The Mitchell sister

Can a woman's touch at the top help change San Francisco's sex industry?

Meta Jane Mitchell Johnson and brother Justin Mitchell (left) now run the Mitchell Brothers O'Farrell Theater

Porn heiress Meta Jane Mitchell Johnson is running a little late when I arrive at the Mitchell Brothers O'Farrell Theater, the adult entertainment establishment her father Jim Mitchell and uncle Artie Mitchell founded on the edge of the Tenderloin, just blocks from City Hall, July 4, 1969.

Johnson, 32, recently became co-owner of the theater and invited me over to discuss her vision for this notoriously hardcore strip club and the challenges she faces in an industry dominated by the Déjà Vu corporate strip club chain, in a town whose political leaders are still trying to figure out how best to regulate the clubs to ensure that their predominantly female workforce is properly compensated and protected from harassment in safe, sanitary conditions.

A young guy on the front register ushers me into a side room. The walls are decorated with photographs that recall the people and players who have made this club such a storied San Francisco institution and a landmark in the history of the sex industry.

There's an image of a topless Marilyn Chambers, the star of Behind the Green Door, the porn film the Mitchell brothers shot and screened at the theater in 1972 and was a major hit after it became known that Chambers was also the wholesome face on Ivory Snow soap flakes box.

There is a photo of Artie with a young raven perched over his shoulder. It was taken in 1990 during a trip to Aspen, Colo., to support gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, who worked at the club in the 1980s and was facing serious charges, including sexual assault and possession of drugs and explosives, that eventually got dropped.

Another shows both the Mitchell brothers, photographed when they were still young and rakish and battling the vice squad, even as they entertained the local political elite.

Today the brothers are dead, Artie from bullet wounds inflicted when Jim shot him with a rifle in February 1991; Jim from a heart attack in July 2007. And now Jim's oldest son, James Mitchell, 28, is in jail awaiting trial for allegedly beating his ex-girlfriend Danielle Keller to death with a baseball bat in July 2009 and abducting their baby daughter, Samantha.

Unlike his father, who continued to run the Mitchell porn empire after serving less than three years for voluntary manslaughter, James is facing life behind bars.

"He is charged with six serious felonies and is facing life imprisonment with no possibility of parole," Marin County Deputy Chief District Attorney Barry Borden said recently. Johnson told me that her brother no longer owns stock in Cinema 7, the corporation the Mitchell brothers founded to oversee their burgeoning sex business.

This latest family tragedy occurred in the wake of a $3.74 million class action suit that was settled in 2008. Brought by three MBOT dancers, the suit led to valid claims by 370 dancers who complained about Cinema 7's "piece-rate" wage system. Under that system, the club compensated dancers solely for the number of private dances performed, waived meal and rest periods, and failed to reimburse dancers for costumes, props, and makeup.

Since then the club ended the piece-rate system, but introduced chips customers must buy to procure lap dances and encounters in small, curtained private rooms. On a recent night, the girls at the O'Farrell Theater remained smiling and bright-eyed as they succeeded in getting some customers to purchase chips for lap dances and private encounters. But the rest of the crowd remained largely silent and mostly tight-fisted as customers watched the club's exotic dancers perform on its disco-balled stage.

All of which left me wondering if Johnson can succeed in overcoming her family history and reputation to make a difference for her workers and community while facing a nationwide recession in an industry dominated by an out-of-state chain.



Couldn't this story waited till after the June elections. Right now PG&E is spending $32 million dollars while the stalwarts at NO ON 16 are operating barely on $80,000. Surely this is more worthy information to post on your front page; It should be done in a clever way perhaps with a cartoon or photographs appropriate and engaging. Got to be some creative folks in SF who would like to do that - I hope.

Sure, those of us in the know - know how to vote on it. But there are thousands who might not realize that PG&E is about to crush public power forever. The non-progressive media does a good job of hiding that or keeping us entertained with meaningless drama. .

You have missed a good opportunity to have that message on the front page in hundreds if not thousands of newspaper racks throughout the city, as a constant visual reminder of what we are up against. The Guardian which has always supported public power has missed an important opportunity this time to help the team out. We need your help

Posted by Guest on May. 19, 2010 @ 2:34 pm

Hi "Guest,"

Not that I want to further a conversation that has nothing to do with the Sarah's excellent cover story, but I just want to fill you in on the fact that the Guardian has covered Prop 16 extensively in recent months. We were the first publication in the state to write about Prop 16, in the summer of 2009, before PG&E's signature gatherers even began hitting the streets, and we have continued writing about this topic right up until the present. Below are links to a mere fraction of the Guardian's Prop 16-related articles. To hear you talk about a "missed opportunity" really makes it sound like you are discrediting all of the hard work we have put into these stories, not to mention the incredible amount of time and effort Sarah has put into this piece.

Posted by rebecca on May. 19, 2010 @ 3:01 pm

Also, Rebecca will have a story on Prop. 16 and PG&E next week and, as usual, we'll have our Clip Out Election Guide on the cover, prominently featuring our "No, no, no!" endorsement on Prop. 16, as voters go to the polls. And to echo Rebecca, don't let the need to defeat Prop. 16 stop you from taking a few minutes to read Sarah's excellent story.
Steven T. Jones
SFBG City Editor

Posted by steven on May. 19, 2010 @ 3:13 pm