In the 1970s, the wildest city in America was probably San Francisco.
And the wildest place in San Francisco was probably the O’Farrell Theatre.
And the wildest room in the O’Farrell Theatre was probably the Ultra Room.
So who was chosen to headline at the Ultra Room when it first opened in 1977?
Probably the wildest adult film star of them all, C.J. Laing.
This is the story of C.J. Laing at the Ultra Room.
Act 1: Brothers In Arms
The Mitchell Brothers’ story is legendary and familiar to the point of being almost mundane.
In 1972, Jim and Artie Mitchell made Behind the Green Door, and hit the big time. Filmed for the then-unheard-of price of $60,000, and illuminated by its star, Marilyn Chambers – she of the Ivory Snow commercials, flaxen hair, and flawless oral sex technique – the film went on to become one of the highest-grossing porn movies in history, raking in between $25 and $50 million, depending on your hyperbole of choice.
Similar to an agile porn performer, the brothers diversified both horizontally and vertically with aplomb, and by 1976, their empire stretched to 11 theaters and movie houses, and their film oeuvre included Resurrection of Eve (1973), Inside Marilyn Chambers (1975) and Autobiography of a Flea (1976). After a judge observed that they would even offend the community standards of Sodom and Gomorrah, they made a movie by that name, which at $450,000 became the most expensive porn production ever. It was a rare flop in the ascendant career of the articulate, bearded-yet-balding, counter-cultural anti-heroes.
At the heart of the brother’s empire lay the O’Farrell Theatre, the acropolis of adult entertainment, a strip club at 895 O’Farrell Street near San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood. It had first been opened as an X-rated movie theater by the brothers on July 4, 1969, and became one of America’s most notorious adult-entertainment establishments.
Ironically the real show was often in the upstairs office, where the brothers kept a well-stocked refrigerator and comfortable digs for friends to drop in. A pool table took pride of place in the room, alongside a Wurlitzer jukebox, a $1,000 stuffed moose head, and a note suspending Artie from high school for drinking.
The brothers were expansive in all senses of the word: they were generous, sociable, uninhibited – and they wanted to expand. Recognizing that hungry male customers craved a more interactive physical experience than just a fuck film, they sent theater manager Vince Stanich around the country to explore customer-contact shows in bars and strip clubs.
Stanich reported back with a simple conclusion: there was no one-size-fits-all titty-touching solution. Instead, he recommended they open three new rooms within the O’Farrell Theatre building, each providing a different twists on salacious live shows, all operating simultaneously: it would be pure kitsch in-sync entertainment.
In quick succession The Kopenhagen, New York Live, and the Ultra Room were opened.
The Kopenhagen was a small room with perimeter seating that had live shows in front of, and sometimes upon, a small audience by a pair of naked women. The New York Live room provided a continuous striptease show on a square stage with theater seating on three sides: strippers performed three song sets, disrobing completely for the final song, while other strippers who were not performing on stage sat naked on customers, giving lap dances for tips.
Act 2: The Ultra Room
The wildest room of all, the ne pas ultra of lesbos coitus, the epicenter of eroticism, was the Ultra Room. An extreme B&D girl-on-girl peep show, it had a floor-level stage which was surrounded by thirty narrow private booths that each had glass to separate performers from patrons. (Eventually the booths’ glass was taken down to enable full customer-contact.)
Adult film favorite, C.J. Laing was chosen to launch the Ultra Room, and described it in an interview shortly before it opened on January 4th, 1977:
“It will be a special room surrounded by booths where the men can see me through one-way glass. When I look out, I’ll be surrounded by all these mirrors, but all the men can see in and watch me do my number. My stage will be made of black leather, studded, with bars and trapeze and special lights and a sound system, and colored smoke bombs. I am in the middle of a capsule and I see only myself reflecting back from all these mirrors. And the gentlemen are in private booths. And I’ll do a half hour of total turn-on. It’ll be choreographed, it won’t just be “see C.J. Laing jerk off.” It will be a complete show, with the best costumes and set designers and I will be a total superstar.”
The poster greeted the new experience as follows:
“The Ultra Room puts you face to face with young, sensual women.
The action is ultra close – only inches away thanks to individual two-way mirrors.
Live sound helps to create an atmosphere of intimacy.
Private compartments add a personal touch.
These innovations make everyone an exclusive member of this new presentation in erotic entertainment.”
Typically two girls strutted for four shows a night in themed outfits. They enacted elaborate bondage scenarios featuring props, such as restraints and chains, and masturbated with an array of toys, or performed sex with each other. Incredulous customers could feed tips through slots in the glass: one customer remembered paying $5 for a dance in front of you for a minute; $20 for a dance including touching non-naughty areas, or $40 for the performer to climb into the booth with you for five minutes and let your imagination (and hands) run wild. Each booth included a tissue dispenser, no doubt to mop a brow. The Ultra Room was very popular: entry cost $10, shows lasted for a half-hour, and were sold out on the very first day.
Oh, and each booth had a vibrating floor: don’t ask why.
