The pornographer's daughter was only 10, in fourth grade at an East Bay school, when her teacher asked if her father was one of the infamous Mitchell brothers.
The girl said he was, and the teacher, with an expression that made her look like she had swallowed a live earwig, opined she was totally and completely opposed to pornography and those who made it. Only she used stronger words than that.
"She made me feel like I had done something wrong," says Liberty Bradford Mitchell, daughter of Artie Mitchell. "I didn't like to lie." Mitchell, who wound up studying performing arts in a New England prep school and at Cornish College in Seattle, is back in the Bay Area to promote her solo show, "The Pornographer's Daughter," which is getting its world premiere through Feb. 16 at the Z Space performance complex in San Francisco.
She didn't like to lie, but Mitchell also learned growing up that, as Oscar Wilde wrote in "The Importance of Being Earnest," "the truth is rarely pure and never simple." And that especially applied to life in the turbulent world of the Artie and Jim Mitchell, characterized by pornography, violence, drugs, booze, legal battles and fame.
Liberty Mitchell, now based in Los Angeles, knew fairly early on she had to write something about her father and his brother, stars of the burgeoning San Francisco porn scene of the 1970s and '80s. San Francisco had already hosted the Summer of Love and was ground zero for the Age of Aquarius, the anti-war movement, and just about everything else that would annoy the uptight "I Like Ike" generation.
The Mitchell Brothers were just a couple of ambitious kids from Antioch with movie cameras and film-class knowledge from San Francisco State and Diablo Valley College, interested in making it in the movie business. They saw big dollar signs in porn and set up business in San Francisco. They opened the O'Farrell Theatre, screened their movies, and produced "Behind the Green Door," one of the first full-length porn movies to attract a commercial audience. And it received a standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival.
For Jim and Artie Mitchell, the green behind the green door was cash, and lots of it, along with the trappings of fame in the fast lane -- booze, drugs, women, crazy hours and the sort of rudderless rush to nowhere that happens when the likes of Hunter S. Thompson calls your joint "the Carnegie Hall of Sex."
The Mitchell Brothers had to fight a constant barrage of obscenity charges -- more than 200 cases, by one count -- and were frequently suing those who'd made cheap copies of their porn movies. Still, says Liberty Mitchell, there was plenty of money for the brothers to expand their empire into a chain of theaters. They seemed to have a Teflon-esque talent of sliding away from serious trouble and attracting famous and influential friends.
"They were almost too successful; they were savvy businessmen and instead of pure art, their business became porn," says Liberty Mitchell.
The bubble finally burst in late February 1991, when an enraged Jim, unable to deal with his brother's spiraling alcoholism and mental instability that was endangering the business as well as his own health, drove to Artie's house in Corte Madera and shot him to death with a .22-caliber rifle.
"You can love someone and still kill them," says Liberty, 43. "It's not pretty, but that reality has always existed. That's why they call it a crime of passion."
Liberty was living in Seattle, where she attended college, at the time Jim's trial started. She testified that she had discussed her father's alcoholism with her uncle and told him she was "really upset about Dad."
Liberty, now "amicably divorced" with two children, has made a career in writing, including stints for television, and a job as an artist educator in Los Angeles. She says she has long had the story of being the pornographer's daughter in mind -- first as a book, then a play, then a movie script, then, after discussing her life during a women's conference, a one-woman show. The show is augmented by photos of the family and its endeavors and a soundtrack of 1960s-'80s songs performed live by San Francisco band the Fluffers.
"It's a huge story, the Mitchell Brothers story with so many stories," she said. "That's why I chose to tell my story of growing up in a family, in the O'Farrell Theatre, San Francisco, in the '70s and early '80s, surviving my father's death and emerging as a fairly functional human being."
She admits being more empathetic toward her own parents after becoming a parent. And she sees a bit of irony that the era of porn and hedonism that flourished when she was growing up yielded to the emergence of the AIDS threat that was raging when she came of age.
"I grew up," she says, "and now sex can kill you."
Contact Pat Craig at email@example.com.
Written and performed by Liberty Bradford Mitchell
Through: Feb. 16
Where: Z Below, 470 Florida St., San Francisco