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from www.sfgate.com – As a child, Liberty Bradford Mitchell sat through one of her dad’s rough-cut porn movies. As an adolescent, she was given her first safe-sex talk by her dad’s girlfriend – a porn star.
Then, at age 20, on Feb. 27, 1991, she learned that her father, Artie Mitchell, had been slain by her uncle, Jim Mitchell.
“Murder was a bigger stigma than pornography had ever been,” she says.
Such was the life of Bradford Mitchell, whose father and uncle operated the Mitchell Brothers O’Farrell Theatre in San Francisco and produced one of the first feature-length porn movies, “Behind the Green Door,” starring Ivory Snow model Marilyn Chambers. The 1972 film made the brothers tens of millions of dollars and got them invited to the Cannes Film Festival and minted as porn kings.
Bradford Mitchell is now 42, living in Los Angeles and mother to two children, ages 11 and 7. She has a new one-woman show, “The Pornographer’s Daughter,” which will premiere in March at a theater in Venice (Los Angeles County). She is in talks with a major network television producer to write a miniseries and hopes that her multimedia show will find a home onstage in San Francisco, where the story takes place.
Pioneers of porn
In an opening line of the new production, which will incorporate music and video, Bradford Mitchell says, “I was born a Leo in the summer of 1970. My parents were hippies who dropped way too much acid before naming their children.
“They emerged as pioneers of the porn industry, became millionaires, and poured a lot of money into Mercedes, marijuana and cocaine, lap dances, poker games and high jinks.” The theater was called “the Carnegie Hall of public sex in America” by writer Hunter S. Thompson, who worked as night manager at the strip club while researching a book he never completed.
Bradford Mitchell has her dad’s face and eyes and the mellow mien of her post-hippie upbringing. But her edge is sardonic, befitting a woman who grew up “with G-strings grazing my nose,” who watched “Little House on the Prairie” at home and stopped by her dad’s “office,” the adult theater, after school. A woman whose father urged her to party and admonished her for being a “terminal square.”
Two days before her father was killed, Bradford Mitchell – a theater student at USC – came to San Francisco to organize an intervention. Her dad, whose nickname was “Party Artie,” had gone on the wagon on his own and was not doing well. He had been banned from coming to work because of his erratic behavior, which included shooting up the office dart board with his pistol.
Sitting in a cafe in North Beach, Bradford Mitchell recalls how her dad was trying to make changes in his life, and was working on opening a music club (which he had asked her to manage). He was talking about moving to Mexico to dry out for six months. Anytime a rock star or celebrity visited the Mitchell Brothers, Party Artie was expected to show them a good time.
“My dad was tired of the business, and at that point, it kind of ran itself,” she says. “He’d go and play golf and fish. But he was having a hard time with the drugs. I went to see Jim – it was the first time I’d ever sought his counsel, as he was always kind of a scary figure to us kids – and said, ‘We need to do an intervention.’ He said, ‘We can’t do it because of who we are. We are too well known.’ ” She thought the response was bizarre, but odd was the norm in her family.
Bradford Mitchell’s blue eyes well with tears remembering what happened next.
“My mom called and told me my dad was murdered – and by my uncle,” she says. “Jim had grabbed a rifle and a pistol, drove from his house at Ocean Beach to Corte Madera, where my dad was renting a house. He slashed my dad’s tires and went in and just started shooting.”
Her father always kept his doors unlocked and liked to say: “You never know when you’ll want to get out.” Her family was known to stockpile weapons, something Bradford Mitchell explains this way: “They were hippies who thought they would one day need to become revolutionaries.”
“My dad hears gunshots, and walks into the hall,” Bradford Mitchell continues. “His girlfriend (Julie) jumps in the closet and calls 911. A police car was nearby issuing a speeding ticket. Jim shoots my dad two times in the abdomen, my dad staggers to the bathroom, and Jim shoots him right in the eye.” Artie Mitchell was dead at age 45.
Jim Mitchell, who was apprehended at the scene, said he had gone there to do an intervention, insisting that if he shot his brother in the leg, he would have to go to the hospital and could then get treatment for his addictions. Jim Mitchell was convicted of voluntary manslaughter and sentenced to six years in prison. He was released from San Quentin in 1997, having served three years.
He returned to run the O’Farrell Theatre, at one point offering Liberty a job working next to him.
