Can a woman's touch at the top help change San Francisco's sex industry?
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.
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."
As a nude strip club, Mitchell Brothers' O'Farrell Theatre stands in direct competition with Crazy Horse on Market Street and the Déjà Vu-owned clubs including the Market Street Theaters, Gold Clubs and other spots in SoMa, and most of the clubs in North Beach. The exception is Lusty Lady, the only unionized, worker-owned peepshow in the country.
"If you walk into the Gold Club in San Francisco, well, there are 50 other Gold Clubs in the country, so, it's generic," Johnson says. "But they've got their business model. We're not trying to copy Déjà Vu or Crazy Horse. We're the Mitchell Brothers. It's been part of us and our whole history."
Dancers agree that the Lusty Lady isn't in competition with Déjà Vu.
"They're Walmart, and we're the mom and pop store on the corner," Lorelei*, a dancer at Lusty Lady, said. "At the Lusty, we pride ourselves on being alternative and having tattoos and piercings."
Some dancers, who we've indicated with an asterisk after their altered names, voiced fear of being identified as critics of Déjà Vu's business model.
"If Deja Vu found out I was shit-talking them I would probably get fired and be blacklisted from all their clubs," Sugar* said. "If I were to get blacklisted, I'd be totally screwed because there are no other clubs in San Francisco," where she doesn't feel pressure to do more than dance, "which is not my thing."
"Or the Lusty Lady, which doesn't pay enough to cover my bills," she continued. "But Deja Vu is notorious for being a terrible company to work for, mainly because of their outrageously high stage fees."
Other dancers say they had to pay stage fees at the Déjà Vu-owned Hungry I, and sometimes went home empty-handed after eight-hour shifts when uninvited touching was common.
"The number one thing that would improve our work experience is if someone actually forced Deja Vu to stop charging us stage fees," Amber* said. "Almost no one outside the industry knows that dancers pay money to go to work. A lot of customers think the clubs pay us, like, thousands of dollars. In San Francisco we pay between $100–$200 per shift, sometimes more."
By law, dancers have the right to choose employee status, versus being considered independent contractors. "But that's a joke," Amber added. "If we choose employee status, we're required to do a minimum of 10 lap dances per shift. The club keeps all that money, and we would get paid $12–$15 an hour."
But Edi Thomas, counsel for Déjà Vu's Centerfolds club, flatly denies that the dancers who perform at Centerfolds (the only nightclub in San Francisco authorized to operate as a "Deja Vu Showgirls" club) pay stage fees.
"Rather, entertainers who perform at Centerfolds (and/or at Hungry I, the Condor, and Market Street) are paid a substantial percentage of the patron revenues generated from individual dance sales," Thomas stated.
"The entertainers are issued Forms 1099 at year-end, reflecting the amounts they were paid by the nightclub," she said, which means the dancers are independent contractors, not employees. "These nightclubs operate within the law and make every effort to assure that entertainers are well compensated and perform in safe and lawful environments.
"There are, as in any industry, former and disgruntled workers carrying a desire to harm a nightclub or the industry for their own personal reasons," Thomas added. "But those workers do not represent the voice of the majority."
When the Mitchell Brothers founded their empire, it was against a backdrop of organized crime trying to exercise a monopoly on the porn industry. According to a 1977 U.S. Department of Justice report, members of La Cosa Nostra tried to request exclusive distribution of Mitchell Brothers' porn films.
The Mitchells resisted for years, but DOJ claims they eventually entered into a contract with LCN's Michael Zaffarano to distribute "Autobiography of a Flea." the Mitchells also fought City Hall.
During the 1980s, Mayor Dianne Feinstein's vice squad tried to close the Mitchell Brothers' operations. But under Mayor Willie Brown, the former attorney for late Déjà Vu strip club owner Sam Conti, SFPD enforcement reportedly eased.
Then in 1997, Déjà Vu started to take control of the city's sex clubs, introducing stage fees and private rooms. In 2002, three former MBOT dancers filed their suit against Cinema 7. The next year, three other dancers brought suits against Market Street Cinema and Century Theater. And in 2005, Deja Vu settled a class action labor suit with its dancers. Attorney Greg Walston, representing the dancers, said at the time that minimum pay rate would protect dancers from being forced into prostitution to make money.
