The Mitchell Brothers: Sex, Murder, and a Pioneering Video

Last week, we met a tony British murderer and poseur. Our crime journey this week takes us to San Francisco, California, where we meet the infamous Mitchell brothers. Jim and Artie Mitchell established a porn empire in 1969 that took porn mainstream.

The Mitchell Brothers Discover Porn

Jim Mitchell was a part-time film student when he took a job at the Follies theater. He noticed that the short films with little or no plot but copious on-screen nudity often drew a full house. This gave him the idea that porn might be a profitable business.

On July 4, 1969, Jim and brother Artie, recently discharged from the U.S. Army, opened the O’Farrell Theater. It was to be a combination strip club and adult movie theater. They chose a run-down building at the corner of O’Farrell and Polk streets near San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. Artie’s wife at the time, Meredith Bradford, put her Ivy League education to use helping the pair.

The Mitchell Brothers, Jim (L) and Artie (R)  in 1977
The Mitchell Brothers, Jim (L) and Artie (R) in 1977

Starting with the theater’s upstairs room and later expanding into an additional location, the Mitchell Brothers began making pornographic movies. Even their fans conceded that their films were mediocre at best, if not outright terrible. The lack of artistic quality didn’t bother the brothers and they kept making movies.

A recent photo of the Mitchell Brothers O'Farrell Theater
A recent photo of the Mitchell Brothers O’Farrell Theater

A Stunning Success and an Equally Stunning Flop

In 1972, the Mitchell Brothers produced a feature-length porn picture, Behind the Green Door, staring an unknown actress named Marilyn Chambers. Chambers had previously been the model for the box cover of Ivory Snow detergent. The juxtaposition of Chambers’ wholesome image on soap boxes with her new identity as a porn icon was great publicity. It also sent staid Procter & Gamble, makers of Ivory Snow, scrambling to pull boxes with her image off store shelves.

The Mitchell Brothers, Artie (L) and Jim (R) at the O'Farrell Theater in 1989
Artie (L) and Jim (R) at the O’Farrell Theater in 1989

Behind the Green Door cost $62,000 (in 1972) to make and grossed $25 million. The Mitchell brothers used profits from it to fund a series of additional adult films. Their last major film was Behind the Green Door: the Sequel. This film starred Artie’s girlfriend, Missy Manners (real name: Elisa Florez), who had no experience with acting or public sex. Furthermore, this was a “safe sex” film in response to the burgeoning AIDS crisis. The result was one of the worst adult films ever made. Washington Post writer Michael J. Ybarra wrote that “[the] movie—a smorgasbord of latex and lubricants—proved to be just as unsexy as the concept sounds.”

The Mitchell Brothers’ Deadly Showdown

Being in a hedonistic business, it isn’t surprising that the Mitchell brothers enjoyed partying. But Artie took partying to an art form. His alcohol and cocaine consumption were prodigious. Friends and associates demanded that Jim “do something” about an out-of-control Artie.

On the night of February 27, 1991, Jim took a .22 rifle to the rented house where Artie lived with Julie Bajo, his girlfriend at the time. In the encounter, Jim shot and killed Artie. Bajo called 911.

Jim’s trial for murder set a legal precedent. The court allowed the prosecution to present a 3D animated video “recreation” of the shooting to the jury. Jim’s defense attorney attacked this early version of virtual reality. However, its success led to the use of similar videos in subsequent trials. It’s perhaps ironic that Jim, who made a career of producing movies, faced video evidence in court.

Jim Mitchell on the witness stand during his trial for murder.
Jim Mitchell on the witness stand during his trial for murder.

The jury rejected the murder charge and instead convicted Jim of voluntary manslaughter. He was sentenced to six years in prison.

Epilogue

Jim Mitchell served three years in San Quentin. He was released in 1997 and returned to run the O’Farrell Theater. He died in 2007 of an apparent heart attack at age 63.

Jim’s son, James “Rafe” Mitchell, was convicted of murdering his ex-girlfriend with a baseball bat in 2011. His daughter, Jasmine, became addicted to methamphetamines and was arrested in 2014 for her alleged part in an identity theft ring.

Marilyn Chambers tried, largely unsuccessfully, to cross over into mainstream films before returning to porn acting. Years of alcohol and drug abuse led to her death at age 56 in 2009.

Marilyn Chambers in 2008
Marilyn Chambers in 2008

The Mitchell brothers case inspired two non-fiction books: X-Rated by David McCumber (1992) and Bottom Feeders by John Hubner (1993).

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