Mitchell Brothers O'Farrell Theatre
O'Farrell Theatre in 2006
|Address||895 O'Farrell Street
San Francisco, California
|Opened||July 4, 1969|
The Mitchell Brothers O'Farrell Theatre is a striptease club at 895 O'Farrell Street near San Francisco's Tenderloin neighborhood. Opened as an X-rated movie theater by Jim and Artie Mitchell on July 4, 1969, the O'Farrell remains one of America's oldest and most notorious adult-entertainment establishments; by 1980, the nightspot had popularized close-contact lap dancing, which would become the norm in striptease clubs nationwide. Journalist Hunter S. Thompson, a longtime friend of the Mitchells and frequent visitor at the club, went there nightly during the summer of 1985 as part of his research for a book on pornography. He called the O'Farrell "the Carnegie Hall of public sex in America" and Playboy magazine praised it as "the place to go in San Francisco!"
The O'Farrell Theatre is open seven days a week and nearly every evening of the year. Customers must pay a comparatively steep admission price ($20–$50, depending on the time of day) and no alcoholic beverages are served, although a snack bar is located on the premises. The O'Farrell's main showroom is New York Live!, a continuous striptease show where one performer dances on stage while the others offer lap dances by asking customers, "Want some company?" The dancers then actually sit on the men's laps (a practice that is illegal in some other states) and insist on substantial tips ($20 is common). There are several themed rooms, such as the Ultra Room, a peep show-type room where patrons stand in private booths watching women perform with various props such as dildoes; the Green Door Room (named for the Mitchells' classic hardcore film Behind the Green Door and its sequel; it served as the principal set of the latter), the darkened Kopenhagen Lounge, where the customers use flashlights to watch the performances, and private booths of varying sizes (although not all dancers make themselves available for private sessions with customers) and onstage lesbian simulated-sex performances.
At the O'Farrell, male employees (including managers) must adhere to a strict dress code: black bowtie, white shirt, black slacks and black shoes. Such sartorial requirements began in 1986 when the O'Farrell's then-general manager, Vince Stanich, noticed that all of his male staff members were dressed differently (and often not altogether presentably).
The O'Farrell Theatre went through two major phases which reflected a major transition in the Mitchell brothers' business model: first as a movie house to feature their adult films, and later as a cutting-edge strip club which offered customer-contact shows with strippers. Over decades, the events at the O'Farrell Theatre have been as much about the brothers' stubborn tenacity in applying legal resources to avoid prosecution by San Francisco’s vice squad and district attorney, as they were about their unique innovations for the erotic entertainment industry.
Adult Movie Theater
Before they decided to open business at the O'Farrell Theatre in 1969, Jim and Artie Mitchell had been making and selling short 15 minute porn films, called loops, which patrons could watch for 25 cents a minute. But the brothers wanted to go beyond the production of short loops, and move on to making longer features whose distribution and presentation they could control. With the conversion of an old Pontiac automobile dealership on O'Farrell and Polk streets, they built a makeshift soundstage for filming and seating for a movie theater to provide them with that opportunity. At a rate of one per month they churned out featurettes, which were 30 to 60 minute films that could be advertised and then shown at the O'Farrell.
But just three weeks after the theater opened, plain-clothed police officers walked in and arrested 25 year-old James Mitchell – still a film student at San Francisco State – for production and exhibition of obscene material. Not easily deterred, the brothers vowed during a press conference to fight back, and hired a young but fierce lawyer named Michael John Kennedy to defend them against the obscenity charges. Kennedy had already started to build a national reputation for his role as resourceful political activist, and would later represent Timothy Leary, Bernardine Dohrn, Cesar Chavez, and Huey Newton. With Kennedy and the First Amendment behind them, they tenaciously defied authorities by continuing to show their films while being arrested dozens of times over the coming year.
A little more than a year later when the first case made its way to court, the trial became a local media circus as a flamboyant and wisecracking Kennedy irritated the district attorney while he challenged the legal definition of obscenity. After a long trial, the jury became hopelessly deadlocked and the brothers escaped without conviction. Kennedy believed that the social value of pornography was that it served as a shield for the rest of art and literature – meaning that if pornography could not be censored, then other forms of art would be protected as well.
The Mitchell brothers' classic adult film Behind the Green Door premiered at the O'Farrell in 1972, with the brothers' parents in the audience. The Mitchells produced and directed (and occasionally made cameo appearances in) many others of varying lengths, with mixed commercial and critical success.
In the early 1970s, the theater would stop its adult features at midnight on a couple nights a week, and then re-open as the The People's Nickelodeon, along with a five-cent admission charge and free popcorn. The midnight shows were a montage of old films, and live vaudeville style entertainment provided by the Nickelettes, a chorus line of outrageously funny women who would do spunky song-and-dance routines. The audience of young hippies and a few oldsters would be see movies such as Marx Brothers, Abbott and Costello, Yellow Submarine or other counter-cultural favorites, while engaging in some drinking, marijuana, and general carousing. Inspections and disruptions by the fire department and police were common, but the shows usually continued until three in the morning or later.
