Battle of the Peeps - the inside story
I didn't set out to become a pornographer...
BATTLE OF THE PEEPS – THE INSIDE STORY OF A PORNOGRAPHY EMPIRE
I didn’t set out to become a pornographer.
In '84, about to become jobless, I grabbed the Yellow Pages and circled every “bookstore” listing within moped-riding distance of my North Park apartment. Hand-delivering my unimpressive resume took me to a round, one-story building at 6321 University Avenue, where a sign out front informed that Jolar Cinema was a bookstore of the adult variety. The “cinema” referred to peep-show booths, where 8 mm, 16 mm, and (then new) video porn unspooled 24 hours a day. Live strippers performed in booths in the back.
The “bookstore” was a front room that had a few shelves of triple-X-rated magazines. A shaggy clerk charged me $2 admission (traded for eight machine tokens) to enter the rear room, where celluloid peep-show booths lined the perimeter and video booths ran down the center. The back of the club had an enclosed stage with narrow booth doors arranged in a semicircle around access windows. Customers entered a booth, dropped tokens or quarters into a slot, and a little hydraulic door rose to reveal one or more "totally nude" dancers on a stage. Another slot made it possible for customers to pass dollar bills to the women, who, thanks to the slight elevation of the stage, gyrated their pelvic region near the customer’s face.
The windows cost $1 to open, but after around a minute, the shutter slammed shut, and it took more cash to reopen.
Behind the stage were four private-talk-show booths, where customers could solicit one-on-one performances from the ladies. A thick pane of Plexiglas separated the “dancer” on her raised mattress from the customer, whose side of the booth included a stool and a wall-mounted box of tissues. The cost here was $5 to start the show, plus whatever tips you stuck in the lady’s slot (a hole cut into the wall), with the show growing progressively raunchier based on tips. Dancer and customer communicated via boxy old phone receivers, though few dancers did much talking.
Manager Lee Bickel hired me as a clerk. The duties on my solo 5:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m. shift included checking in the evening dancers, selling product, changing and maintaining the film projectors and video banks, and managing the sometimes troublesome customers. Twenty-four years old at the time, I learned from my first paycheck, signed by Edward Fonzo at Modern Bookkeeping, that I was earning just over minimum wage and working for a company based in Durand, Michigan, called Ellwest, which was the name on the store’s brass tokens.
Bickel’s boss was Harry Mohney, who later gained notoriety over a $14 million tax bill and as founder of the Deja Vu Showgirls chain of “gentleman’s clubs.”
SD PORN CHRONOLOG #1: 1966 -- Harry Mohney, a projectionist at an X-rated drive-in theater in Battle Creek, Michigan, invests in a partnership with drive-in owner Floyd Bloss. They open another porn drive-in in Durand, a small town near Flint. The following year, Mohney launches a distribution hub that specializes in importing European porn films, and he hires over 200 people, becoming a major local employer. By 1973, Mohney has bought out Bloss and bought up over 100 businesses in 10 states and 20 cities, including San Diego. His string of massage parlors, X-rated theaters and drive-ins, adult bookstores, and even a topless billiard hall generate income of around $6 million a year. After divorcing his wife, Mohney moves in with 18-year-old porn star Gail Palmentier (later known as Gail Palmer) and makes ten movies with her, including the popular “Candy” series starring Carol Connors.
I soon discovered that Ellwest was part of one of the nation’s largest pornography chains, a big employer not just in Durand but all over the United States. Mohney's Entertainment World International was the main Midwest distributor of X-rated movies; his Wonderful World of Video (previously Amber, Inc.) had a lock on West Coast distribution from its office at 6315 Hollywood Boulevard. The company had a stake in porn videos produced by Caballero Video, and Mohney was sole owner of Caribbean Films (whose corporate address was an L.A. post office box).
At that time, he was already wealthy enough to co-own, with other company principals I’d later meet, several homes in La Costa. As I became more entrenched in the business, I’d see financial reports for nearby operations in the chain, such as the Eyeful in Ontario, Venus Fair in North Hollywood, and Cinema X in Bakersfield. It was stunning to see how much money was pouring into the company.
