“Wow,” says Roy Karch, my old friend, as I lean over the railings of his bed to kiss him on the forehead. “Wow.” He reaches for my arm with his right hand, the only good one following multiple strokes, and he clutches it for the hour we’re together. Once a pretty formidable YMCA-level basketball player, Roy’s head and eyes now look massive compared to the wasting of the rest of his body.
“I don’t know what to say,” he says, several times. I tell him that I’ll do the talking, then.
Roy is a pioneering pornographer of the videotape age. He never made a lot of money, but he made a good living when there was a living to be made. When I met him in 2003, ensconced at a booth at the Grand Lux Cafe in the Venetian in Las Vegas, chatting with some of his contemporaries, one of the things he told me was, “It’s different than it was.”
At that point Roy had various contracts with adult companies like Adam & Eve and the now-shuttered SexZ Pictures to make something like 15 movies a year. Each might have a budget of $25,000, of which he’d take home a percentage. He would hire big crews and feed them, write scripts for his assistant to type, and carry around his casting notes and related phone numbers on index cards. I knew he was old school already; while he had once shot camera (a 45-lb.Betamax) long ago, on a basic cable program in New York called “The Underground Tonight Show” (which featured porn stars and sex educators like Betty Dodson as well as performers like Richie Havens and one of the final appearances of the folk singer Phil Ochs), on his productions in Porn Valley, Roy would sit behind a monitor and direct. That type of gig was rapidly disappearing like the middle class; directors were already shooting their own camera on smaller productions and, on big pictures made by the original Digital Playground or Wicked or Vivid, prestige budgets were much bigger. Yes, Vivid’s Paul Thomas could sit behind a monitor because there was room in the budget for it. Roy’s films, at their price point, made a sedentary director extraneous. Roy didn’t adapt.
As his contracts dried up in the aughts of this century, the obsessiveness and irritability that were forgivable and even endearing when he was working or generating work for others snowballed into unemployability. Squeezed out of the adult business (though still a fixture at events like the XRCO Awards), Roy took a gig giving tours on Starline buses, up the street from his apartment. He was pretty good at it, but that dried up, too. He had some health setbacks, he took in roommates, he sold things, and then, when he finally had to leave the apartment he’d occupied for 20 years, to move to his current place, he began dying quickly.
Just a mile east of L.A. City Hall, there’s a 400-unit warren of apartments, mostly occupied by elderly Asians, where Roy is wasting away. Two weeks before Roy’s 73rd birthday, his friend and primary caregiver, Jeff Mullen, has set up a GoFundMe to help finance the rest of Roy’s journey through hospice.
I have rarely been successful in describing to people on the “outside” the basic, joyful, rancorous, family-oriented, normal relationships one can cultivate in this business. Roy and I would talk on the phone about Led Zeppelin or the L.A. band Love (their 1967 “Forever Changes” record was better than “Sgt. Pepper” or “Pet Sounds,” in my opinion), or the Red Sox, or “The Godfather.” We’d occasionally touch on something bombastic that Bill Margold did, or he’d tell me about working with people like John Holmes or Seka. But we’d covered those things a decade ago. Now he just asked me how my kids or my girlfriend were. When I’d hang up, my girlfriend would be sulky.
Or I’d stop by his place and take him to In-n-Out Burger, where we’d once shared a booth with Ron Jeremy and Dennis Hof. Hof had embarrassed the poor counter staff by asking one of the teenagers if she’d like to open an In-n-Out franchise at the Bunnyranch.
Roy has had a number of adult luminary visitors stop by his hospice bed, some of whom he didn’t always have the best relationship with. For years before I took a break from the business, I couldn’t stand Jeff Mullen. But Roy had given Jeff his big industry break years ago, hiring him to ascore one of his movies. Jeff, as Will Ryder, went on to become one of Porn Valley’s most successful directors and often moved mountains to secure Roy rent, or a quick job, or some logistical support as Roy became more and more addled. Roy, who grew up Jewish, would readily agree that Jeff’s friendship and support was a mitzvah.