Later, observing that the Condor Club in North Beach had been a topless bar since 1964 apparently with legal impunity, the Mitchells decided to make their establishment primarily a striptease club by having their carpenter build showrooms.
In the 1980s, newly elected Mayor Dianne Feinstein walked into the O'Farrell and said, "I want to check this place out." Jim Mitchell, in the lobby at that moment, reportedly said, "Sure, if you buy a ticket." Feinstein walked out; soon afterwards, raids occurred, ostensibly to restore safety and health of exotic dancers and resulted in obscenity charges being filed against the Mitchells. The brothers, apparently not lacking a sense of humor, changed their marquee to read, "For showtimes, call..." and displayed Feinstein's unlisted phone number.
The O'Farrell featured sex shows on stage until the courts ordered them to discontinue doing so. As well, the dancers in New York Live! originally were nude as they sat on customers' laps, but a judge instructed the O'Farrell's management to ensure that the girls, when doing lap dances, at least wore brassieres and underpants. Spontaneous onstage lesbian sex acts are still common at the O'Farrell.
The Mitchell brothers supported various cartoon artists, and when the 1984 Democratic National Convention was held in San Francisco, they opened the second floor of the O'Farrell to a group of underground cartoonists covering the convention for the San Francisco Chronicle.
For a period in the early 1980s, the Mitchells, as a special attraction, featured "headliners," female porn stars who danced in the O'Farrell's Cine-Stage (a movie theater with a stage at the base of the screen). The management sold a separate admission ticket ($20) for those performances. On February 1, 1985, the Cine-Stage was raided by a dozen police officers during a headlining appearance by Marilyn Chambers (star of Behind the Green Door); the district attorney declined to press charges. Police later retaliated against a journalist who had suggested that the raid occurred to derail an ordinance that would have stripped police from rights to license adult theaters. Perhaps because of the Marilyn Chambers incident (as well as the increasing financial burden of booking famous performers into the O'Farrell), the Mitchells virtually discontinued headliners. One exception was Megan Leigh (1964–90), a former house dancer who quit the O'Farrell in 1986 to begin starring in adult videos. Leigh returned at least once to dance in the Cine-Stage, presumably to sold-out crowds.
Over the years, the Mitchells were the defendants in over 200 court cases involving obscenity or related charges. Always victorious, they were represented by aggressive counsel (Michael Kennedy, then Artie Mitchell's wife Meredith and, following her dismissal, Tom Steel and his law partner Nanci Clarence).
Hunter S. Thompson revealed in his 2003 book Kingdom of Fear that he had worked for a while as night manager at the club in 1985, as also noted in some news articles and the history section of the O'Farrell web site.
In February 1991, the theater entered the news after Jim Mitchell fatally shot Artie. Michael Kennedy defended Jim Mitchell and convinced the jury that Jim killed Artie because the latter was psychotic from drugs and had become dangerous (Artie had recently threatened to throw a Molotov cocktail into the O'Farrell's lobby; his brother, in 1996, established the "Artie Fund" to raise money for drug-abuse prevention). Jim Mitchell was sentenced to six years in prison for voluntary manslaughter and released from San Quentin in 1997, after having served half his sentence. (See the article on the Mitchell brothers for details.)
During the celebrations for the O'Farrell's 30th anniversary in 1999, burlesque star Tempest Storm, by then in her 70s, danced on stage. Mayor Willie Brown declared a "Tempest Storm Day" in her honor. Marilyn Chambers returned to perform in the theatre on July 28, 1999 in what Willie Brown dubbed "Marilyn Chambers Day."
When San Francisco's Commission on the Status of Women proposed in 2006 to ban private booths and rooms at adult clubs because of concerns about sexual assaults taking place there, several O'Farrell dancers spoke out against the ban.
As of 2006, Jeff Armstrong, its longtime business manager, continued running the O'Farrell; legal representation is provided by former San Francisco Supervisor and two-term District Attorney Terence Hallinan.
Originally, the O'Farrell Theatre's management paid their dancers a flat fee per shift; in the 1980s, they replaced that fee with the federal minimum wage but allowed the women to accept tips. In 1994, Vince Stanich (the ecdysiasts' boss) created a separate company, Dancers Guild International (DGI), and changed the dancers' status from paid employees to that of unpaid "independent contractors" who had to pay DGI "stage fees" of up to $300 per eight-hour shift. Many O'Farrell stripteasers considered Stanich's new policy unfair and possibly illegal; two of them, Ellen Vickery and Jennifer Bryce, filed a class-action lawsuit against DGI (the plaintiffs would ultimately number more than 500), arguing that Stanich's reclassification of the dancers as independent contractors was unlawful and that they were owed back wages as well as a refund of the stage fees. The case was settled in 1998; the dancers were awarded $2.85 million. Similar suits challenging independent contractor status have since been filed against numerous other strip clubs, and labor commissions as well as the courts have consistently ruled in favor of dancers and awarded past wages and stage fee reimbursements. The O'Farrell's management still adamantly opposes all attempts of the dancers to unionize.