Bickel upgraded me to manager, and I began building the bookstore into more of an adult boutique, putting up new shelves for highly profitable (and ridiculous looking) rubber, leather, and novelty goods, right down to the inevitable blow-up dolls and buckets-o’-lube. We started one of the city’s first adult-video rental systems, with tapes (mostly Beta) arriving weekly from the company in Michigan. The company shipped all the chain’s stock and reorders from Variety Distributing, at 1112 North Saginaw in Durand. I wasn’t allowed to place orders with anyone else. I was supposed to keep it a secret that someone outside San Diego owned Jolar; the owner on the business license was a woman named Jackie Hagerman, and a company-owned home in La Costa was listed as her primary address, though she spent no more than a few weeks a year living there.
It was an odd job. Bouncer skills came in handy, particularly when drunk guys tried climbing over the booth walls to get at the ladies. I also had to deal with dancers’ angry boyfriends and husbands, ejecting several and signing more than one police report. I caught shoplifters, and I tell you, it’s hard not to laugh out loud when you catch a bald guy wearing a Freak Brothers T-shirt slipping a pocket rocket into his bumpy pants. I doubled up the janitorial shifts to have guys constantly cleaning and mopping the peep-show booths (truly among the world’s worst jobs). I had to acknowledge that I had one weird gig.
It got weirder after Lee Bickel took a vacation from which he never returned. The company told me he quit. Bickel told me he was fired. I know he threatened a lawsuit and received a sizable settlement. I remained friends with him until he passed away a couple of years later from AIDS-related illnesses. He had been diagnosed just before he vanished from the tiny manager’s office alongside Jolar’s front desk. I was covering Bickel’s shifts when “owner” Jackie Hagerman flew in from the main office in Durand and made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.
Hagerman -- a tiny, hyperactive, tough-as-nails Asian woman once described by a colleague as “Yokoesque” -- offered me $1000 a week to manage the Jolar Cinema.
Right away, I took the word “cinema” off the front sign and redesigned it to read “Jolar -- Live Nude Dancers,” since the dancers weren't even hinted at on the old signage.
Over the next 30 days, the weekend bank deposit increased from about $9000 to a little over $12,000, mostly on the strength of the bright new sign, advertising in local military papers (with a coupon for a “free nudie show,” actually a handful of extra booth tokens), and growing video-rental revenue as we expanded to take credit card and check deposits.
Another project was replacing the creaky old film projectors with video decks and oversized TV screens. I rebuilt the dancers' stage, installing flashing built-in lights on the floor and ceiling. We revamped the private-talk-show booths, decorating each with a different theme: a tropical jungle, a collegiate bedroom, an Asian boudoir, and a “kinky” room where the dancer could sit in a leather stirrup seat suspended by heavy-duty chains. Comical illustrated signs on booth doors now proclaimed these “Sexual Therapy Consultation Rooms.” I kept the wall-mounted tissue boxes.
SD PORN CHRONOLOG #2: Jolar opens in September 1978 on Broadway downtown. Federal authorities later accuse real owner Harry Mohney of using trusts and corporations to conceal his business interests and to avoid taxes. 1980: The Gaslamp Quarter's 16-block area contains around 30 adult bookstores, movie houses, and porn shops. Summer 1983: Jolar relocates to a former furniture store in the College Area on University Avenue, next to an Amvets secondhand shop.
I went on a firing spree, weeding out dancers who were full-blown drug addicts or evincing other unreliable behavior (including two I caught prostituting in booths). Firing the reprobates cut the staff in half; the remaining dozen women saw their daily tips increase. At that time, they weren’t paid a salary. Women kept their cash tips, while Jolar kept the money from the machines operating the stage and private-booth shutters. When Jackie saw how much money the dancers were making, she installed lockboxes over the slots where the customers dropped the dancers’ tips, and the tips were split 50-50 with the woman at the end of the shift. I was instructed to fire anyone caught taking a cash tip in her hand.
One reason Jolar paid me so well was that I was legally responsible for anything that happened. If a dancer was arrested for prostitution or for having drugs on the premises, I’d go to jail, too. You can believe I ran a tight ship. Bickel had installed a video-surveillance system that covered the stage and dancers’ dressing room, while wiretaps allowed us to monitor the conversations going on in private-talk-show booths. The eavesdropping was intended to ensure that the girls weren’t turning tricks or buying or selling drugs.
