A Solo Show About Growing Up a Pornographer's Daughter
Liberty Bradford Mitchell has lived in L.A. for 15 years. She's the mother of two and a sometime yoga instructor who has dabbled in theater — acting and writing — on and off since college.
She's also the progeny of the Mitchell brothers — the notorious porn moguls who ran the Mitchell Brothers O'Farrell Theater strip club in San Francisco and produced adult films, including Behind the Green Door, the most famous '70s skin flick after Deep Throat.
In her recent one-woman show, The Pornographer's Daughter, Bradford Mitchell delved into the decades she spent on the edges of the X-rated business, its heady mix of sex and drugs culminating in the murder of her dad, Artie, at the hands of his brother, Jim.
The Mitchell family, she says, lived on society's fringes long before her dad and uncle were peddling sex — her Okie grandfather was a professional gambler. While at San Francisco State University, film student Jim started making dirty movies, soon enlisting Artie. In 1969, at the height of the free-love era, the two opened the O'Farrell, eventually adding live sex shows. A year later, Artie Mitchell and his wife, a lawyer, had their first child. Fittingly, they named her Liberty.
In her play, Bradford Mitchell recalls one of the countless trips she made to "the office" — the strip club — where, as a child, she walked into a screening room and watched a couple having intercourse on film. It was her first exposure to sex. "Just another day making naked movies," Bradford Mitchell tells the audience. Her parents never did fill her in on the birds and the bees, she continues, and "Judy Blume just wasn't cutting it.
"That was the irony of my upbringing," Bradford Mitchell says at an interview at Lola's in Hollywood. "Yes, my parents were sexual revolutionaries, but when it came to giving me 'the talk,' I never got it. Never discussed getting my period. It's interesting how they reverted into that WASP-y model that my mother was raised with: 'We just don't talk about it.' "
After a fourth-grade teacher discovered her father's occupation, Bradford Mitchell and her two biological siblings (Artie had a total of six kids) dropped the surname Mitchell. They often told friends their dad was a commercial fisherman. "I had to lie and keep my guard," she says.
It wasn't until Bradford Mitchell went to USC in the late '80s to study theater that she began opening up about the family business. "At some point it came up," Bradford Mitchell says. "Just flippantly came out. Of course, the guys thought that was marvelous."
For the record, Bradford Mitchell doesn't like porn. "I appreciate erotica in other forms," she says. "But it's just never interested me. I really romanticized love growing up. I was into classic cinema and old movie stars. Also, there's the fact that I came of age in the mid-'80s, during the AIDS crisis. Suddenly sex can kill you. Our generation didn't benefit like our parents did of having free love. And part of it was feeling like my parents stole my sexual thunder in a way, because they were so out there. Of course I'm gonna be kind of a nerd in comparison."
There were times, however, when Bradford Mitchell took part in the seedy fun. For the play, she dug up a cringe-worthy video of her dancing onstage to 2 Live Crew's "Me So Horny" at the 1991 AVN Awards. "I was going through a metamorphosis," she says. "I'd always been the leadership student and the good girl. My dad encouraged me to get out of my shell."
That same year, at 20, Bradford Mitchell got a call telling her that her uncle Jim had shot and killed her father in his home.
The two had had a strained relationship for years: Jim often was characterized as the stable, responsible brother, and "Party Artie" as the out-of-control, drug-addicted brother. At one point, Artie was even banned from the O'Farrell. Jim claimed he'd gone to his brother's house to conduct an intervention.
Jim Mitchell served just three years of his six-year prison sentence. (Bradford Mitchell quips that the only way her uncle kept "his sphincter intact" during his incarceration was by offering prison guards lifetime passes to the O'Farrell.)
Artie Mitchell's daughter never saw her uncle again. He died of a heart attack in 2007.
To escape the turmoil, Bradford Mitchell moved to Seattle and attended Cornish College. There, she began working on a play about her family.
But after relocating back to L.A. in the late '90s and trying to finish a screenplay version, she came across a script for Rated X, which would become a 2000 Showtime movie directed by Emilio Estevez and starring him and brother Charlie Sheen as the Mitchells — a brunette actor standing in for the blond Artie (same goes for the actress who briefly played Liberty). Bradford Mitchell never saw the film.
"I didn't need those images in my head," she says. "The poster alone was laughable. It was a terrible script."
So Bradford Mitchell put her "artistic revenge" on hold. She married and had two kids, now 7 and 11. She worked with the Women's Conference, a national forum for women formerly hosted by Maria Shriver. She got divorced — and then returned to the idea of telling her story.
In March, she staged a workshop production at the Electric Lodge in Venice, which included a house band aptly called The Fluffers. The audience got to see hard-core clips from the Mitchells' oeuvre, interspersed with home movies of Bradford Mitchell running around in diapers and Green Door star (and onetime Ivory Soap model) Marilyn Chambers jumping in the family pool.
Bradford Mitchell is taking the piece to San Francisco next year, and possibly New York, before bringing it back to L.A. She's also in talks with a TV network to produce a series based on her life.
She says she's taken a far different approach from the one her parents took when it comes to talking to her children about not only sex but also her past.
"My older child is aware," Bradford Mitchell says. "I just explained that this is what my dad did for a living, and it was very challenging. I said he made films of people having sex. And she said, 'Eww!' She asked when she was 8 or 9 what sex is and I explained that it is a means of procreation and just gave the rundown. I wasn't ready to get too graphic with her. You can call that hedging."
In her play, Bradford Mitchell bemoans the mainstreaming of the adult industry and how it has desensitized our culture.
"When there's an excess of anything, you take it for granted," Bradford Mitchell says. "Porn has become more a part of our society and so has fast food. Everyone's become more obese than they were 30 years ago. It's a similar track of indulgence. We're so used to sex as just an act and not related to the potential of finding a soul mate or having that connection. Where's that gonna leave us? It just seems very barren.
"I'm not conservative. I don't vilify porn. I don't wanna be Tipper Gore. Most people I know do fall in the middle and like to have their fun. But, at the same time, we're still searching for a higher spiritual connection."
Get the Theater Newsletter
Get a rundown of upcoming theater events and ticket deals in Los Angeles.