After the 1998 case, the O'Farrell changed the performers' payment structure again: they posted a "suggested" fee of $20 per lap dance and $40 per private performance and set a "quota" of $360 per woman per night; the women were allowed to keep half the quota plus all tips. However, it has been recorded on some occasions for lap dances to cost as much as $240. Dancers claimed feeling pressured into paying $180 per night even if they had earned less than that amount, and another 370-plaintiff class-action suit began in 2002. In 2007, a judge ruled in favor of the dancers, declaring the quota system illegal and requiring the O'Farrell to pay any amounts employees could show they paid to fill their quotas, minus any amounts the employer could show the dancers had collected but failed to report. The O'Farrell was also ordered to reimburse dancers for required theme-oriented costumes.
Location and murals
The theatre is located in the northwest part of the Tenderloin District, at the corner of Polk and O'Farrell street, a few doors down from the Great American Music Hall. The entire exterior west and south faces of the theater are covered with two large murals. The west wall depicts a fantasy aquatic scene with flying fish, turtles and whales with a silhouette of the San Francisco Bay in the background, and on the south wall is an underwater scene featuring a life-sized pod of whales and dolphins. These murals were painted in 1977 (Lou Silva with Ed Monroe, Daniel Burgevin, Todd Stanton, and Gary William Graham), 1983 (Lou Silva-solo), 1990 by Lou Silva with the assistance of Joanne Maxwell Wittenbrook, Ed Monroe, Mark Nathan Clark, and Juan "Blackwolf" Karlos, and 2011 by the Academy of Art University. Notable visitors, while the murals were in progress, included: Melvin Belli, Marilyn Chambers, Paul Kantner, Toshiro Mifune, Huey P. Newton, Hunter S. Thompson, and Edy Williams. The murals were sponsored in their entirety by Jim and Artie Mitchell.
- Lily Burana, was involved in the class action suit and wrote about her experiences as dancer at the O'Farrell in her 2001 book Strip City: A Stripper's Farewell Journey Across America (ISBN 0-7868-6790-6).
- Dana Vespoli, pornographic performer and adult-video director
- Lysa Thatcher, pornographic performer and longtime girlfriend to Jim Mitchell
- Steinberg, David (September 8, 2004). "Lap Victory". SF Weekly.
- "Mitchell Brothers O'Farrell Theatre History". Retrieved December 23, 2017.
- McCumber (1992), p. 41, 79.
- McCumber (1992), p. 53, 78-79.
- McCumber (1992), p. 38.
- McCumber (1992), p. 41.
- McCumber (1992), p. 41.
- McCumber (1992), p. 41-41.
- McCumber (1992), p. 45-46.
- McCumber (1992), p. 47.
- Roberts, Sam (28 January 2016). "Michael J. Kennedy, Lawyer for Underdogs and Pariahs, Dies at 78". New York Times. Retrieved 20 February 2018.
- McCumber (1992), p. 47.
- McCumber (1992), p. 48.
- McCumber (1992), p. 50.
- McCumber (1992), p. 51.
- McCumber (1992), p. 54.
- Biography for Artie Mitchell on IMDb
- McCumber (1992), p. 55.
- McCumber (1992), p. 56.
- Romney, Lee (December 19, 2004). "In S.F., Weighing Strippers' Rights". Los Angeles Times.
- Hinckle, Warren (July 21, 2007). "Porn Kings, and a Lot More". San Francisco Chronicle.
- Turner, Wallace (March 4, 1985). "Police Motives Questioned in Coast Vice Raid". The New York Times.
- Nine and a Half Years Behind the Green Door. Mill City Press. 2007. pp. 31 & 189. ISBN 978-1-934248-62-1. Retrieved 25 September 2014.
- Dougan, Michael (July 25, 1999). "The return of Marilyn Chambers". San Francisco Chronicle.
- Winn, Steven (July 15, 1999). "Storm Still Packs a Wallop 1950s burlesque icon takes it off again for O'Farrell Theatre anniversary". San Francisco Chronicle.
- Goodyear, Charlie (August 5, 2006). "Adult Club Private Rooms Debated". San Francisco Chronicle.
- Lynem, Julie N. (July 10, 1998). "O'Farrell Settles With 500 Dancers; $2.85 million includes restitution, legal fees". San Francisco Chronicle.
- Reiman, Jennifer (June 1996). "The Naked Truth". Prism Online. Archived from the original on June 21, 2016.
- Egelko, Bob (August 9, 2007). "O'Farrell Theatre dancers win fight against nightly cash quotas". San Francisco Chronicle.
- Brenneman, Richard (April 23, 2004). "Muralist Marks a Vivid Life On Local Walls". Berkeley Daily Planet.
- Taylor, Charles (October 9, 2001). "Strip City". Salon. Archived from the original on May 7, 2009.
- Alff, Shawn (March 4, 2013). "Getting inside Dana Vespoli". Creative Loafing.
- Lysa Thatcher on IMDb