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300 mourn Jim Mitchell; respected by strippers as well as politicians

San Francisco- [SF Chronicle]- The major players in the phantasmagoria of pornography that once captivated San Francisco gathered one last time in the town of Antioch on Thursday to say goodbye to the man who turned eroticism into a political cause.

Jim Mitchell, who co-founded the Mitchell Brothers O’Farrell Theatre in 1969, was laid to rest next to his brother and business partner, Artie, whom he shot to death in 1991. It was perhaps the final irony of a unique and sometimes bizarre collaboration that grew out of the sexual revolution and swept to prominence in San Francisco in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s.

Mitchell, 63, died of an apparent heart attack on July 12 at his ranch in western Sonoma County.

About 300 mourners gathered for the memorial at the Higgins Chapel in the town where Mitchell grew up, and listened to songs, speeches and an impromptu justification for the slaying 16 years ago.

In the audience were former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, ex-District Attorney Terence Hallinan and political operative Jack Davis. Mingling near them were writers, porno movie directors and strippers young and old.

“We all owe personal liberties and rights to the brothers that they fought for on our behalf,” said Davis, who gained a bit of his own notoriety during his 1997 birthday bash, which featured a performance artist being sodomized with a bottle of Jack Daniel’s before a who’s who of local elected officials. “To be best friends with Artie and to be best friends with Jimmy was an extraordinary thing.”

The memorial was a kind of reunion for a family split apart by the death of Artie Mitchell. Speaker after speaker talked about both men, who were virtually inseparable for most of their lives.

“I spoke here 16 years ago, and it was very difficult because I was trying to talk about Art, but every time I tried to say ‘Art’ I kept saying ‘Art and Jim,’ ” said Jeff Armstrong, general manager of the O’Farrell Theatre, who had the same problem Thursday.

It was Independence Day 1969 when the brothers opened the theater, a series of rooms, stages and booths with mirrors and a collection of nude and seminude women flouncing around and, for the proper tip, performing sexual acts on one another. In a break from San Francisco’s burlesque traditions, the outside walls were covered with murals of whales.

The brothers produced a string of pornographic movies, including “Behind the Green Door,” featuring Marilyn Chambers, in 1972. It was one of the first porn films with a plot line, but the flick really hit it big when it was revealed that Chambers had worked as an Ivory Soap box model.

Their celebrity attracted many politicians, but not former Mayor Dianne Feinstein, who wanted their strip club shut down during her time in office in the late 1970s and 1980s. The battle resulted in the brothers obtaining Feinstein’s unlisted phone number and placing it on the theater marquee with the words, “For a Good Time, Call …”

It was one of what former Chronicle columnist Warren Hinckle called the Mitchell brothers’ “pranks and civic endeavors,” and his recollection of it during the memorial drew a big laugh.

“Jimmy never met a lost cause he didn’t love,” said Hinckle, his characteristic patch on one eye and pet basset hound at his feet. “He was one of the smartest and fastest-thinking guys I’ve ever known.”

Hanging like a cloud over the proceedings was the day in February 1991 when Mitchell kicked in the door of his brother’s Corte Madera home and shot him to death, a slaying that led to a spectacular trial and a three-year prison term for manslaughter.

His lawyer at the time, Michael Kennedy, talked Thursday about how Artie’s drug and alcohol abuse led to an attempted intervention by Jim, who figured he was heading off a police raid.

“Artie was the f — lunatic — he was doing more cocaine and alcohol,” Kennedy said. “Why in the hell would Jimmy want to kill his brother?”

Nevertheless, the manslaughter verdict saved Jim Mitchell’s life, Kennedy said.

“He felt so bad … if somebody hadn’t stepped in like that jury did, he would have killed himself,” Kennedy said, referring to the constant supervision and time for reflection Jim had as a result of the prison sentence. “Killing Artie changed his life.”

The memorial, to many in the audience Thursday, was the end of a glorious time of sexual freedom, political high jinks and fun.

“I lost my father when I was 10, and (Jim Mitchell) was a father figure in my life,” said Chandra Danine, 35, whom he helped get on her feet when she was young. She now studies photojournalism at UC Berkeley.

“He was a catalyst in my life, teaching me about life and men and relationships and love,” Danine said.

Several of Mitchell’s former employees said after the memorial that the sex emporium the Mitchell brothers started was like a home away from home.

“It was the best time of my life. They had to kick me out of there,” said Judy Foster, 40, whose stage name for the 11 years she worked at the O’Farrell was Katrina. “It’s so great growing up being a slutty girl and having a place to go and be accepted.”

“He was the best boss ever,” said a dancer who goes by the stage name Kimberly Rio. “He created a safe, classy environment and enabled many of the girls to do other things, like go to school and get degrees. I bought property.”

At the end of Thursday’s ceremony, Mitchell’s son Raef stood up and said that although his father had his faults, he was a man of his word.

“He always told me, ‘Son, I’m not the greatest man. I’m not perfect,’ ” Raef said. ” ‘Don’t try to be the greatest man. Just be a man.’ “

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