The O’Farrell Theatre, San Francisco landmark and ground zero of the adult entertainment revolution, has closed.
One of the less reported casualties of the Covid lockdowns has been the sex industry. Not so much the sex workers, some of whom moved from the real world to online camming, but the businesses that relied on attracting paying customers to venues now closed. The strip clubs, the swinger venues and other businesses that have battled the forces of morality for decades and more recently had to negotiate endless legislation designed to cause death by a thousand cuts now found that they were facing a more insurmountable issue when all clubs were shuttered. It’s notable that even when the lockdown was lifted, nightclubs remained closed, and so sex entertainment venues have now found themselves shut down for most of the year, with no bailouts on offer for such disreputable businesses – if anything, the moralisers and prohibitionists will be rubbing their hands with glee at seeing them closed and struggling. It’s unsurprising that some have decided to throw in the towel.
In Britain, the beleaguered Sheffield Spearmint Rhino – which had only just managed to fend off a relentless attack from feminist groups who were trying to have the club closed – finally threw in the towel a couple of weeks ago, no longer able to survive as a business. Also in Sheffield, long-established swingers club Le Chambre – which had survived years where it was essentially an illegal operation to become almost respectable – also closed down, the venue costs no longer sustainable. And now, in San Francisco, a more important venue has also just bitten the dust. The O’Farrell Theatre was opened by Jim and Artie Mitchell as a porn cinema in 1970 and had moved with the time through live sex shows, striptease and lap dancing, surviving against the odds through moral panics and legal battles that often set a precedent that benefitted the entire American sex industry. Now, it is gone, a Covid casualty.
Admittedly, the theatre had been on its last legs for some time; Covid simply sped up the demise, with gentrification being the main villain here. After the death of Jim Mitchell in 2009 (eighteen years after he shot his brother dead in circumstances that remain murky), the writing must have been on the wall. While the business was taken over by his family, there seems to have been little enthusiasm for it as anything other than a cash-cow, and Jim’s son James was himself convicted of murder in 2011 after beating his ex-girlfriend to death – no ambiguity about this killing. Rocked by family scandal, the theatre had long since seen its heyday as a hipster hangout and world-renowned sexual Disneyland fade into history.
Yet the O’Farrell was more than just a sex theatre. It was a San Francisco landmark, the last surviving reminder of the glory days of the sexual revolution. The place where the Mitchells premiered their hugely important film Behind the Green Door, a venue that Hunter S. Thompson went to investigate and ended up working at for a few years. The mere existence of the O’Farrell, a little like the Raymond Revuebar in London (now also long gone) seemed an act of defiance – no matter what the changing moral mores, the legal (and sub-legal) attacks from opponents and shifting legislation, these venues stood proud. No one cares, because after all, it’s just smut and hardly worthy of respect even if it is part of history. If the O’Farrell becomes just another faceless nightclub or chain store, no one will object, just as no one objects to Soho becoming nothing but faceless coffee houses, hipster bars and restaurants. But these are hugely important places that are being swept away, and we should mourn their loss. Nowhere becomes more interesting once it stops being a sex venue.
The sex industry that existed and evolved from the 1960s through to the end of the 20th century is essentially dead, replaced by a porn business that is only related tangentially, and each time once of these surviving old-timers – a sex cinema here, a strip club there – closes its doors for the last time, we move further away from those maverick, revolutionary days. The sex industry is, of course, bigger than ever; but it has lost its rebelliousness, its ambition and its sense of outrage. Modern porn is entirely corporate, and that’s not an improvement.
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