Play reveals naked truth behind ‘Deep Throat’
Herschel Savage, the skin-flick actor best known for his appearance in “Debbie Does Dallas,” was perched beside a bare mattress on the floor of the Zephyr Theatre in West Hollywood, preparing to rehearse a scene from “The Deep Throat Sex Scandal” in which he plays a director. The new play by David Bertolino follows the making of the most famous sex movie of all time and the free-speech controversy that erupted after its release in 1972.
At the rehearsal, cast members were fully clothed, although they were about to run through a sequence in which their characters shoot a porn loop — some will be naked onstage during the show, and a couple of explicit sex scenes will be simulated (you’ve been warned).
Savage, 60, who keeps his clothes on throughout the play, was trying to figure out just how to artfully slip off the robe of Natasha Charles Parker, who portrays Linda Lovelace, the “Deep Throat” star. “This is the unveiling scene, make something of it,” advised the play’s director, Jerry Douglas, who is also an award-winning adult film director.
Later in the run-through, the action turned from campy fun to a serious discussion of the First Amendment. Douglas reminded Savage that his character utters the phrase “free is a good word” four times in the play: “Make it sound carved in stone, or at least embroidered on a pillow,” Douglas said. “Frame the hell out of the word free, because that’s what the show is all about.”
Savage, who in his boyhood attended a Conservative synagogue, portrays Gerard Damiano, “Deep Throat’s” director, an intense fellow who regarded himself as “the Hitchcock of adult cinema,” said Savage, who worked with Damiano. Savage also portrays First Amendment attorney Alan Dershowitz.
But the drama largely revolves around the journey of Harry Reems, the movie’s male star (played by Marc Ginsburg), whose real name is Herbert Streicher and who introduces himself in the play as a “nice Jewish boy” from Westchester County, N.Y. As the show opens, Reems aspires to become a hippie and an actor, and he goes on to star in assorted off-off-Broadway productions, and even plays Shylock in “The Merchant of Venice” before money woes prompt him to take a chance on porn.
His luck turns as he’s cast as a lusty doctor opposite Linda Lovelace’s nurse in “Deep Throat.” However, when the film opened in New York’s Times Square — a haven for X-rated films at the time — it was immediately shut down by the authorities, catalyst for a publicity blitz on censorship that turned the film into the topic of water-cooler conversation and spurred the term “porno chic.” As a result, we learn in the play, the hour-long movie earned a whopping $600 million at the box office and made Reems practically a household name. Meanwhile, the Nixon administration, in an attempt to crack down on pornography, pursued Reems, and he was tried and convicted in Memphis on obscenity charges, and faced jail time until attorney Alan Dershowitz got him acquitted on appeal.
“This case is not just about the law; it’s also about politics,” Dershowitz warns Reems at one point in the play. “The Christian right has a well-oiled PR machine — you’re going to need one, too.”
Playwright Bertolino grew up in an Italian-Catholic home outside Boston, and he knows a thing or two about PR. Ruddy faced, jovial and clad in one of his trademark flamboyant shirts on a recent Saturday, he was planning to hire fake protesters to picket outside the Zephyr — the same publicity stunt used by the film’s original backers to draw people to the movie in Times Square. He’ll also have actresses clad in nurse costumes giving out tongue depressors in the lobby, and he envisions porn legend Ron Jeremy, who has a cameo in the play, walking with a giraffe (“Deep Throat” — get it?) down Melrose Avenue.
Even so, Bertolino said he views his play in part as a cautionary tale on the boundaries of free speech — and it’s a very Jewish story, as well. “The Deep Throat Sex Scandal” spotlights not only First Amendment lawyers like Dershowitz, but also calls attention to the Jewish porn stars who thrived in the industry in the 1970s, all the while viewing themselves as protestors against the Christian establishment and purveyors of the sexual revolution.
Some of the most famous of those stars will appear in onstage cameos in “The Deep Throat Sex Scandal,” including Jeremy, nicknamed “The Hedgehog” because he is short and hirsute, porn impresarios Nina Hartley and Bill Margold as well as Savage. Of the preponderance of Jews working in the porn industry at the time, Margold said, “It was all about [social] rebellion.”
“Jewish families tend to be more liberal than Christian ones,” Jeremy said in a 2001 Journal interview. “They aren’t obsessed by the fear of the devil or going to hell.”
Bertolino said he first saw “Deep Throat” on a double bill with “The Devil in Miss Jones” around 1976, but he had nothing to do with the industry — nor had he ever written a play — until a fortuitous meeting in 2007. He was in the process of selling a haunted-house theme park called Spooky World that he owned near Boston, when his costume business brought him to the Las Vegas International Lingerie Show, where he set up a booth to hawk his sexy nurse and flight attendant outfits. The booth drew the attention of a spokesman for Arrow Productions, an adult-film company with a booth across the way, who asked Bertolino if he could stencil the words “Linda Lovelace” on the nurse costume. “I can, but we’d both get sued,” Bertolino said. The man promptly replied that Arrow Productions owned the rights to “Deep Throat.”
A Linda Lovelace nurse costume ensued, and — as Bertolino became more and more intrigued by the stories that Arrow Production’s owner, Raymond Pistol, told him about the movie — so did the idea for “The Deep Throat Sex Scandal.” Bertolino was fascinated to learn that the flick had been mob-financed and was shot in a Miami motel — and that backers actually bribed a judge to shut down the film in New York to generate publicity. The trial, he added, “stands as one of the great battles against censorship in modern American history — taken up by Alan Dershowitz, helping to expand the career of one of America’s best-known attorneys.”
Bertolino undertook a series of interviews with people involved with the film, including Reems, who, he said, hung up on him the first three times he phoned. (Reems, Bertolino said, is currently ailing at his home in Utah and does not endorse the play.)
After “The Deep Throat Sex Scandal” gained an audience during a four-and-a-half week run with a largely different cast off-Broadway, Bertolino was able to persuade real porn veterans such as Savage to appear in the Los Angeles production.
While smoking a cigarette during a rehearsal break, Savage said he was drawn to the play, in part, because “it’s like a case of déjà vu.” And not just because he’s used to the on-set goings on the play describes.
“I see a lot of similarities between myself and Harry Reems,” Savage said. Like the “Deep Throat” star, he initially aspired to become a professional actor, studying with Uta Hagen and Stella Adler before he found himself on a porn set to help pay his bills. He discovered he had a proclivity for the business and went on to star in hundreds of films. But along the way — also like Reems — he discovered that his adult cinema activities inhibited his ability to snag mainstream plays and films. Now out of the porn business, he’s recently starred in a Neil Simon play in Santa Monica; he’s been working on his standup-comedy routine and is hoping “The Deep Throat Sex Scandal” will help further his acting career. “But I don’t know if I’ll use the name ‘Herschel Savage’ in the credits,” he said. “Even 40 years after ‘Deep Throat,’ there’s still so much bias out there against the industry.”
The show, which begins previews Jan. 24, opens Jan. 31 and runs through March 3, will feature guest cast members in two cameo roles every week: Amber Lynn and Bill Margold (preview week, Jan. 24-27), Sally Kirkland and Bruce Vilanch (Jan. 31-Feb. 3), Nina Hartley and Christopher Knight (Feb. 7-10), and Georgina Spelvin and Ron Jeremy (Feb. 14-17). For tickets and information, visit deepthroattheplay.com or call (800) 838-3006.