What began as one of many seedy adult-movie houses in the Tenderloin in 1969, the O'Farrell Theatre soon grew to prominence as its owners launched a booming porn production business and spruced up the theater into what Hunter S. Thompson famously dubbed "the Carnegie Hall of sex in America."
Now, the club is no more. As Hoodline reports this week, the family of the late Mitchell Brothers have decided to close the place for good following the extended pandemic closure, and longtime dancers and DJs at the place were just informed in the last couple of weeks.
DJ Ben “Dewey” Herndon, who had been the afternoon DJ at the O'Farrell Theatre for the last six and a half years after previously living out of his car, tells SFGate that "COVID was just insult to injury." He says the staff had known the place was on borrowed time for about the last three years — and the 13,000-square-foot club had been on the market, without a buyer, since October 2018. But, Herndon says, "We were hoping to at least get a couple more years in."
Famous patrons in recent years included Justin Bieber and Trevor Noah, according to the staff. And dancers there are lamenting the loss of what they say was a family, of sorts.
A 35-year-old dancer who goes by the name Juliana tells SFGate that she'd been working at the O'Farrell since she was 18, for the last 17 years. "We all kind of grew up there in a sense," she says. "We went from being teenagers up to no good to women with purpose. It’s a sisterhood I’ve never experienced with any other job I've ever had."
The place has a storied history, as Hoodline explains, having spent its first few years screening ever more revealing adult films as obscenity laws were being challenged around San Francisco. (The story of the late performer Carol Doda and the Condor Club in North Beach figures into this, as well.) According to the 1992 book X-rated: The Mitchell Brothers: A True Story of Sex, Money, and Death, club founders Jim and Artie Mitchell were involved in nearly 200 lawsuits involving obscenity. And with the help of money they made in the booming early days of adult filmmaking, they fought them all and helped establish court precedents that ultimately became the law of the land across the country — and helped create red-light districts in many other cities.
The 2011 short film Smut Capital of America talks about this period in San Francisco, when Dianne Feinstein was just a local anti-porn activist (before becoming a supervisor and then mayor), though the teaser below does not specifically touch on the O'Farrell.
Their most famous adult film, 1972's Behind the Green Door, made a star of a then-20-year-old Marilyn Chambers, and became the second-highest-grossing adult film of all time, making over $50 million after costing only $60,000 to make.
Below is a video that includes a KPIX clip of Chambers speaking about raids on porn theaters around the Bay Area in 1973, following one of the Mitchel Brothers' court wins.
The Mitchell Brothers famously posted Dianne Feinstein's personal telephone number on their marquee saying "For a Good Time Call..." after the SFPD raided the O'Farrell in 1980 and arrested 14 patrons and staffers on prostitution charges (they beat the charges).
And, in 1991, their story would take another infamous turn when, after a lengthy struggle with alcohol and cocaine led to some erratic behavior by Artie, brother Jim Mitchell went to his Corte Madera home and fatally shot him. Jim would end up serving only three years at San Quentin for voluntary manslaughter (he claimed the shooting was an accident while he was pleading with Artie to seek treatment) before being released — and he would later settle multiple wrongful death suits from Artie's children. Jim Mitchell died in 2007.
The Mitchell Brothers' story was turned into a Showtime movie in 2000 starring brothers Charlie Sheen and Emilio Estevez.
According to Curbed, at the time that the club went on the market, Jim's daughter Meta had taken charge of the business. Via an expired listing on Loopnet, the assessed value of the building and property is $9 million, and it's unclear if it ever found a buyer.