San Francisco is waiting for its Boogie Nights. Unbeknownst to Hollywood, our fair berg was the infant creche of hardcore pornography, spawning a subculture of porn theaters that thrived despite police harassment and political pressure.
We were number one! Luckily, a few brave men are resurrecting our porn golden age money shot – read on for a first look at documentary The Smut Capital of America and an interview with the director himself, Michael Stabile.
Smut Capital is by no means Stabile's first porn rodeo. The co-editor of Gay Porn Blog, he and Smut Capital editor-cinematographer Ben Leon are both mainstays in the SF gay porn scene. The two were researching their upcoming doc on the life of gay smut powerhouse Falcon Studios founder Chuck Holmes when Stabile came across a New York Times article that inspired the title of their new project, which is a work in progress for which the team is fundraising in order to release the finished film in 2011.
“Until then I'd always thought of it as an industry that emerged from LA, but San Francisco was actually the city that birthed the porno theater. It was the beginning of the sexual revolution, and in a lot of ways these directors were documenting this newly found freedoms.” Stabile attributes the renaissance to hippie women “with really no hangups,” a progressive zeitgeist that had seized the city in the late sixties and early seventies, and film processing studios that were willing to develop sexually explicit material. By the era's zenith in 1972, there were porno film theaters in neighborhoods across the city.
Not that everyone was down to get all that action on screen. Dianne Feinstein, first in her post as the city's first female president of the Board of Supervisors and then as SF's first female mayor, led a crusade focused on cleaning up the Tenderloin, which incidentally included sweeping the neighborhood free of its supply of adult movie houses. What ensued was an orchestrated harassment policy that different porn theaters dealt with in different ways.
Established theaters, Stabile says, actually benefited from the police and media persecution. “They'd come in with cameras, it'd be on the five o clock news and it would be great for them,” he says. “Advertising was very limited at the Chronicle. Feinstein would come in with her troops and would detail everything that was going on. Suddenly there was a way to talk about it, so people would flood into the theaters.” The Mitchell Brothers grew so adept at playing the cat and mouse game, he says, that they would post Feinstein's office number on their marquee under the words “call for a good time.”
But not everyone prospered. Smaller theaters that depended on a few workers to operate, like Alex DeRenzy's Screening Room, suffered when police would take key staffers on pointeless joyrides around town before booking them on charges of vice crime. Eventually factors like these, and more importantly the advent of video porn in the 1980s pulled the adult film business down to Los Angeles.
The move shifted the purpose of sex films away from their original role in the Sexual Revolution. Says Stabile “People were doing it here because they enjoyed it, because they wanted their own sexualities represented. It's not like that in LA for the most part, where even a lot of the gay studios are owned by straight men looking to turn a profit.”
But don't worry, the party's not over. One of Stabile's main goals with the film is not just to highlight good sex gone by, but that which cums and goes even today. When asked whether SF is still a presence in the world of porn, he had no equivocation. “Its one of the great untold stories in the local media – San Francisco has a huge porn presence. Raging Stallion, Falcon, Hot House – seven of the top ten gay porn studios are located up here, there's Kink.com, porn writers like Violet Blue,” he says.
It appears that the tech savvy and sexual freedom that led to our capital crowning are still alive and well on these city streets. Phew! Now you may now go back to your regularly scheduled local porn browsing.