new Times Square is really quite strange.

  14. Jean Henry
    Posted June 8, 2018 at 6:41 am | Permalink

    Nyc used to be a place where you could go with nothing, find a cheap place to live and have a chance to make it. You didn’t need a college degree or piles of cash. But you had an audience and a remarkable exposure to the breadth of human experience. So much striving. Now it’s mostly kids with Ivy League degrees and trust funds. They are smart and ambitious but they live economically segregated existences. They don’t really know anything.

    My kid has a major anxiety and could barely put one foot in front of the other without a panic attack towards the end of high school. And yet she moved to Brooklyn and was somehow able to navigate all of it on a shoestring budget. Doing so seemed to settle her. Nyc is a lot safer now than it was but not so safe for young women. But then panic isnt about regular fears. I’ve been interested lately in the need to go towards what you fear to overcome it. Maybe those trips to nyc for shows helped you too Mark.

  15. Iron Lung 2
    Posted June 8, 2018 at 6:53 am | Permalink

    Going back to visit the Melody Burlesk and reporting on the experience would be a good use of a time machine.

  16. Jean Henry
    Posted June 8, 2018 at 10:40 am | Permalink

    I really like the name Melody Burlesque. The images were great. I don’t think that owning property that houses a strip club and possibly more or getting rent and a lap dance at once from the business owner leads to being a serial sexual abuser. Those places articulate and practice placing limits on customers daily. Sexual abuse is simply a form of abuse of power. It’s not about sex. And exposure to lots of sex or places that sell sex will not turn one into a sexual abuser. That INCEL’s hate sex workers tells you it’s not about access to sex but power. They don’t want to pay for it. They want sex that they dominate with no expectation of reciprocity, monetary or otherwise. And there’s evidence in these stories of a man who loved power not sex. And was happy to abuse his power with an absence of contracts and shitty underhanded dealings that also demonstrate a disrespect for boundaries or reciprocity.

  17. Jean Henry
    Posted June 8, 2018 at 10:45 am | Permalink

    The most important question for me in any business or other partnership is can this person respect a contract. Do they fail to meet their obligations or push regularly for more than is agreed to? You can usually find out quickly from others whether or not that’s the case.

  18. Lynne
    Posted June 8, 2018 at 10:53 am | Permalink

    I was in NYC all last week staying in a Times Square hotel. I haven’t been there in 20 years and the change in that area of town is striking. I didn’t get to any other parts of the city. I found it all a bit chaotic and overwhelming. I think it is better now without the hookers though.

  19. Anonymous
    Posted June 8, 2018 at 11:54 am | Permalink

    According to the court case, Jean, it was a house of prostitution.

    “Knowingly advanced and profited from prostitution by managing, supervising, controlling and owning a house of prostitution.”

  20. Jean Henry
    Posted June 8, 2018 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

    Anonymous— So what?

    We talked about sex work extensively on another thread. It’s illegal and so one can’t protect easily against abuses, but limits and verbal contracts are part of the deal. Brothels gotsex workers off the streets so they could engage in their business transactions with protection nearby. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. Sex work doesn’t lead to abuse. Illegality/black market operations do. There is nothing inherently wrong with sex work. And it’s not going away either.

  21. Jean Henry
    Posted June 8, 2018 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

    Anonymous— So what?

    We talked about sex work extensively on another thread. It’s illegal and so one can’t protect easily against abuses, but limits and verbal contracts are part of the deal. Brothels gotsex workers off the streets so they could engage in their business transactions with protection nearby. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. Sex work doesn’t lead to abuse. Illegality/black market operations do. There is nothing inherently wrong with sex work. And it’s not going away either.

  22. Lynne
    Posted June 8, 2018 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

    I have major problem with sex work but admittedly my problems are directly related to its illegal status. I have been harassed in Ypsilanti in the past by men who seem to think that any woman walking on Michigan ave is a sex worker. Making it legal would solve that problem. Heck craigslist solved that problem (now I worry because craigslist got rid of their personals section)

  23. Jcp2
    Posted June 8, 2018 at 5:44 pm | Permalink

    I think that speaks to the character of the men.

  24. Sad
    Posted June 9, 2018 at 9:35 am | Permalink

    While researching the individuals mentioned in the post I came across this song from Josh Allan Friedman.

    https://youtu.be/jLou0L_4hbE

    All roads lead to McDonalds!

  25. iRobert
    Posted June 9, 2018 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

    My first visits to NYC were as a young adult in the mid-80s and I found 42nd Street incredibly disgusting. But I also find most of humanity to be pretty disgusting, so I’m sure a lot of people thought it was just peachy around there.

    I can certainly see why so many people are drawn to living in NYC. Having so much available to you within such close proximity is pretty amazing. Still, you can clearly see how it transforms people that live there, and they don’t seem very aware of it.

    Many of the best and the worst people I’ve met in my life, grew up in Manhattan. Such a place clearly breeds intense and ambitious personalities, of all kinds, good and bad.

    During my time involved in politics, I got to know some amazingly decent, devoted, driven and sharp individuals who grew up in Manhattan. At the same time, Weinstein and Trump are good examples of how NYC can incubate some incredibly grotesque personalities, which are then unleashed upon the rest of the country. It makes me hate the place a little more.

  26. Jcp2
    Posted June 9, 2018 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

    The thing about NYC that I likes and still like is that it’s a place that grants anonymity to people that would otherwise be ostracized for not being like everyone else. I totally understand midwestern white tourists feeling uncomfortably out of place in certain settings on their week long vacation to the big city ; it’s something that I’ve had to manage for the 52 weeks I live in America.

  27. Posted June 9, 2018 at 8:38 pm | Permalink

    I should have spent time in the City in the ’70s. I would have only been about 8 years old, but it pains me to know that I was less than an hour away, living in the New Jersey, when Television and the Ramones were playing CBGB.

  28. Posted June 9, 2018 at 8:54 pm | Permalink

    Sad, it makes me happy to know that, inspired by this post, you started doing research of your own. Thanks for the link to the Friedman song… And, here, in return, is a little something for you – an interview shot inside the Melody with actress/stripper Raven de la Croix.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LE13ovua1NI

  29. Posted August 20, 2018 at 7:39 am | Permalink

    From Slate:

    Harvey Weinstein Accuser Asia Argento Agreed to Pay $380,0000 to an Actor Who Accused Her of Sexual Assault

    https://slate.com/culture/2018/08/harvey-weinstein-accuser-asia-argento-agreed-to-pay-usd380-0000-to-an-actor-who-accused-her-of-sexual-assault.html

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