Deja Vu threatened a counter-suit based on the allegations of prostitution at their clubs, but Walston told reporters: "The record speaks for itself." Walston used police reports with prostitution allegations to bolster his case and said he was doing the job the District Attorney's Office should have done.
In July 2008, when MBOT reached its $3.74 million class action settlement, Cinema 7 president Jeffrey Armstrong said that the corporation was "not able to pay the entire amount up front." Instead, Mitchell matriarch Georgia Mitchell and her business partner John P. Morgan, then cotrustees of the Jim Mitchell 1990 Family Trust, which holds two-thirds of Cinema 7's shares, pledged stock certificates as security interest.
But the debate about how to treat sex work in San Francisco continues. In November 2008, District Attorney Kamala Harris and Mayor Gavin Newsom opposed Proposition K, a local measure that tried to decriminalize prostitution by forbidding local authorities from investigating, arresting or prosecuting sex workers. They argued that the measure would increase prostitution on the streets, give pimps cover, and hamper efforts to stop sex trafficking. The measure failed.
At the time, Prop. K advocate Carol Leigh and cofounder of the Bay Area Sex Workers Advocacy Network said, "We feel that repressive policies don't help trafficking victims, and that human rights-based approaches, including decriminalization, are actually more effective."
Today, erotic dancers must identify which of a tangle of regulatory entities is the appropriate venue to lodge complaints. District Attorney spokesperson Erica Derryck said Harris is dedicated to prosecuting violent crimes committed against all San Franciscans, regardless of whether they happen in a club or an alley.
"If there are two drug dealers and one attacks the other, we'd prosecute. But that's not to say there won't also be consequences for underlying criminal behavior too," she said. "But anyone who has been victimized should be confident of going to the police and reporting any incident."
Derryck said public health and safety complaints can be lodged at entities that provide permits and licenses, including the Planning Department and Entertainment Commission.
"There might not be any criminal activity involved, but this route hits clubs in the pocket and is worth considering if dancers want to represent their grievances," she said.
Meanwhile dancers say there is still pressure to do more than just dance in some clubs. "For some dancers, the clubs feel fine," Lorelei says. "It's a safe space where no ads are needed. They see it as a fair exchange. But if you just want to dance — when one girl is doing this, and another that, how are you supposed to make money?"
Other dancers wish managers wouldn't abuse their power. "Sometimes they back you up," Amber said. "Other nights, someone insults you and they won't help." And many wish management would try to make the clubs fun again.
"It used to be a party, but now it's about the cheapest dirtiest fuck you can get," Lorelei said. "Taking stage fees created a dark environment that carries over to the customers. It's like we're goats in a petting zoo begging, saying give me money, give me coke."
Attorney Jim Quadra, who represented the dancers in the MBOT class action suit, said that for all the talk about treating dancers right, the Mitchells' interest was money.
"At the time, a group of people thought the agenda was to get dancers to do more than dancing because that's what brings in the revenue," Quadra said. "But Meta comes off much better than the rest of her family."
During the trial, Jim was asked if there were meetings where Cinema 7 personnel defined what they meant by a "lap dance" in the piece rate system.
"You need a lap for a lap dance," Mitchell replied. "You are getting down to like, you know, lap dance, erotic theater, America. And your question is like just a waste of the public's slender resources, like drop[ping] a basketball in the ghetto and asking, 'Did you define what that is for them?'<0x2009>"
Johnson, who voluntarily took the witness stand, was asked if there was any reason dancers would be afraid of her father. "He can be a little gruff and he can be cranky, a grouchy old man," she replied.
Today Johnson is moving ahead with a vision she began to outline in 2007, then put on hold until December 2009, when a law suit about the family trust fund was settled.
"We settled everything out of court in December with my grandmother, which was a nice Christmas present," she says, confirming that she and her siblings succeeded in removing their 83-year grandmother, Georgia Mae Mitchell, as trustee of the Jim Mitchell family fund. They replaced her with their mother, Jim Mitchell's ex-wife, Mary Jane Whitty-Grimm, who also has custody of James's baby daughter, Samantha.
