LOS ANGELES—One of the pioneers of the gay adult industry has passed away. According to adult star Jeff Stryker, Studio 2000 founder John Travis was found dead yesterday around noon at his home in Shadow Hills, Calif.
Stryker said Travis had been plagued by a stomach virus for the past several weeks. “Apparently he had a heart attack. The virus weakened him down,” Stryker said, noting that Travis was 75 years old.
Travis was “one of the founders of the adult industry,” Stryker recounted. “He and Matt Sterling started selling 8mm loops out of the trunk of their car in Florida.”
Travis, along with the late Sterling and Chuck Holmes, could be said to have created the gay porn industry in California in the 1960s and '70s. Travis worked closely with both men, serving as cameraman for Sterling’s Huge Video and Holmes’ Falcon Studios. According to an anecdote in the documentary Seed Money, Travis was Holmes’ first collaborator and was a co-founder of Holmes’ studio in 1970, when they started it out of Holmes’ house in San Francisco.
Travis has 104 titles as a director listed on IAFD.com, running from 1982 to 2009. But that apparently doesn’t scratch the surface of his filmography. Many of his contributions were uncredited. Travis worked on hundreds of films, Stryker estimates. “I dare say over a thousand.”
Many of those movies were for Catalina Video, where Travis worked before starting his own company. Channel 1 Releasing co-founder and veteran director Chi Chi LaRue said, "We have lost a true legend! I owe a lot of my start to this amazing man! It's an honor to have his work in the C1R library!"
In 1993 he co-founded Studio 2000 with Scott Masters, the man behind Nova Video and also a director at Catalina. The two noted at the time that their goal was to deliver the type of high-quality, high-value productions they had made for other companies.
In addition to making movies, Travis also made stars. Paramount among these was Jeff Stryker, who reminisced about how he came to work with Travis.
“He created everybody that was anybody,” Stryker said, explaining this was “back in the days when directors were starmakers.”
Stryker recalls that a photographer back in Illinois shot Stryker at “a modeling interview thing” and sent them to Travis. The photographer called back and said, “I’ve got a modeling job, but it’s not exactly a normal one. … I negotiated my first deal over the phone for one scene and made it clear there’s not going to be any casting couch and any crazy stuff like that, and at all times I wanted a return ticket in my pocket and enough money to get to the airport from anywhere,” he said with a laugh. “Because if anything got freaky, I’m leaving.”
Stryker’s career got off to a rough start in 1984, he recalled, candidly saying he had trouble performing. He headed back to the Midwest, ready to pack it in. But fan response to pictorials featuring Stryker was so strong that he agreed to give porn another shot.
Travis was “a key factor” in Stryker’s success. The director told him, “I think I can do something with you that hadn’t been done with any other model because they won’t follow the plan. He had a three-year plan that if I stuck to it and did only the movies he said to do, at the end of three years I would be a superstar with a lotta, lotta money. So I followed the plan and at the end of the three-year point I couldn’t negotiate a deal I was comfortable with so I said, ‘Hey, I’ll just start my own company.’ That’s when I ... went from $400 a week to $4,000,” Stryker said with a chuckle.
One high point of their work together is Powertool (1986), which Stryker describes as “still the biggest selling gay movie of all time.” It was also, according to the book Bigger Than Life: The History of Gay Porn Cinema from Beefcake to Hardcore, Catalina’s first movie shot on video.
Back then, Stryker recalled, “they were real movies. His budget for a movie would be $100,000 to $150,000.” Shoots for each scene would take three days, he said. Filming the sex alone would take 14 to 16 hours, and a day would be devoted to the storyline.
“He was just a creator. That’s what he did. He liked to make movies,” Stryker said. When working with Sterling, Travis liked to concentrate on the “sex stuff” and leave the storyline to his co-director. Travis would “get under there with close-ups underneath the performers, you’d be standing on apple boxes, bright lights everywhere. Wow. It was a lot of work.”
Of course, those were also the “money days,” Stryker said. “When I got in, it was VHS. We used to have galleys [preorder sales] of ten to twenty thousand units and 35 bucks a pop … before the title even seeing release.”
Travis made plenty of money—and spent it, too. “He was just overly generous to everyone,” Stryker said, describing one Christmas where he gave 30 or 40 of his friends “the most expensive highest-quality DVD players, when DVD just came out.
“He lived his life like a king for decades and decades,” Stryker said. And that was fitting for a man whom Stryker calls “the true pioneer of all of them.”
Over the years Stryker stayed in touch with Travis, last communicating with him just three days ago. “Anyone in the industry who knows him loves him,” Stryker said. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard anybody say a bad thing about him.”
In recent years his life was quieter. When asked what Travis enjoyed most outside of working, Stryker said, “He always had the top-notch, highest-quality, biggest television screen. And his idea of a perfect life would by lying on the bed and eating whatever you want and watching a movie. And he did that. In fact ... he did that the last two and a half years of his life—and loved it.”
According to Stryker, Travis is survived by his sister and a niece and nephew.
Reached via email by AVN shortly after this article posted was Catalina Video founder William Higgins, who talked about his history with Travis (to whom he refers by his real first name). “After working with Falcon, Jim worked with my company for a few years before branching out on his own with Bill Sheffler in Studio 2000,” Higgins said. “I can tell a few anecdotes about Jim.”
“Back in the day gay porn was quite incestuous,” Higgins recalled. “There were so few producers/directors. Jim was known around town as ‘The Closer.’ Despite popular myth, models, back then, were much harder to find than nowadays. Never mind porn was much more profitable and there was MUCH less competition. John Summers was the model ‘bird dog’ par excellance. He could find them, wine and dine them, but wasn't very good at closing the deal. For that you'd need to call in Jim. No matter how long it took, Jim could almost always talk them round. He frequently told me he was a ‘trap door spider.’ He didn't go out on the trail hunting very much, but if something fell into his trap. ...
“Jim used to tell a great story,” Higgins continued. “I don't know how much is mythical. He'd shot a loop for Chuck Holmes down in L.A. Chuck was in SFO. Turns out one of the models was the son of a local district attorney. When dad found out, he was not amused. Jim got wind that some guys were coming over to his house to seize the film. He called Chuck, who was watching Dynasty and had given strict instructions never to be interrupted while the show was on. Jim called him anyway and was duly chewed out. He said Chuck told him, ‘If they come over just throw the film out the back window, climb out after it, and run away.’ Apparently there was time to do neither and Jim had to surrender the film. I don't think, if memory serves, Chuck was too pleased.”
Higgins continued, “There's another story that's just too priceless to leave out. Back in the day, Jim always said, ‘You've go to learn how to read a Polaroid.’ Photos of prospective models almost always arrived in those days in the form of Polaroids. They had notoriously bad quality. Hence, one had to be able to see through the poor quality and lousy lighting to see the potential of a model.
“A friend of Jim's sent him the famous Polaroid of Jeff Stryker. Jim first took it to Chuck Holmes, who accordingly glanced at it briefly, and dismissively threw it across the room at Jim. Jim then brought the Polaroid to me and Matt Sterling. And the rest, as they say, is history.”
AVN will add more reminiscences about this industry giant as we hear from his former colleagues.
Above, Travis (at left) with Jeff Stryker, courtesy of Stryker