The Mitchell sister

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

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Meta Jane Mitchell Johnson and brother Justin Mitchell (left) now run the Mitchell Brothers O'Farrell Theater
GUARDIAN PHOTO BY CHARLES RUSSO

sarah@sfbg.com

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.