Legendary O'Farrell Theater in San Francisco Closes for Good

SAN FRANCISCO—The year was 1969, and the Mitchell brothers, Jim and Artie, who'd already established a thriving business filming short hardcore loops, decided they needed a new challenge—and what better opportunity than buying an old Pontiac dealership at the corner of O'Farrell and Polk Streets in San Francisco's "Tenderloin" district and, after a lot of renovation, opening a movie theater where they could both film the loops and longer features, and show them to a public willing to pay the $2 admission charge? But now, 51 years later, the Mitchell brother family survivors—notably Jim's daughter Meta—have decided to close the place for good, citing the significant loss of business due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

In fact, the theater-cum-strip club hadn't been doing very well for the past few years, with the club's afternoon DJ Ben "Dewey" Herndon telling SFGate that "the staff had known the place was on borrowed time for about the last three years" and that "COVID was just adding insult to injury."

The Tenderloin district where the O'Farrell was/is located—a triangular area whose bounds included the Market Street shopping district and upscale Nob Hill residences—was home to plenty of adult stores and XXX-rated theaters (and was also where Dashiell Hammett wrote The Maltese Falcon), but it didn't take police long to target the O'Farrell, raiding it just three weeks after it opened and arresting then-25-year-old Jim Mitchell for production and exhibition of obscene material, including the hardcore documentary Pornography in Denmark, by famed adult director Alex DeRenzy. In fact, the theater was busted several times over the coming year, with Mitchell being acquitted of most charges and sometimes paying small fines.

But what really put the O'Farrell Theater and the Mitchell brothers on the map was their production of Behind the Green Door in 1972, its fame due in part to the casting of the blonde 20-year-old woman who'd appeared on boxes of Ivory Snow detergent in every supermarket in the country, Marilyn Chambers. Since then, the movie has grossed more than $50 million, making it the second highest-grossing hardcore movie ever (the first, of course, was Deep Throat) and providing the Mitchell brothers with enough capital to expand the theater by adding VIP rooms and live shows in addition to the films. "Gonzo" journalist Hunter Thompson described the O'Farrell as "the Carnegie Hall of sex in America."

But the police kept targeting the Mitchell brothers, largely at the urging of then-Board of Supervisors member and later Mayor Diane Feinstein, now a U.S. Senator who, according to Hoodline.com, "launched her political career as a pearl-clutching Presidio Heights housewife who campaigned against the spread of adult movie houses around the city."

Fun fact: After a 1980 raid where the cops arrested 14 patrons and staff on prostitution charges, the brothers famously posted Feinstein's personal telephone number on their marquee, with the legend, "For a Good Time Call..."

All in all, the Mitchell brothers were defendants in more than 200 court cases involving obscenity or related charges, most of which they won, and in 1985, the Board of Supervisors voted to strip the police department of its power to license strip clubs, and awarded the Mitchell brothers $14,000 in compensation for the last raid.

Legendary adult actress Nina Hartley told AVN her memories of working at the O'Farrell.

"The Mitchell brothers theater was the first place I ever became aware of that had live sex shows," she said. "My first partner told me about it. Before stripping, before Nina ever existed, there was still a person who wanted to be a sex entertainer, and to have this lover tell me about this place in San Francisco, and I'm from the Bay area, so the sex positivity of the region is very much part of my soul. I started dancing there in '82, so I first heard about it in '81, and I ended up getting a job there. I did Amateur Night and I won and I got a job, so I danced there one day a week on Saturdays and went to nursing school full-time between 1983 and 1985, so I started dancing there in '83 and worked every Saturday until I got out of college.

"I was primarily a performer in the New York Room, which was the traditional theater with an audience on three sides, live dancing. There were other rooms in the theater which I didn't get to work in until I was a feature, but there was a Movie Room where you could get a lapdance while watching a movie; there was the Green Door Shower Room where girls would do shower shows; there was of course the Ultra Room, which was more BDSM-oriented, with many peep windows and one show going on in the middle. It was my first regular ongoing contact with sex entertainment, other women who worked in the field, and I loved it.

"So I worked one day a week as a stripper, a three-song set, and in-between times, I did lapdancing, and I knew the brothers; they were party hamsters and I wasn't a big party hamster. I knew they'd made Behind the Green Door; I knew that it had been a big deal back in the day, and I was very happy working there, and at that time, in '83-'84, we were actually considered employees and got paid minimum wage and declared a portion of our tips and even got a small paycheck. Then it went to tip-only, and after I left, I think it became a place where you had to pay a house fee and a stage fee and all the rest, but I loved my time there. I really got a sense of myself as an entertainer, a sense of what Nina could do in the world.

"I had a blast because the best thing about it, of course, was that New York Live, unlike almost everywhere else in the country to this day, you could do live dildo shows, live shows with penetration with audience members two feet away, and live girl/girl with penetration, so that was just like, 'Hello? Did I make this job up out of my brain?' I was so happy because there were enough dancers each week that were open to a girl/girl show that I would just find one and say, 'Hey, can I join you on stage for your second set?' And if they said yes, I would just know when they got to their third song, I would crawl up on stage and do things to them, so it was a wonderful precursor to actually doing porn-porn; it was live porn, live hardcore, and my dildo for maximum visual benefit was one of those black-black ones, like coal black, a realistic dildo, and I would do that show and I really just loved the audience, I loved being a dancer, I loved being a live entertainer, I loved doing the girls. It was just fabulous.

"As producers, it was the '80s, so they were all clunking away trying to figure out this new technology, the new distribution, how does it even work, and I made The Grafenberg Girls Go Fishing, and I think it had Traci Lords in it, so if it ever got released, it would have been chopped up in such a way that there was nothing really to find. I don't think the movie held up well after being edited, and I was pretty new; I only had a minor scene; I wasn't a featured player at all. But it was a great place, a giant, beautiful space. Goodness gracious, I wish I had a gazillion dollars; I would take that over. I'm not surprised they can't find a tenant. I'm sorry to see it close down. I'm really sad. It was a great place to work. I found it to be a great place to work."

The last ad for the O'Farrell on its website

As Hartley correctly recalls, the Mitchell brothers were indeed party animals, with Artie Mitchell reportedly being far more into alcohol and cocaine than Jim, leading Jim to head to Artie's Corte Madera house in 1991 to fatally shoot his brother. Jim Mitchell ended up spending three years in San Quentin for the crime of voluntary manslaughter, and after his release, Jim was sued for Artie's wrongful death by several of Artie's kids, plus dancer Kathleen Pacello also sued, claiming that she'd been raped in the club and that patrons could expect to have sex with dancers. Jim Mitchell died at his ranch in Sonoma in 2007 of an apparent heart attack at the age of 63.

One of Artie's children, Liberty Bradford Mitchell, told of her experiences growing up on the fringes of an X-rated world in a book, The Pornographer's Daughter, as well as a stage show which she performed in, among other places, Los Angeles, and a film based on her novel.

Ms. Mitchell later recalled, of the theater and its surrounding area, "It was quite busy, lots of people. It wasn't quite so many street people as it is now, and the whole front of the theater was glass... We advertised in the Chronicle, and then we advertised in the Berkeley Barb, and we had every hippie girl there come in and make a movie."

In 2013, award-winning actress/director Dana Vespoli told the website Creative Loafing Tampa of her time stripping at the O'Farrell, "San Francisco is a place where, if you are a stripper, you are cool. There, being a stripper is like being a musician or a writer. It's very liberal. At the O'Farrell Theatre, the Mitchell brothers embraced diversity. You would see a lot of different body types. You never felt out of place... The place was not just full of fembots with bolt-on tits."