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A new documentary tells the unique story of a Hell’s Kitchen character for the ages: Chelly Wilson, a Greek immigrant who became a porn cinema empress, making a fortune during the 1960s and 1970s at the height of Times Square’s years of grit and smut.The Queen of the Deuce reveals a woman who was “a Christmas-celebrating Jewish grandma, a lesbian who married men and a proud owner of porn theaters.”

Chelly Wilson, seen ruling her porn empire from her apartment above one of her cinemas. Photo: Courtesy of the Wilson Family and Queen of the Deuce

The film, which had its premiere earlier this month at the DOC NYC film festival, is available to stream online through November 27. The documentary was directed by Valerie Kontakos, a native New Yorker who moved to Athens in 2003. The film weaves together archival footage, family interviews and animated sequences to look back on the life and times of a woman who was, as grandson David Bourla put it, “the most un-grandma person that anyone could have.” 

Describing his grandmother as simultaneously intense and quirky, Bourla joins Wilson’s children and other grandchildren to paint a portrait of a tough-as-nails, husky-voiced, chainsmoking broad who began her American Dream by narrowly escaping the Holocaust, forcing her to hide her two children with friends and leave her native Greece at the dawn of World War II.

Wilson used Greek names for many of the cinemas in her empire, a rare nod to the country she fled. Photo: Queen of the Deuce

She arrived at Ellis Island from Salonika, or Thessaloniki, a city which before WWII was the center of Greek’s Sephardic Jewish culture. After the Nazi invasion in April 1941, an estimated 96% of its Jewish population was murdered in the Holocaust, among them Wilson’s family.

Beginning a new life in New York in 1939, she went from operating a hot dog cart to quickly making her way in the New York movie house scene – first as the owner of a “legit” theater, and then, sensing the opportunity of the neighborhood’s growing “porno” palaces, into purchasing adult movie theaters, becoming a magnate in the 1960s.

As “the Deuce,” the nickname for W42nd Street around Times Square, became emblematic of the area, Wilson managed to survive and thrive in the male-dominated landscape of Midtown porn producers, which included the likes of the late, W42ST-profiled Marty Hodas.

Wilson lived above one of her theaters, the Eros on 8th Avenue between W45th and W46th Streets (years later, it would become the more family-friendly Playwright Celtic Pub) hosting fellow porn purveyors, adult film stars, and even occasionally a “made man” or two for regular poker games amid bags of cash strewn about the corners of the place. In the documentary, one of her grandchildren describes approaching the apartment as “like climbing the stairs to a fortress.”

Chelly Wilson and her second husband Rex Wilson in their restaurant Mykonos, the non-porn part of her empire. Photo: Courtesy of the Wilson Family

Wilson also owned the Venus theater two doors away, at 728 Eighth Avenue, which is now Trattoria Daniela. She largely named her empire for figures from Greek mythology, in a rare gesture towards the country she had escaped, with Eros I, Eros 2 and Venus joined by Adonis.

“She had this magnetism, she knew so many people from all different walks of life,” said daughter Bondi Walters in the film. “She wasn’t the kind of person who went out to schmooze. She drew them to her.”

Divorced from her first husband, the product of an arranged marriage back in Greece, Wilson would marry once more, describing her second husband, Rex Wilson as “nice” because “he provided me with cigarettes.” Though they had two children, Wilson was dissatisfied in the marriage, taking on female lovers who would frequently take up residence in her apartment. 

Chelly Wilson in the lobby of the Eros Theatre, now the Playwright Celtic Bar. Photo: Courtesy of the Wilson Family and Queen of the Deuce

Still haunted by the effects of the Holocaust she returned to Greece in 1946 to bring her eldest children to America. Her youngest two children were less surprised to know of their older siblings than they were of the family’s true heritage – Wilson had hidden their Jewish lineage from the rest of the family, sending her children to Catholic school and regularly celebrating Christmas. After her younger daughter Bondi learned the truth, “my rosaries disappeared,” she said. 

Wilson continued to build her business empire, adding additional adult theaters and even a restaurant (the star-studded Mykonos, a favorite of actress Shirley MacLaine) to her portfolio. By the late 1970s, she had left the business. Wilson died in 1994 at the age of 86 and, ever the efficient businesswoman, left her children detailed instructions on how she was to be remembered, down to the food served at her memorial.

The Mykonos Restaurant became a hot destination in the 1960s, with Wilson (center) regularly hosting Shirley MacLaine and other celebrities. Photo: Courtesy of Wilson Family

“She said people should come to my apartment and toast her,” Bondi said in the film. “And she said that she had done her duty here on Earth and she’s returned to God.” 

As for her mother’s enduring and unique New York legacy, Bondi said: “She believed America was the greatest place in the world, that you were free here to do whatever you wanted to do.” 


The film, which had its premiere earlier this month at the DOC NYC film festival, is available to stream online here through November 27.

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