Recently, there was news that the Mitchell Brothers O’Farrell Theater was up for sale. Memories of this being the unlikely birthplace of my feminist theater group Les Nickelettes surfaced. You may ask: feminism in a porno palace, really? Hey, this was San Francisco in 1972. A hip underground counterculture was thumbing its nose at past hang-ups, and at the same time saying, “anything goes.”
The O’Farrell Theater gained notoriety for opening the first hardcore porno film venue in the country, but Les Nickelettes didn’t emerge from that Mitchell Brothers’ enterprise. Instead, a different, after-hours counterculture event launched the group . In 1972 I was 24, and to pay the rent, I took a day job as a cashier at The O’Farrell Theater. One of the projectionists, Vince Stanich, came up with the idea for The People’s Nickelodeon. On Tuesdays and Wednesdays, at midnight, after the moneymaking endless porno loops had ended, the theater was thrown open to the stoned “freaks.” Everything cost a nickel: the popcorn, the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and admission to see a forties newsreel, a Betty Boop cartoon, and a kitschy classic movie. Reefer Madness was shown at The People’s Nickelodeon before it became a cult classic.
As the popularity of this after-hours event grew, me and my theater friends became the Nickelette cheerleaders for The People’s Nickelodeon. Give us an “N” – give us an “I” – give us a “C” . . . But the hodge-podge troupe quickly evolved into something more meaningful. Maybe it was the times. Maybe it was the underlying second-wave feminist movement, but we came together in a sisterhood of unique and bawdy female satire that surprised us all. The creation of the group may have been accidental but the collective unconscious synergy of this eclectic group of women came together in the right place at the right time, and it took on a life of its own.
To give credit where credit is due, Vince Stanich came up with the idea of Nickelette cheerleaders for The People’s Nickelodeon. He proposed the idea as he and I hung out smoking weed in his “Clubhouse,” an O’Farrell Theater backroom behind the projection booth – his 12-hour shift work station. It was a heady time. After midnight on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, in a reimagined porno theater, a creative genie was let out of the bottle. There would be no going back, no desire to. It was the beginning of my thrilling thirteen-year adventure in Les Nickelettes. I had the time of my life.