Gone With the Sin : Closure of Adult Theater in Santa Ana Reflects Trend Credited to--or Blamed on--the Videocassette Revolution

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The last picture show of its kind folded quietly a few weeks back, but don't expect any public mourning.

Oh sure, men who didn't get the word still walk up to the ticket window, only to be disappointed. And as they slink back to their cars, they don't want to give their names, don't want their pictures taken, don't want to rhapsodize over memorable films they watched in darkness.

That's because this was a porn theater, a raincoats-optional refuge for men on their lunch hour, or retired, or curious, or sexually depraved or deprived--a porn theater that brought them in by the hundreds every day for more than a dozen years, despite the fury of the neighbors and the politicians.

What the city of Santa Ana couldn't do in an 11-year, $700,000 battle, and what Charles H. Keating couldn't do before he became better known as the head of the financially troubled Lincoln Savings & Loan Assn., time did: It ate up the lease and closed the Mitchell Brothers theater.

On June 30, several hundred men--no one seems certain of exact numbers, but everyone seems sure that only men were present--viewed "The First Time," "Hot Lips" and "The Devil in Miss Jones IV." Then, with no fanfare, the theater closed, a relic of a bygone era.

The closing followed the shuttering in recent years of adult theaters in Long Beach, Huntington Park, Los Angeles and elsewhere. Once upon a time, Santa Ana had two adult theaters; now it has none. Orange County has two X-rated theaters left, both in Buena Park.

Los Angeles is down to about 13 adult theaters. "I think we've probably lost four or five . . . in the last year," said Robert Peters, a vice detective for the Los Angeles Police Department. Five years ago, the number was probably in the 20s, Peters said.

Ethel Fisher, who works for the firm that owns the Pussycat theaters, a major purveyor of X-rated movies, said the chain had 20 or so movie houses in Southern California in the early 1980s and is down to nine now. When one of the two owners died, she said, the other "just tired of them, I guess" and sold most of them off.

But part of the rationale for shedding the movie houses was economic, Fisher said: "We were losing business in a lot of the theaters that were closed up. And videotapes were the reason."

Videotapes and videocassette recorders are "the perfect delivery system" for X-rated films, said John H. Weston, a Beverly Hills lawyer who has argued sexual censorship cases before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Adult theaters "required people to watch very intimate communications in a quasi-public setting," Weston said. Now movies that are "more appropriate in one's bedroom or another room of one's home" are available for viewing in those rooms. "Also," he said, "(at-home) video is much cheaper, and you don't have to drive, and you don't have to pay parking, and you can get better, fresher popcorn."

As a result, said Weston, adult theaters are "as much an endangered species as the California condor--with less chance of survival."

Weston's experience reflects the change. An organization he represents once was known as the Adult Film Assn. of America; now it's called the Adult Video Assn.

The Adult Film Assn. of America estimated the number of adult theaters across the United States at 800 in 1979. Weston guessed that today no more than 50 are left, with even big cities like New York and Chicago down to only a few.

Weston said videotape was the main reason for the closing of porn palaces, but there were others as well.

Cities that lost court battles to close the theaters were able to use zoning restrictions, ruled constitutional by the courts, that prevented new X-rated theaters from opening. Oil shocks raised the price of heating a porn theater in the Midwest or East in the winter and of air conditioning it in the summer. Redevelopment razed blighted neighborhoods, the traditional home for adult theaters.

But video remains the chief cause.

The annual buyers guide of Adult Video News, a publication on the industry, says that in 1983, 8% of the releases were shot on video, with the rest shot on film. Last year, 97% of the releases were shot on video.

But "for every pound of porno that was in the market 10 years ago, there's 10 pounds now," said Jim Mitchell. He and his brother, Artie, make up the Mitchell Brothers, who ran the Santa Ana theater until it closed and who still operate adult theaters in Northern California, some of which feature live entertainment as well as X-rated movies.

The Mitchell Brothers took over the Santa Ana theater in 1975. What had been a neighborhood place showing movies like "Swiss Family Robinson" and "The Apple Dumpling Gang" suddenly began showing "Sodom and Gomorrah," a Mitchell Brothers-produced extravaganza that one writer labeled, because of its cost, "the 'Gone With the Wind' of American pornography."

The pastor of a church across the street helped spearhead opposition to the new films, and the city of Santa Ana filed its first lawsuit against the theater the next year. For more than a decade, the city shelled out hundreds of thousands of dollars in attorney fees in losing battles to shut the theater down.

For 11 years, a former Los Angeles Police Department vice officer attended every movie shown by the theater, getting paid $30 an hour to film the films, audiotape the dialogue and take notes so that a judge could review the movies and decide if they were obscene.

Several movies were indeed judged obscene, but no judge ruled the theater a "public nuisance," which would have let the city close it.

After a while, the Mitchell Brothers attorney wasn't even required to show up in court; he phoned in his objections to the city's lawsuits.

In 1987, after filing 47 lawsuits, the city threw in the towel, letting the theater continue to show X-rated movies and paying the Mitchell Brothers $120,000 in exchange for removal of the theater marquee that advertised the films. The city also paid $80,000 in fees for the Mitchell Brothers attorneys. After the suits were settled, the owners of the theater building said they would not renew the lease with the Mitchell Brothers when it expired.

Despite the city's action, Lincoln Savings & Loan Assn., then headed by millionaire anti-pornography crusader Charles H. Keating, filed a lawsuit of its own. The bank, which has a branch diagonally across the street from the Honer Plaza shopping center that contains the theater, lost its suit as well. (The federal government later took over the bank after it failed. Keating has been charged with fraudulently diverting depositors' money, although those allegations are not connected to the bank's suit against the theater.)

The most vociferous critic of the theater on the City Council was John Acosta.

That's not to say that Acosta is a prude. After all, he once judged a beauty contest and wound up pictured in Oui magazine as part of an article titled "Oui's Orange County Girlie Search . . . the biggest flesh hunt in Southern California history."

But Acosta didn't want an X-rated theater in his district, which is exactly where the Mitchell Brothers movie house was. So over the years he consistently held out against settling the lawsuits, until he was outvoted in 1987.

But after the lawsuits were settled, even Acosta lost track of the theater's status.

"When are they closing it?" Acosta asked two weeks ago, nearly a month after the theater was already shut. "Didn't they have another year or two to go (on the lease)?"

"I would just have to say good riddance to an ugly cancer in our community," Acosta added. "Frankly, I don't think Santa Ana has any use for those kind of theaters."

One man who did have a use for the theater walked up to the ticket window at noon one day last week and was clearly taken aback to see the banner reading "Permanently Closed."

"Did they move it?" he asked someone standing nearby. "It just says 'Closed,' nothing else." He shook his head, got in his car and drove away.

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