Artie Mitchell and his brother Jim Mitchell were pioneers in the production of pornographic films and "adult entertainment" in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. They also founded the O'Farrell Theater on San Francisco's O'Farrell Street. Hunter S. Thompson, a regular customer who once was employed as the night manager of the porno palace, praised it as "The Carnegie Hall of public sex in America."
The younger of the two, Artie Jay Mitchell was born on December 12, 1945, in Lodi, California. He was raised in Antioch, California. His father, J.R., was a gambler, a vocation accepted by his mother, Georgia Mae. It was an ordinary upbringing in a blue-collar town, except perhaps for that fact that when the brothers were children -- they were inseparable from the beginning -- their parents would sometimes cook roadkill for dinner. It was an environment they wanted to escape.
Jim went off to the-then San Francisco State College, while Artie was drafted and did a stint in the army. At State, Jim matriculated in the film program, dreaming of becoming the American Jean-Luc Godard, who had revolutionized film narrative as part of the French New Wave. Needing money, Jim became a "pin-up" photographer, which consisted of approaching girls and offering them five or ten dollars to pose topless for his camera. It first happened at San Francisco's Ocean Beach, when he walked up to a pretty, bikini-clad gal and propositioned her.
He sold his photos to local porn purveyors at a profit. Soon he was directing short sex films known as "loops", as the films, many less than three minutes, would play continuously in the burgeoning peep show theaters. For each loop Jim charged up to $100.
Next came "nudies," very short exhibitions of nudity and simulated (if not real) sex shot on 16mm film and shown at down-at-the-heels movie theaters in decaying neighborhoods like the Mission. These short nudies, which dispensed with the plot that drove the high-grossing movies of American auteur and smut king Russ Meyer, had men lining up around the block to see them. Because of the sexual revolution the Bay Area (and the country as a whole) was undergoing in the late 1960s, there were many good-looking California girls interested in taking part in his films, all in the name of freedom, unbridled expression and sexual liberation.
Jim dropped out of S.F. State's film program in the late 1960s, offended by a professor's criticism of his student work. In 1968 film censorship had officially died (the industry Production Code was replaced by the self-policing ratings regimen of the MPAA) and the mainstream barriers against sexually explicit film began dropping as rapidly as a porno actress' bluejeans. While there was not as yet any hardcore feature-length films, the liberalization was felt in the fringes of the grindhouse circuits by the transition from softcore forms featuring discreet nudity and then full-frontal nudity to hardcore porn loops and ten-minute shorts featuring actual intercourse, the so-called "Tijuana" stag flicks, since hardcore porn until that time time could only be seen -- outside of a gentleman's "smoker" -- in a "legitimate" theater in outposts such as that Mexican city across the border from San Diego.
The films were shot on the cheap with student-caliber 16mm cameras. Jim and his associates created grindhouse nudies and hardcore cinema with the pretensions of student filmmakers, but when Artie partnered with Jim, the pretensions to art were dropped in favor of churning out product like sausages for their O'Farrell Theater, which was opened on Independence Day, 1969, located on the site of an old Pontiac automobile showroom. The San Francisco Police Department raided the theater shortly after it opened, and obscenity charges were filed against the Mitchell Brothers, but there were many left-wing lawyers ready to defend them and their First Amendment rights in late 1960s San Francisco.
In the sybaritic confines of the O'Farrell Theater, the Mitchell Bros. pushed the envelope on what was acceptable fare for exhibition and were arrested for obscenity numerous times. It was a much more liberal era, and the courts generally leaned toward expanding adults' rights to view films of their own choice. Beating the raps made them well-known in California and gave them a countercultural allure they reveled in, as well as making them rich. By 1971 they decided to make a feature film and show it at their own theater (for the auteur Jim, a feature film also was a logical next step). Behind the Green Door (1972), one of the classics of the genre, is based on an anonymous GI novella that used to circulate in barracks after WWII (and was the subject of a hit song in the 1950s that non-military types did not understand). Arguably the best reviewed porno film ever, the movie was dreamed up by ex-GI Artie and shot by Jim on a $60,000 budget.
The boys were lucky, their success a case of being in the right place at the right time, a place and time where the in the best American entrepreneurial spirit, the wages of sin were handsomely rewarded. Some estimates place the film's gross at almost $30 million (accurate porn film grosses are hard to ascertain due to the involvement of organized crime in the exhibition segment of the genre; true grosses were seldom reported, since the Mafia always skims much of the receipts directly into their pockets, but the film did make the list of the top 20 grossing films of 1972 in "Variety"). It also launched the career of adult film superstar Marilyn Chambers, one of the less-than-a-handful of porn actors to appear outside the genre in mainstream films under their own name.
The Mitchell Bros.' parents were in the audience at the O'Farrell for the "Green Door" premiere, during which the movie's reels were accidentally shown out of sequence. No one seemed to notice or care. "Behind the Green Door" was a huge hit, second only to Deep Throat (1972) as a "sin cinema" sensation. It played to packed movie houses in major cities across the country, and was even exhibited at the Cannes Film Festival. Lady Luck smiled on the Mitchell Bros., and luck definitely had a hand in the success of the film. By coincidence, Ivory Snow detergent debuted a new box design featuring a young mother holding her infant. The materfamilias on the box happened to be none other than Marilyn Chambers, concurrently revealing her own box in the Mitchell Bros.' latest adult extravaganza.
