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Remembering when San Francisco was ‘the Porn Capital of America’

headerLA and the San Fernando Valley didn’t used to be the capital of the porn industry. It used to be San Francisco, back when porn movies were real movies shot on real film and shown in, well, “real” theaters. San Francisco was the first city in the US to show a hardcore film with penetration, kicking off the “the Golden Age of Porn” in the 1970s where tourists would flock from across the nation just to jack it in San Francisco’s unparalleled early array of adult movie theaters and live sex show palaces. Back then, most cities did not have these wonderful things!

Of the three most popular, highest-grossing pornographic films of all time, two of them were shot in San Francisco (“Behind the Green Door”, “Resurrection of Eve”). Both films made more than $25 million — and this is in 1972 and 1973, mind you, when movie tickets cost like a dollar. These Mitchell Brothers movies established San Francisco as the capital of the US porn industry for a brief period before the industry shifted to southern California.

It all started in 1969, back when you couldn’t show fucking in a movie. A local filmmaker named Alex de Renzy hatched an Eddie Haskell scheme to show penetration  on film, but in a documentary called “Pornography in Denmark”. He claimed that since it was a documentary then it had artistic value, therefore he should be allowed to show fucking. The courts bought it, de Renzy premiered the film at his seedy Tenderloin theater  — a location that is now the Power Exchange  — and people stood in line for hours to see it. This would effectively legalize the showing of penetration onscreen, and San Francisco was off to the races at becoming a porn-making and porn-watching mecca.

The “Smut Capital of America”

Mike Stabile’s 2010 documentary “The Smut Capital of America” (watch it above!)  tells the rollicking and hilarious story of San Francisco’s early days as the US’s first legitimate porn hotbed. You absolutely must watch this 16-minute documentary short, if for no other reason than to hear John Waters tell firsthand stories of his glory-hole adventures at a Tenderloin bar called The Hungry Hole.

“Much of the porn made in SF during the 70s — the ‘Golden Age’ — involved performers who’d come to Northern California for the radical Summer-of-Love-inflected culture,” says Carol Queen, co-founder and director of the Center for Sex and Culture. “This made it especially easy for filmmakers to find people who were willing to make movies, and it gave SF films a certain feel that other sites of porn moviemaking didn’t have.”

The 1996 book Grindhouse: The Forbidden World of “Adults Only” Cinema puts it a different way: “Haight-Ashbury’s cultural influence on San Francisco was directly responsible for that city emerging as a hotbed of hardcore filmmaking in the early 1970s,”write authors Eddie Muller and Daniel Faris. “There seemed to be an endless supply of groovy hippy chicks wearing nothing but flowers in their hair, who’d have sex on camera in exchange for some really good dope.”

The Mitchell Brothers Era

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“Behind the Green Door” poster, 1972

The most successful San Francisco pornographers of the 1970s  were Jim and Artie Mitchell of the still-rocking Mitchell Brothers O’Farrell Theater theater, the venue directly responsible for the legalization of lap dancing. In the 70s, the joint was a strip-club-slash-adult-theater. The blockbuster porn hit “Behind the Green Door” was filmed there, your typical story of a wealthy San Francisco socialite who gets group-sexed by a gang of lesbians and then gangbanged on a trapeze. The film became a blockbuster international phenomenon and grossed more than $50 million.

Porn legend Nina Hartley remembers her early dancing at the theater. “I did the amateur contest at the Mitchell Brothers O’Farrell Theater and worked there once a week,” Ms. Hartley tells BrokeAssStuart.com. “I loved it there. I was the only dancer who didn’t mind if a guy came on my leg while doing a lap dance.”

All this porn, fucking and coming-on-legs drew the ire of a schoolmarmy, conservative SF Board of Supervisors president named Dianne Feinstein. You’ve perhaps heard of her.

San Francisco Becomes “The Smut Capital of the United States”

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“Inside Marilyn Chambers” premiere poster, 1975

By 1971, more than 30 theaters were showing hardcore films in San Francisco. (Two of them were “all-bestiality” theaters!) Dianne Feinstein led the charge against the proliferation, complaining to the New York Times that year that porn “has spread so drastically in San Francisco that we have become kind of a smut capital of the United States.”