“I got a call from my grandmother – Jim’s mom – who said, ‘Jim wants you to know that Artie’s office is empty and he wants you to fill it.’ ” Bradford Mitchell responded, “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
Salvation in the theater
Sipping her latte at Caffe Trieste, she shakes her head. “There were situations like that where it was already surreal – your uncle kills your father – and then he offers you a job working with him. The sheer gall of it …”
Jim Mitchell died in 2007 from a heart attack, and his funeral was standing-room only. The theater is now managed by Jim Mitchell’s oldest daughter, Meta Jane Johnson, and her brother, Justin Mitchell. Another brother, James Raphael Mitchell, served as the theater’s director of film operations until he landed in prison in 2011 for murdering the mother of his child with a baseball bat.
“People say to me, ‘How are you so normal?’ ” Bradford Mitchell says with a wry laugh. “I got married. I have kids. A job. I have a sense of humor. Not everyone comes out of stuff like this. But the arts were always my salvation.”
Bradford Mitchell’s new stage show began to take shape when she was a freshman at the University of Southern California. She worked on it for years, and her screenplay made it to the finals at Sundance. But the project was shelved for a long period after college, as Bradford Mitchell focused on her children and marriage. And from 2004 to 2010, she worked for California’s first lady, Maria Shriver, producing her women’s conferences.
“I was humbled by the hundreds of women who shared their tales of survival – survivors of grief, addiction, rape, cancer and sex trafficking,” she says. “It made my life look pretty damn manageable in comparison.”
It also made her realize that as passive as her exposure was to pornography, it was always there – and it was in fact a form of sexual abuse.
“I remember one afternoon, I was maybe 6, when I was at the theater and I followed my dad into a screening room,” she says of her exposure to rough-cut porn. “I sidled up in a chair and sat cross-armed like my dad, staring analytically at the screen just like my dad. I remember my dad’s employee saying, ‘Should she be watching this?’ and my dad said, ‘She doesn’t know what she’s seeing.’ ”
Covering up for father
In elementary school, when other children talked about what their fathers did for a living, Liberty told friends, “My dad makes movies with naked people.” A teacher overheard her talking about it in the fourth grade and asked with disdain, “Is your dad a Mitchell brother?”
“I went home and talked to my mom about it,” says Bradford Mitchell, who was the oldest of three children. “I was living a suburban existence in Lafayette, coming to the city to see my dad. My mom said that people wouldn’t understand, and that it was OK to say he was a fisherman, which was partly true.”
Liberty’s parents had divorced when she was 6, and she lived with her mother, Meredith Bradford, a classic Protestant, East Coast WASP whose father was a surgeon and whose ancestors arrived on the Mayflower.
“I’m half blue blood, half blue movie,” she says.
As she grew older, she regularly lied to her friends and their parents about what her dad did. (Her mother became a lawyer and worked for the O’Farrell Theatre until Jim Mitchell fired her.) But in prep school – Liberty attended the Walnut Hill School in Massachusetts – and for a period in college, she discovered that her guy friends thought it was “truly awesome” that her dad had a strip club, and she and friends would hit the O’Farrell for nights of partying.
“It was always a lot of fun until the sun went down and the men turned into dirtbags propelled by herd sexuality,” she says. “I’ve never come to vilify pornography, but I’m not attracted to it. It’s like a good friend of mine whose parents have a barbell company, and he is totally out of shape.”
As an adult, she was determined to have a “normal life,” even dressing in Ann Taylor, she says, rolling her eyes. She met her future husband while studying at Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, from which she graduated after leaving USC. The two are now going through a divorce.
“I refuse to have my children grow up in the dark about what happened,” she says. “When my daughter started passing milestones, I’d be struck by how much I’d been exposed to pornography at that incredibly young age. That despite my parents’ love, there was much in our world that was unexplained and inappropriate.”
Providing model to children
Looking out the window at the steady rain, she says she has forgiven her parents for what she was exposed to. “My parents were not out to harm us. They were counterculture. The theater was opened on July 4, 1969, in this era of free love. They thought we didn’t understand what we were being exposed to, and that nudity can be considered art. Now, of course, that sounds ridiculous.”
“I felt like I had to tell my children about this story,” she continues.
“I want to model for my kids that you can always move on. You can’t live in shame.” Writing and talking about her life has started to feel good, she says.
Then, with a laugh, she adds, “My family has a lot of skeletons, and I’m putting them all out there.”