"Danielle's mother has some personal problems ... that made the court reluctant to give her custody of the baby. so they gave Samantha to Mary, who is a nice woman, who is married with a family," former San Francisco D.A. Terence Hallinan told me, after James Mitchell replaced him with another private criminal defense attorney, Douglas Horngrad, in March.
In court filings related to the family trust fund, Mitchell matriarch Georgia Mae claimed her grandchildren's lawsuit was intended to deny her jailed grandson James his share of the trust to defend against his serious felony charges.
"Justin asked me to take money out of the trust account of his brother James, and send it to his mother instead of paying his criminal defense attorney, Terence Hallinan," the Mitchell matriarch claimed.
I asked Hallinan if the trust fund was the reason James Mitchell changed attorneys. "Yes and no," Hallinan said. "It definitely had to do with money and who was going to run the club. The poor grandma, she is such a nice person. She was trying to play fair and be nice to all the kids. It's not a really healthy family. 'Rafe' [James] is where he is. In my opinion, he is still not clear what happened or why."
Johnson, for her part, says her brother James has mental health issues. "I don't accept what he did," she said. "I'm not making any excuses for it. He's either insane or he's a monster. But the family has an obligation to make sure he has legal defense. He was always a beneficiary of the trust. But he fired his lawyer, which is the worst thing he could have done."
A restraining order Keller secured five days before she was murdered claims Mitchell abused her for years, had mood swings, used cocaine, and was addicted to methamphetamines.
"Danny should have left," Johnson said.
"It's been painful to read the comments people leave," she continued, referring to online reaction to her brother's arrest that suggest the Mitchells are bad seed and should be wiped out. "It's not because James is a Mitchell, or because there's some bad gene."
Rather, she said he had serious unaddressed problems, "a time bomb that was going to explode and then it did in just about the most horrific way imaginable."
"When I was 13, my father shot my uncle Artie. And when I was 31, James killed Danny," she adds. "So I hope I don't live to be 103."
In 1985, the O'Farrell Theater's marquee famously read, "For show times call ... " followed by Mayor Feinstein's phone number. But that was another era.
"I don't know Dianne Feinstein," Johnson says, as she shows me a cartoon R. Crumb drew in 1985 of then-Mayor Feinstein as Little Bo Peep, with a bunch of men, including political and law enforcement leaders, peeking out from under her skirts. "I know my father was never very fond of her. And I'm sure her reasons for wanting to shut the club down were based on the idea that women are being exploited and that we need to save them."
Johnson says some of their dancers are single moms; some are young girls who can't get enough work at retail jobs to pay their bills; and others are college students and graduates.
"There are as many stories as there are dancers. But the stereotype is that dancers are being exploited and have to be protected because they can't protect themselves and no one really wants to dance. But when I came through the club door, I realized that many women want to do this and get upset if people try to save them. Some people feel that working in a strip club is bad, wrong, dirty. No. But it can be if you are pushed into it and don't want to do it."
Dancers the Guardian spoke to confirmed that they dislike being framed as victims. "When we are painted as victims, we look stupid," Lorelei said. "All we want is to make sure that folks are following the labor code and providing the same basic, decent working conditions you'd get if you were working at a coffee shop."
But dancers know that some people are titillated by the idea of women being taken advantage of. "They don't want that fantasy to go away, that she's really a good girl and doesn't want to do it," Lorelei said. "If it turns out we are not traumatized, horrified, or disenfranchised, it ruins the whole fantasy."
She fears that political leaders know bad things are happening but don't want to talk about them for fear it implies they are permitting them. "The attitude is these women aren't real, they are sex workers, so if they get raped or go missing, who cares?" Lorelei claimed. "We can't admit they are the babysitter, the girl who sits next to you at the office."
When Johnson began working at MBOT, she was shocked that the dancers were naked. "But no one is forcing anyone to be here," she says. "Sure, some women dance out of necessity. But there are women who are really into it ... What's bad is the exploitation."
It's hard to tell from the outside whether the MBOT dancers are feeling better about their working conditions these days or whether having a woman in charge makes a big difference.
On a recent Saturday night, we were charged $40 to enter the club. The ticket gave us access to the theater's main stage, where a succession of ethnically diverse and athletically built girls pranced, pole danced, and eventually took it all off — in tasteful fashion — as the customers threw tips on stage.