The phrase stuck, and Feinstein had no idea she’d just coined the local sex trade’s new marketing slogan. Her anti-porn efforts were a free publicity bonanza for the Mitchell Brothers. Every time Feinstein complained about their theater in the news, the Mitchell Brothers would make thousands of dollars more because tourists flocked to see this supposedly lurid place.

“Back in the 70s, the city went after the Mitchell Brothers via Dianne Feinstein,” recalls Center for Sex and Culture co-director Robert Morgan Lawrence, “They sent in police undercover to experience these things called ‘lap dances.’They brought the dancers in and charged them and were taking them to court. It ended up in the court of Judge Isabella Grant. Isabella Grant, in essence, told the city ‘These women are not doing anything there’s a law against. Why did the police department spend all this money to get their crotches rubbed against by young women?’”

“The one woman I’d heard who pled out was assigned the duty of doing more activism to allow dancers to have their jobs,” Lawrence said. “It was a big slap in the face to the city of San Francisco at the time. It secured the right to do lap dances in San Francisco.”

The Porn Industry Goes Down to LA

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“Inside Little Oral Annie”, 1984

The invention of the VCR effectively killed off the notion of pornographic ‘feature films’ like “Behind the Green Door”. The industry shifted to cranking out as many films as possible in a day,  with new technologies like handheld video camera and VHS machines to mass-duplicate the tapes. Cheap production became king, and the business evolved that more than 90% of porn was being shot in the San Fernando Valley.

San Francisco had lost its crown. But engineers were working on a curious new technologies called ARPANET and Telenet that could beam pictures and video produced by amateurs. This technology would be eventually become what we now call the Internet.

”It was 1990 or 91 when I was invited down to [major software design company based in Mill Valley whose name is redacted] after hours and the assistant showed me their major technology,” Robert Lawrence remembers. “You could see two people fucking on a bed with their address to contact them.People were saying, ‘Here I am, come have sex with me.’ The first thing they  were doing online that digitized video was sex video. That hasn’t changed.”

Streaming Video Brings Porn Back to San Francisco

“When the adult industry moved to LA, it lost its free-wheeling creative energy as the gears of business efficiency transformed it from a cultural and creative movement into a well-honed product,” says “Marriage 2.0” producer Magnus Sullivan.

Iconoclastic Bay Area adult filmmakers like Kink.com and the people behind “Marriage 2.0” have used the Internet as a way to distribute their work and innovate new frontiers in kink and porn on film.

“When I set out to make ‘Marriage 2.0’, I decided to anchor the film in SF not only because the city is the center of the alternative relationship movement, but because SF, due to the unique sex culture here, is one of the only places capable of doing something really interesting and important within the context of adult cinema,” Sullivan said. “This movie could not have been made in LA or New York. It is entirely San Franciscan, and I hope it is the beginning of a resurgence in creative, relevant adult filmmaking.”

This article is sponsored by ‘Marriage 2.0’, the groundbreaking new erotic drama now streaming online.

This article was also made possible by historical assistance from the Center for Sex and the St. James Infirmary. Please consider making a donation to them via the “Marriage 2.0” benefit page!

 

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Joe Kukura- Millionaire in Training

Joe Kukura- Millionaire in Training

Joe Kukura is a two-bit marketing writer who excels at the homoerotic double-entendre. He is training to run a full marathon completely drunk and high, and his work has appeared in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal on days when their editors made particularly curious decisions.

  • you missed out on the entire queer porn subset that has been operating out of the bay area for over 10 years – my company TROUBLEfilms and Shine’s company Pink & White Productions have been making features, full-lengths, big budget, films here since 2005. We also have enormous web presence and presence within the adult industry. paul deeb didn’t just like, come around and dig up a shallow grave – there’s been real porn industry happening here all along and it’s not just Armory business! <3

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