The O’Farrell Theatre was open seven days a week, and nearly every evening of the year. In the months after C.J. Laing opened the Ultra Room, other porn stars headlined, from Mai Lin to Jean Jennings. It was an immediate hit. Office workers took long lunches and knew the show’s schedules by heart. Buses disgorged Japanese tourists straight from the airport. Hunter S. Thompson could often be found soaking up the Ultra Room’s infamous charms.
Not everyone was a fan. When the O’Farrell doubled down on live entertainment, the San Francisco authorities doubled down on the O’Farrell. The city’s Mayor Dianne Feinstein was vehemently anti-porn, and police conducted regular raids that led to the arrest of patrons and staff members, all charged with “participating in a house of prostitution.”
And sometimes the residents of the Golden City clutched their pearls too.
From ‘Ultra Bias, Claim Porn Pickets,’ San Francisco Examiner, March 9, 1977:
“Whos’ running it? Who’s getting the profits? Who’s going to it?” asked an angered Cathy Divito in front of the Mitchell Brothers Theater on O’Farrell Street.
“Men,” she said. “And women as usual are in the middle.”
Divito was objecting to the Ultra Room, the Mitchell Brothers new sex show with its all-female cast.
“It’s an S&M (sadism and masochism) den with paddles, whips, and swings,” she said, acknowledging that, “They don’t hurt one another but the insinuation is, ‘I love it.’”
Women from the newly formed ‘Women Against Violence in Pornography and the Media’ marched in front of the theater with signs reading ‘Women Don’t Love Torture,’ and ‘Who Says Pain Is Erotic,’ while two women did their live show in the Ultra Room. One wore loose-fitting black leather shackles and chains.
One picketer said that the Ultra Room was “an acceleration of the porn field, depicting women being violent to women.”
But when the Mitchell brothers successfully fought back in court, usually represented by Joe Rhine, adult industry defense attorney (and husband of porn film director Ann Perry), a win for them was a win for pornography everywhere. The Mitchell brothers insisted that the acts in the Ultra Room were simulated. “What you see isn’t what you get,” they contended, with an admirable sense of mobius logic. “This is pure theater.” Girls, furthermore, were handsomely compensated, making $20 for a 30-minute show and up to $160 a day. Shouldn’t they be applauded for providing employment to so many wayward waifs?
Understandably documentary artifacts from inside the Ultra Room are rarer than Papal condoms, but the room is captured in a grainy and notorious 16mm short film, Never A Tender Moment. It was shot in 1979 by Cinema 7, the Mitchell Brothers’ film company, and starred Mitchell-favorite Marilyn Chambers discussing various bondage delights followed by scenes of intense kink, including a notable sequence showing her taking on five large anal beads. It was sold directly by the Mitchell Brothers via mail order.
Act 3: C.J. at the Ultra Room
The Rialto Report recently spoke to the very first headliner of the Ultra Room, C.J. Laing, to find out how she came to open the venue, and develop a strong relationship with the Mitchell brothers that saw her return to perform repeatedly in the late 1970s.
How did you end up in San Francisco?
It was back in 1974, and I was getting away from New York where I’d been brought up. First I ended up in Texas because I was hanging around with Sam Cutler, the road manager of the Grateful Dead. Then I made my way to California.
When I got to San Francisco, I crashed at my friend’s commune, which was called The Angels of Light. They were an off-shoot of the Cockettes, a famous gay performance troupe at the time.
What was that like?
It was a busy house… there was a communal bedroom, a communal drag room…
That’s when I met Tina, who was the most gorgeous girl with long, straight, thick, dark hair, like Buffy Sainte-Marie. She came home one night, and said she’d just made $100.
And the first thing out of my fucking capitalist mouth was: “Where!?”
And that’s how I ended up at the Mitchell Brothers.
By going to the O’Farrell Theatre to meet them?
No, but they had a cattle call.
What was the cattle call for?
A loop that they were shooting. Something that ended up being called ‘Juke Joint’.
What do you remember about that day?
They gave me a part in the production.
I was like Sally Field: “They liked me! They really liked me!” (laughs)
So you weren’t put off by anything that happened there?
Oh nooo. I thought, “Now I have a new place to be obsessive about!” And a place to be inappropriate too.
What do you remember about shooting that loop with the Mitchells?
Nothing. Nothing all. I just did that one film with them, and that got me the money to go back to Texas, I think.
How did the Mitchells re-connect with you after that?
Eventually I went back to New York, and the Mitchells turned up to make some X-rated movies there.
That’s what brought me onto the New York X-rated scene. If memory serves, they came to New York with some cartoonist guy. A really famous cartoonist.
I don’t remember the hotel where they stayed, but we got together and we partied. I still have memories of the room, the sheets, the space. Vivid memories.
Do you remember your first film in New York – Sexteen (1975)?
Yes, it was with Jamie (Gillis). I was credited as ‘Gwen Star’ for the first few films that I did.
How did you eventually come up with the name ‘C.J. Laing’?
‘C.J.’ was the name of a Grateful Dead roadie that I knew. ‘Laing’ was a famous Scottish psychiatrist, R.D. Laing. (laughs).
Perhaps the only adult film star who was named after a Scottish psychiatrist?
