The Mitchell sister - Page 2

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


THE UNLIKELY SAVIOR

Johnson greets me dressed in Ugg boots and jeans, apologizes for being tardy, and leads the way upstairs to the theater's office so we can talk.

I first met Johnson in 2007 ("Behind the Mitchell's Door," 07/22/09) when she arrived at the theater in knee-high boots, clutching a massive lime handbag and a tiny dog named Baby. During that first encounter, three months after her father died, Johnson confided that when she took over the office, it was full of dildos dancers had given the Mitchell brothers. Placing her dog on the pool table that dominated the office, she said she planned to massage all this male energy toward femininity.

Today it looks as if she has started to deliver on that promise. The pool table is gone. The sofa where Hunter S. Thompson used to sit remains in the room. But now a clothesline runs between the office walls, draped with a stripper's glove, stilettos, and a G-string emblazoned with the word "Gonzo," presumably in honor of Thompson.

"It was a little thing we made to give away," Johnson laughs.

She introduces her youngest brother and club co-owner, Justin. "Me and Justin are close. We are the owners and we are making some changes," Johnson explains. "We are making the prices more reasonable so customers don't have to spend an arm and a leg just to get a lap dance. And we're going to hold events like poetry slams. We are trying to make the club fun again. We definitely see a hit due to the economy, but we've also been hit by the decision from the class action lawsuit."

Johnson insists she and her brother aren't "your typical strip club owners."

"We're in a symbiotic relationship with our dancers," she says. "That sets us apart from other clubs. The dancers are our employees. We pay them minimum wage and workers comp. We cover their Healthy San Francisco costs. We incur a lot of expenses legally employing our dancers. But instead of crying about 'our handicap,' she said, referring to treating dancers as employees, "my goal is to show we can manage the club without a pimp mentality, without a 'How much can you shake them down for?' approach.

"A lot of our employees have been here a long time and have had to deal with all the painful violent stuff too," she continued. "And folks are still here, even though their hours got cut and they are not making as much money."

In 2007, Johnson told me that she resented the family business when she was growing up. "The boys could go inside, and I couldn't," she recalled. It wasn't until 2004, when she was working as a mortgage consultant in a cubical farm in San Ramon that Johnson began to take pride in the business "as something that had taken care of us through the years."

Johnson, who became the club's scheduling manager in 2005, recalls the shock of losing her dad in 2007. "It was like being dumped in icy water," she says. "At first we didn't know how to handle it. But we learned. Five years ago, I was much more liable to listen to advice. But I need to be able to fall asleep feeling good. That involves treating people a certain way. I don't think any other strip club in the country is being run the way this one is."

Johnson got married and went on maternity leave in 2008. " When my son was six months old, I came back for the club's 40th anniversary party and I realized, they need me both of us [she and her brother]— as owners, steering the proverbial ship. No one else wants to be held accountable. We never discussed selling. Our father built this place. It's completely shaped our lives. Good or bad, it's ours."