Though it was Artie's idea, the finished film featured a return to Jim's art house pretensions, but this time it worked. There is a surreal quality to "Green Door" that makes it work as both pornography and a film, something that other porn films relying on more conventional narrative to create redeeming social quality (in order to avoid getting busted) failed to achieve. The film is, arguably, the best reviewed of its genre, and likely is the best porno film ever made, and has been called the Citizen Kane (1941) of its genre.
"Behind the Green Door" was a major success on the West Coast, and eventually was shown in New York and other East Coast cities, but without any profit to the Mitchell Bros., as they were ripped off by the Mafia, which made its own bootleg prints and showed the film in its own theaters. As porno was still legally suspect, and the power of the Mafia was very real, there was little that the Mitchell Bros. could do to fight back. They opened up their own chain of 11 theaters on the West Coast to keep from being ripped off by local "wiseguys".
Sicne it was the time of the "auteur", when cinema theory held film to be the work of the director, Jim Mitchell got the lion's share of the laurels (the loot was split 50-50). Since he had come up with the idea, Jim's "success" made Artie resentful, fueling the resentment often felt by younger brothers towards their older sibling. The Mitchell Bros. continued to make feature films, including their less successful, quasi-sequel Resurrection of Eve (1973), also featuring Marilyn Chambers. Jim's pretensions sank their investment in Sodom and Gomorrah: The Last Seven Days (1975), the older Mitchell brother's attempt to become a porno Cecil B. DeMille. Too much money was spent on the production (as much as $750,000) and too few box office receipt came in from the East Coast (where the porno circuits were controlled by the Mob, which was an organization averse to splitting the take with anybody; they would bootleg copies of the film and keep all the money for themselves, as "Deep Throat" director Gerard Damiano found out--he "traded" the profits for "Deep Throat" to the mob in exchange for his life) for it to make a good enough profit to justify the time and money.
After "Sodom and Gommorah," Jim's filmmaking ambitions died, though the brothers continued to make films into the 1980s (they were self-deprecating about their films. "The only Art in this business is my brother," Jim claimed). The brothers felt contempt for the talent that appeared in their movies, referring to the males as "meat." After the 1970s the Mitchell Bros. essentially turned themselves into panderers offering live sex entertainment. Once again, they were pioneers.
The Mitchell Bros. didn't invent lap dancing; New York's Melody Theater featured strip shows with audience participation on- and off-stage during the 1970s. The Mitchell Bros. introduced lap dancing to San Francisco in 1980 when dancers at the O'Farrell Theatre were encouraged to come down from the stage and sit, nude, on the laps of audience members for tips. The innovation put a whole new face on sexual entertainment in the city. Suddenly, for a $1.00 tip, guys in the audience could enjoy contact with a real, live girl. Always the innovators, the Mitchell Bros. succeeded in tearing down the fabled "fourth wall" of theater, fusing fantasy and reality (it started a revolution in adult entertainment that still resonates, with the proliferation of high-class "gentlemen's" clubs in the 1990s--lap dancing had become the nation's predominant form of live, adult entertainment).
As their next step, the Mitchell Bros. put on live sex shows at the O'Farrell Theate until the city, backed by the courts, outlawed it. San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein had a bee in her bonnet for the O'Farrell Theatre during her administration, and after one raid closed down the establishment, the Mitchell Bros. placed this notice on the theater's marquee: "For show times call Mayor Feinstein at" followed by her home telephone number.
The Mitchell Bros. produced Behind the Green Door: The Sequel (1986), a paean to safe sex starring Artie's new girlfriend, Missy Manners, but they were essentially through as movie impresarios (some publicity was gained by the fact that Miss Manners, whose real name was Elisa Florez, had been an aide to Republican Senator Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, one of the country's major right-wing "moralists"). The film was not a hit, and the theater increasingly was the focus of the Bros.' business.
Both Artie and Jim were hard partiers, but Jim managed to clean up his act in the late 1980s and hoped that Artie would follow his lead. Artie, however, had no interest in giving up his lifestyle. The brothers were drifting apart in a fundamental way, though they worked together and their families were close. Once Artie, Jim and three of their children had to be pulled from high surf, trapped by the undertow, by the the San Francisco Fire Department Cliff and Surf Rescue Team. The team members were given lifetime passes to the O'Farrell.
On February 27, 1991, Jim shot his brother Artie to death in what he claimed was an intervention gone wrong. Going to Artie's house in what he had planned to be a pitch to make Artie wake up and save himself by entering a drug rehabilitation plan, Jim slashed the tires on Artie's car before entering the house with a rifle and pistol. After arguing with Artie, Jim shot him to death while Artie's girlfriend was on the phone to police. Four months later, after getting out of jail on bail, Jim hosted a massive wake party for Artie at the O'Farrell. Jim reportedly is in pain to this day, and likely will be for the rest of his life, having killed - as he put it - his mother's baby and the father of his nieces and nephews. He also had killed his business partner and long-time best friend.
Some of the dancers at the O'Farrel claim that the place is haunted by Artie's ghost, that he can be seen in mirrors, or in the faintly lit nooks and crannies in the theater, glowering at the girls. Thus, a man who captured the spirit of the age like flickering lightning in a bottle on film is now reduced to a spirit himself, a shade, haunting the haunts he made world famous a lifetime ago.
|Karen||(? - ?) (divorced)|
|Meredith||(? - ?) (divorced)|
Shot to death by his brother, director Jim Mitchell.
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