Mitchell Brothers O'Farrell Theatre is a striptease club at 895 O'Farrell Street near San Francisco's Tenderloin neighborhood. Opened as an X-rated movie theater by Jim and Artie Mitchell on July 4, 1969, the O'Farrell remains one of America's oldest and most notorious adult-entertainment establishments; by 1980, the nightspot had become a major force in popularizing lap dancing, which would become the norm in strip clubs nationwide. The late journalist Hunter S. Thompson, a longtime friend of the Mitchells and frequent visitor at the club, claimed to be its night manager in 1985 and called the O'Farrell "the Carnegie Hall of public sex in America" and Playboy magazine praised it as "the place to go in San Francisco!"
At the O'Farrell, employees (including managers) must adhere to a strict dress code: black bowtie, white shirt, black slacks and shoes. These sartorial requirements were implemented in 1986 when the O'Farrell's general manager, the late Vince Stanich, observed that all of his male doormen, cashiers and ushers were dressed differently (and often not altogether presentably).
The Mitchell brothers' hit porn film Behind the Green Door premiered at the O'Farrell in 1972, with the brothers' parents in the audience. The Mitchells produced and directed (and occasionally made cameo appearances in) many others of varying lengths, with mixed commercial and critical success.
In the 1980s, newly elected Mayor Dianne Feinstein walked into the O'Farrell and said, "I want to check this place out." Jim Mitchell, in the lobby at that moment, reportedly said, "Sure, if you buy a ticket." Feinstein walked out. Soon after, raids occurred, ostensibly to restore safety and health of exotic dancers and resulted in obscenity charges being filed against the Mitchells. The brothers, apparently not lacking a sense of humor, changed their marquee to read, "For showtimes, call..." and displayed Feinstein's unlisted phone number.
In the early 1970s, the theater would stop its adult features at midnight on Wednesdays, and then re-open as the 'Nickelodeon,' with five-cent admission and free popcorn. The audience of young hippies would be shown movies such as Marx Brothers or Abbott and Costello, Yellow Submarine, or other counter-culture favorites, all non-pornographic, with much communal drinking and marijuana smoking, and general carousing. Inspections and disruptions by the fire department and police were common, but the shows usually went on to three in the morning or later.
The theater featured sex shows on stage until the courts ordered them to discontinue doing so. As well, the dancers in New York Live! originally were nude as they sat on customers' laps, but a judge instructed the O'Farrell's management to ensure that the girls, when doing lap dances, at least wore brassieres and underpants. Spontaneous onstage lesbian sex acts are still common at the O'Farrell (many of the dancers are gay or bisexual).
The Mitchell brothers supported various cartoon artists, and when the 1984 Democratic National Convention was held in San Francisco, they opened the second floor of the O'Farrell to a group of underground cartoonists covering the convention for the San Francisco Chronicle.
On February 1, 1985, the theater was raided by a dozen police officers during a performance by Marilyn Chambers (the star of Behind the Green Door); the District Attorney declined to press charges. Police later retaliated against a journalist who had suggested that the raid occurred to derail an ordinance that would have stripped police from rights to license adult theaters.
Over the years, the Mitchells had to defend themselves in over 200 court cases involving obscenity or related charges. They were always victorious, represented by aggressive counsel (Michael Kennedy, then Artie Mitchell's wife Meredith and, following her dismissal, the late Tom Steel and his law partner Nanci Clarence).
Hunter S. Thompson claimed in his 2003 book Kingdom of Fear that he had worked for a while as night manager at the club, an assertion repeated in some news articles..
In February 1991, the theater entered the news after Jim Mitchell shot his brother Artie Mitchell dead. Michael Kennedy defended Jim Mitchell and convinced the jury that Jim killed Artie because the latter was psychotic from drugs and had become dangerous (Artie had recently threatened to throw a Molotov cocktail into the O'Farrell; his brother, in 1996, established the "Artie Fund" to raise money for drug-abuse prevention). Jim Mitchell was sentenced to six years in prison for voluntary manslaughter and released from San Quentin after having served half his sentence, in 1997. Today his daughter Meta, 28, is the O'Farrell's general manager. (See the article on the Mitchell brothers for details.)
Following the fratricide and its legal aftermath, two Bay Area reporters wrote books about the Mitchell brothers and their pornography empire: X-Rated by David McCumber (1994) and Bottom Feeders by John Hubner (1995). In those books they portrayed the O'Farrell Theatre as a mirrored house of sleaze in which perfumed, bikini-clad predators roamed the aisles to hustle greenbacks from customers too shy or ugly to get girls any other way. Upstairs, the managers' offices were a model of inefficiency, with the Mitchells and their friends spending each day taking drugs, drinking beer and playing pool.
During the celebrations for the O'Farrell's 30-year anniversary in 1999, burlesque star Tempest Storm, by then in her 70s, danced on stage. Mayor Willie Brown declared a "Tempest Storm Day" in her honor. Marilyn Chambers returned to perform in the theatre on July 28 1999 in what Willie Brown dubbed "Marilyn Chambers Day."
In 2004, two similar San Francisco clubs (the New Century Theater and the Market Street Cinema) were visited by undercover police officers and some dancers allegedly propositioned them for prostitution. The dancers were cited for prostitution and the managers for operating a brothel. The assistant manager at the Market Street Cinema told the police to investigate the Mitchell Brothers O'Farrell Theatre. All charges were later dropped; these days, the authorities seem not to mind what transpires between the customers and dancers as long as it remains discreet.
When San Francisco's Commission on the Status of Women proposed in 2006 to ban private booths and rooms at adult clubs because of concerns about sexual assaults taking place there, several O'Farrell dancers spoke out against the ban.
As of 2006, Meta Mitchell continued running the O'Farrell; legal representation is provided by former San Francisco Supervisor and two-term District Attorney Terence Hallinan.
After the 1998 case, the O'Farrell changed the performers' payment structure again: they posted a "suggested" fee of $20 per lap dance and $40 per private performance and set a "quota" of $360 per woman per night; the women were allowed to keep half the quota plus all tips. However, it has been recorded on some occasions for lap-dances to cost around the mark of $240. Dancers claimed feeling pressured into paying $180 per night even if they had earned less than that amount, and another 370-plaintiff class-action suit began in 2002. In 2007, a judge ruled in favor of the dancers, declaring the quota system illegal and requiring the O'Farrell to pay any amounts employees could show they paid to fill their quotas, minus any amounts the employer could show the dancers had collected but failed to report. The O'Farrell was also ordered to reimburse dancers for required theme-oriented costumes.