The Mitchell Brothers’ O’Farrell Theater, the central hub of San Francisco’s pornographic past, is going back to its roots and hosting entertainment that doesn’t involve nude women dancing.
Since December, the theater’s CineStage has hosted Manarchy, an all-male dance revue put on by Jesi Ring O’ Fire, and hosted by local poet and performer Wonder Dave. This year the theater expanded its offerings to include other Wonder Dave-curated shows, such as Sex Fail Storytelling, described as “an evening of tales of sex and romance gone hilariously wrong,” and Jokes and Jocks, a night of comedy and male dancers.
Though the shows still include dancing and nudity, the dancers are generally men and dancing isn’t the focus. Wonder Dave told KQED that the venue is “looking to become a more inclusive space.” And because the space hosts adult entertainment, it provides more leeway for onstage material, according Wonder Dave.
“Doing a show in strip club provides a lot of freedom for performers to take things a little further than they might be able to in a bar or nightclub. Burlesque performers don’t have to wear pasties, Comics and storytellers don’t have to worry about their material being ‘too sexual,’ he said.
Opened in July of 1969, the O’Farrell Theater was a former Pontiac dealership that Jim and Artie Mitchell converted into a movie theater where they could show their nude films, or “nudies.” Along with a 200-seat theater, the brothers built an in-house movie studio, where they filmed Behind The Green Door, their first feature-length film. Released in 1972, the film was the pornographic debut of adult star Marilyn Chambers and reportedly made the brothers as much as $80 million.
Though intended for viewing pornographic films, the venue also hosted other types of entertainment in its early years. Following the success of Behind the Green Door, O’Farrell projectionist Vince Stanich asked the Mitchells if he could show experimental and underground films like Reefer Madness at the theater after midnight, one night a week. The Mitchells loved the idea and gave Stanich the go-ahead to show movies on Tuesday nights; admission dropped from a quarter to a nickel and the night was dubbed “The Nickelodeon.” Later, two other employees — Debbie Marinoff and Denis Larson — put together a theater troupe called the Nickelettes, later shortened to the Nicks, who performed bawdy songs and humorous stage acts before the movies.
Though the Nickelodeon was popular, the Nicks’ were openly and fiercely against pornography, which did not align with the Mitchell brothers’ vision. Jim Mitchell shut down the Nickelodeon in 1973, claiming the event drew the wrong kind of attention from authorities. The Nickelettes continued to perform at other venues for many years.
The brothers converted the O’Farrell into a live nude entertainment venue in the ’80s, and it would become ground zero for the future of stripping. They instituted changes such as allowing dancers to enter the crowd and ask for tips, thereby making hundreds of dollars on top of their hourly wages. It’s credited for helping popularize, maybe even birth, the lap dance.
Wonder Dave says the theater has already been hosting karaoke nights with no nudity, and he plans to host a non-nude literary event sometime later this year. But Meta Jane Mitchell, Jim Mitchell’s daughter and co-owner of the theater, says that the theater is not “moving away from our established form of entertainment: Beautiful women taking their clothes off on our main stage.”
“That is still happening, in full force and isn’t going anywhere. The “new stuff” is IN ADDITION to our current lineup,” Mitchell wrote in an email. “The theater is a large building, with a lot of real estate. These special shows are going to be taking place in our essentially underutilized Cinestage. And in no way interferes with or inhibits the ladies on the main stage.”
Mitchell also says that there is a lot of benefits to performing in a space like the O’Farrell Theater, with a “no holds barred atmosphere.”
“There is a large and vibrant community of artists, whose chosen form of expression is through erotic performance,” Mitchell said. “Every other venue in the Bay Area has rules and regulations regarding how far they can go, and how much clothing they can remove. Here at the Mitchell Brother’s we have no such limits or boundaries, which allows their artistic expression to flow unencumbered.”