A friendly girl asked if we'd like some company but backed off gracefully when we declined to do more than chat. No one else tried to hustle us for the next hour, and we didn't get the sense that these women were desperate to make more money. The private rooms remained empty during our visit. But there are VIP rooms that we didn't have access to, and it's possible more hardcore stuff was going on elsewhere in the club.
As we left, a tour bus pulled up outside, full of tourists who pressed their noses against the bus windows to eyeball the famed Mitchell Brothers establishment, drawn just to gawk at this titillating and complicated San Francisco institution.
Johnson and Mitchell believe their club gives women a path to financial independence and that having a female in charge makes a difference. "They don't need a man," Johnson says. "In most strip clubs, the pay is all under the table, and the girls keep cash in shoe box under the bed."
"Dodging the IRS," Mitchell adds.
But they recognize that some dancers may be coming from abusive situations. Johnson said she realized one dancer was in trouble when she asked to be booked for every shift. "I looked at the situation and saw 16-hour days in stilettos and an exhausting schedule. It took a woman's insight to work out what was going on."
"It goes back to a woman's touch, " Mitchell says.
Johnson blames this nation's puritanical roots for the abiding disapproval toward the sex industry and those who work in it.
"But it's come a long way," Mitchell interjects." When this place first started, it got raided non-stop. Now it's much more acceptable than 20 years ago. In the next 20 years, I'm optimistic that prostitution will be decriminalized, at least in our city, if not in our state."
So is prostitution happening as much as some dancers say it is? "You can't penalize people for surviving," Johnson says. "What dancers do outside clubs is their business. We don't have control over them. All we can do is worry about them. We don't condone illegal activity inside the club. We don't encourage or support it. That's our official take."
Johnson acknowledges the O'Farrell Theater may have the reputation for being perhaps the most hardcore club in the city. "But everything that happens here, happens elsewhere," she says. "It's the same exact deal except they don't care at all, and we're a family-run business."
Mitchell observes that the O'Farrell Theater is huge part of the city's tourism industry. "When conventions come through, we're one of the prime tourist spots, along with Fisherman's Wharf and the Golden Gate Bridge," he said.
"San Francisco is known for its freewheeling sexuality, like the Folsom Street Fair," Johnson adds. "People say San Francisco is Oakland's slutty sister. And people come here because this club is an institution, a landmark in San Francisco."
So can Johnson make a difference against this convoluted backdrop?
"It's a benefit to have a female in management," Johnson claims. "When we come up with an idea, I think: How will the dancers feel? We're on the same team. I treat them like teammates. We're not in a battle over who gets the most money. I can see through things. Women manipulate men, and dancers are in the business of manipulating men. It's a sale. It's a hustle. They have that mindset. But I say, no, you don't need to make up situations. You just tell us what's up. But that's not the normal attitude. In most clubs, it's 'Shut up, do what we say, and pay your fees.'"
Johnson says she was recently at the AT&T store, and the girl asked where she worked. "I said, at a strip club. People find that incredibly interesting. This girl was 23 and she was not comfortable with the idea of dancing, but at the same time she was fascinated by it. And it's not going away, women dancing and stripping, You can hate it; you can love it — it doesn't matter."
After so many years on the San Francisco scene, MBOT is striving to be a legitimate part of its neighborhood and the city's business community. And to Johnson, some of that involves unfinished business.
"Lou Silva was the artist who did the original mural of whales on the club's wall. That's what I remember as a child. My dad and uncle were connected to that community and the underground comic movement in the late 1970s. They made money, they wanted to spread the love around, so they did a giant art project on the side wall. And a couple of years before my uncle died, they started to redo it. But the project stopped when my uncle was shot. We are going to bring the whales back. We're working on it with an Academy of Art class. It will be far more peaceful and calm than a crazy jungle scene on the wall. We want to redo whales to demonstrate that we are interested in more than just sex and exploitation. We want to be connected to our community again."
Noting that the new mural is part of the beautification of Polk Street, Johnson concludes: "The mural on the wall is unfinished because of Artie's death. Now it's time to finish it, not to have unfinished art on the wall because of some horrible, violent incident. It's an investment to show we are not the Mitchells everyone thinks we are."