At the head of Roy’s bed, one of his hospice attendants, Rosa, is watching the TV at Roy’s feet. Roy is holding my hand but he;s also trying to remove the pillow from under his head. I let go and he gets the pillow, then he tries to put it back, then he tries to cover my head with it, then I put it under his head, then he moves it again. As he goes through this process, I’m telling him about the people who say Hi (some of them I’m making up, but I’m sure they would have), and I’m telling him his history.
“You were born in Boston in 1946. That was the year the Red Sox won the pennant. (‘Yes!’ Roy says.) Then your dad, Izzy, moved the family to Brooklyn. You, your brother, Les, and your mom. (‘Yes!’) You stayed a Red Sox fan. You lost your virginity when you were a pool boy at a Borscht Belt camp in the Adirondacks. (‘I don’t remember.’) It’s OK, you told me. Your parents took tickets when you produced Eros 75 in New York. You moved out here in 1977. You bumped into Richard Dreyfuss at a gas station. He had made a movie called ‘Inserts’ where he played a genius filmmaker who had to pay the bills by being a pornographer. Then you made a movie called ‘Insertz’ in 2007, 30 years after you met him at the gas station! You were a P.A. for John Cassavetes when you first got out here. You shot the first porn on video. You were the guy they talked about in ‘Boogie Nights’ who was going to destroy Burt Reynolds’s career. You’re in the AVN and XRCO Hall of Fame. You’ve given a lot of people a lot of work. You’re the man, Roy.People love you.” I don’t know if Rosa is listening to us.
After a while, Roy starts getting agitated. The pillow isn’t doing what he needs it to do. He howls that there is a pain in his ass.
“Am I the pain in your ass, Roy? (He smiles.) Do you remember Rita Hayworth? Marilyn Monroe? Sophia Loren? Brigitte Bardot? Jane Fonda in ‘Barbarella’? (‘Yes!’) Seka? Chloe? Nina Hartley? Mika Tan? They all loved working for you.” (I haven’t corroborated this with any of them, but I’m sure they wouldn’t mind me saying so.
“I don’t remember,” Roy says, then, “I want to remember. I don’t want to remember.” Then he howls again.
Throughout the visit, I’m not sure Roy knows who I am. I’m fairly sure he’s content that I’m there, though. He might think I’m Jeff.
As I follow the long, close, and ill-smelling corridors out of the building, I know that Roy’s story isn’t too different from that of a lot of people, in and out of the business. It’s been raining lately, and I drove through several homeless encampments on the way. By next year there will probably be favelas by the L.A. River. It’s getting harder to make ends meet. People get forgotten. And there’s something about the ephemeral nature of porn that makes getting forgotten easier.
I’m appending Jeff Mullen’s press release on the GoFundMe below. Please give if you can.
Industry Pioneer Roy Karch Needs Your Help with GofundMe
Thursday, December 5th, 2019
(Hollywood, CA) A GoFundMe launches today to help retired veteran adult movie director Roy Karch live out his days in peace as he is in need of financial help while suffering from serious dementia and rapidly declining health following a devastating stroke suffered earlier this year.
“Roy has been unable to work for a number of years and is penniless because he didn’t plan very well and for the past ten months he’s been bed-ridden, partially paralyzed due to the stroke and even unable get out of bed to use the bathroom so he needs help now,” stated long-time friend Jeff Mullen who has been taking care of Karch organizing round-the-clock caregivers, purchasing his groceries and paying his bills.
The government benefits Karch does receive don’t come close to paying all of his bills so ’tis the season to help out one of the early pioneers of this business.
“It sucks to get old but it must be devastating to be old, disabled, completely mentally disoriented with no family and really nowhere to turn next. His only brother died four days after his stroke. The Caregivers are wonderful and do some really dirty difficult work so we’ve been doing the best we can to keep Roy fed and as comfortable as possible and hopefully he’ll make it to the summer with your help so please give if you are able.”
“Donate what you can and even if you’re a young person and don’t know Roy Karch, no gift is too small so please give and share this message,” Mullen said.
Karch’s 73rd birthday is December 21st just days before Christmas.
Previously on Porn Valley Observed: The Pornographer at 60