And so you made a few feature films in New York…
Yes. Anyone But My Husband (1975) and some others.
But I was just a circus act in my movies. I didn’t own it back then, but that really was what I was doing: I wasn’t the prettiest girl. I wasn’t the blonde. I wasn’t into the acting. When they gave me dialogue, I said, “What’s this bullshit? Give me a break! Let’s just have sex.”
Instead, I was known for the extreme things I did in the films.
But then you went back to San Francisco.
I went back to San Francisco for Grateful Dead concerts one New Year’s Eve.
Then I ran out of money. By that time, I’d done a few films in New York so I had a name. The Mitchell Brothers owned all the fucking porn palaces in San Francisco, so they put me on as the headline at their Bijou Theater on Market Street.
What did you act consist of at the Bijou?
I teamed up with Jeanne Silver and that’s where we had our blockbuster, our debauched sold-out run!
This was before the Ultra Room at the O’Farrell Theater was even built.
What were the shows you did with Jeanne Silver like?
We did them together on that stage: they would run movies, and then there was our live show.
It was crazy. I was a teenager on Quaaludes and Clark Bars playing with Jeannie’s amputated stump.
What did the shows consist of? Dancing, stripping?
Oh honey… we had no skills. There was no dancing.
I’ve never seen you dance.
Because I don’t! I listen to noodley-yoodly music, not dance music! How could I dance?!
We were fucked up anyway.
So what did you do at the Bijou?
Well, Jeannie and I did our show thing. We’d do a question-and-answer session, we’d give a little background… and then we did a little penetration, and a little waap-waap… kind of, you know, whatever. It was so unrelated to anything sexual. (laughs)
And then you appeared at the Ultra Room.
Yeah. The brothers said, “We’re going to start this new club, we’re going to build it. And it’s going to be an S&M type club.”
They built the Ultra Room downstairs at the O’Farrell: I think they might have pulled out the candy counter to make room for it.
The Mitchells went on record as saying that you were the first headliner.
I opened it. That was the deal.
What was the Ultra Room like?
It was a private booth concept, and the men were in padded, leather booths by themselves. Well, they were stalls, actually. There were these little windows that they peered out of – I can’t remember if it was a window or just a hole – so that they could reach in. I think they could reach in and do touchy-feely.
What else did the show consist of?
We swung on swings… it was S&M so there were chains and belts too.
Did it include live sex, or did you not get that far?
I don’t remember, but I remember the times were getting raunchier.
Previously unpublished photographs of C.J. Laing at the Ultra Room in 1977:
Did you work elsewhere as well?
I mean, by this time it was raunchy everywhere: I was rolling drunks at the Nude Encounter, a massage parlor, in North Beach. It was across the street from Carol Doda‘s giant marquee. I mainly gave hand jobs while showing my titties. And while they were getting serviced, I was lifting money out of their wallets. $100. Did that for a little while.
Hey, I was hungry, young, and the rent was due.
What is your memory of the Mitchell brothers?
They were my protectors. They were wonderful. They were my big brothers. They were advisors. They were always there for me. I could call them up at any time and say, “I need to make some money,” and they would let me go into whatever room and sashay around. And I’d just pull the money out of people’s wallets. I mean, literally!
In some ways, their office, upstairs at the O’Farrell, was the hub of San Francisco. They had the dart board, and the bar, and all these people milling about, and these big green leather topped partners’ desks. It seemed like everybody who was anybody was there.
Did you return to the Ultra Room many more times?
Sure. I would just come for a couple of weeks at a time, and then leave again. Then there was a period when I got a weird San Francisco sublet and lived in this furnished high rise for about four months. That was when Artie (Mitchell) was really sweet on me. We didn’t really have a thing. He might have wanted it to be more. I don’t remember if I fucked him. I just can’t even remember.
Did you appear in any of the other rooms at the O’Farrell?
Yes, I came back later and did the Kopenhagen.
That’s when the Japanese tourists just kept coming in, one after another, bus-loads of them. And they’d sit with their flashlights, just like they were at the circus, and want to look at my ho-hole.
You weren’t a regular dancer on the circuit, so how did you arrange with the Mitchells to keep coming back to appear in their theaters?
I was just like, “I need to make some money.” I’d come for a week and make 10 grand, and leave. The brothers would just take care of me. And I was awful… but they let me just do it. There was always a place for me there, and I could always make money.
They took care of me. And nothing was going to happen to me. Truly. They were good to me.
Did you stay in touch with the Mitchells over the years since then?
Not really. But when I was at Jim Mitchell’s funeral, I ran into some people who remembered me as just being the sweetest person. And that made me feel so good. I was happy that I just wasn’t a dick to people.
What do you remember about their passing?
When Jim died, I felt like, “Oh…” Because until the day he died, if I needed something, I knew I could contact Jim, or Vince Stanich, who was number two with the Mitchell Brothers, and his wife, Arlene, who runs one of the biggest rehab centers in town. Vince also died early, of cancer, I believe. But they were all so, just so fucking good to me.
I’d been a messed-up kid. I needed that.
The O’Farrell Theatre closed in 2020 after struggling financially for several years.