The threat of jail loomed constantly, and vice cops were always visiting, in particular Officer Goldy, badge #1356. Goldy's job included policing the city’s strip clubs and peep shows and enforcing City-decreed regulations that tended to be fluid, with frequent revisions.
One funny week, the City changed the rules for peep-show establishments, as defined in section 33.3302, division 33 of the municipal code. Suddenly, to keep our permits active, we had to screen at least 51 percent non-X-rated material in our film booths. This was surely enacted thinking it would shut down the peeps.
Instead, the following Monday morning, all the peep-show store managers in San Diego were running around to camera and hobby shops buying out the all-age-appropriate 8 mm and 16 mm film footage.
By that afternoon, the sounds of Donald Duck, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and King Kong clips boomed from within peep-show booths along with the usual moans and groans of porno loops!
This lasted almost a month, and strangely, some of the non-X-rated movies earned as many quarters as the porn loops (black-and-white boxing films were inexplicably, disturbingly popular).
Around the same time, another new ordinance required adult shops to take the doors off the booths, even those with live girls. Our local lawyer, George Haverstock, argued that the legal definition of “door” allowed for a saloon-type swinging affair that provided a modicum of privacy. This staved off citations and possible closure for another few weeks while we wrangled new deals with the City. It was a constant wrestling match, and vice was getting more aggressive in their patrols. Sometimes, they even arrested clerks or patrons, usually for lewd conduct, drug possession, or intoxication, or whatever else they could come up with to keep us in court (and, I suspect, to scare away customers).
My old work files show ten official visits from police between August 10 and October 16, 1985, including:
8-10: Officer P. Derninc, ID #2164, cited clerk for “litter” in 11 booths.
8-11: Officer Swarzendruber, badge #250, unit #2559, entered office and demanded “Beth’s” real name and address, would not say why he needs this information. I refused to provide, he left without further incident.
8-20: Vice officer J. Deloach, badge #711, ticketed second-shift clerk John for not having a Misc. Merchandising License on display.
8-26: R. Camacho, ID #2563, ticketed [clerk] John for having doors on booths. They told him he’d be arrested if they come back and doors are still on.
9-19: Officer C. Armstong, ID #2740, ticketed [clerk] Tom for doors on booths, threatened with arrest if doors aren’t removed by next visit.
10-16: Officer Goldy, badge #1356, arrived at 1:00 p.m. with two vice officers and took photographs of the stage and all the girls working, refused to say why. Girls scared...I refused to let him in dancers’ lounge, he and other officers left.
Officer Goldy styled himself as our nemesis; often, to my mind -- and perhaps his as well -- playing Holmes to my defacto Moriarty. He may as well have had a magnifying glass when he showed up to inspect the premises, checking for anything from the smell of pot in the dressing room, to “forbidden sexual acts” by dancers, to customers getting intimate with each other in the booths (known to happen --- duh).
Goldy once cited a married couple for sharing a booth, even though they were only watching a movie, not screwing. He also wrote a littering ticket to a guy who dropped a tissue on the floor. By law, the girls were restricted in what they could do during private-booth shows, and vice officers, posing as customers, would arrest the girls if they caught them crossing the line, doing shows with two girls or with foreign objects (against company rules, and a firing offense if caught, but big tip generators nonetheless).
(Ancient porn star Helga booked porn stars for signings at Jolar - Candy in front of private show booth, Toni in dressing room, Honey in show booth, and Tara as seen from inside the dressing room, sitting on steps going into her show booth)
Nude dancers had to be licensed, which required attending a downtown class that Goldy taught. I used to drive new girls there and sit outside the police trailer where courses were held. Sometimes, I’d hear him tell the girls, “That guy out there is nothing but a lowlife bottom-feeding pimp who just wants to grab the last dollar bill right out of your G-string.” He’d come out afterward and wink at me, as though it were all a joke.
Increased police action (I hesitate to say “harassment”) was happening at adult establishments all over town, not just at places with live ladies. I found this out from two guys who visited my Jolar office. They wanted me to join them in forming a merchants’ co-op for local adult-store and theater operators that would pool resources for things like group legal representation.
At that time, I’d never heard of Reuben Sturman or Gojko Vasic. They’d later be notorious figures in major legal brouhahas relating to their respective porn conglomerates. To me, they were just two guys trying to talk me into joining the 20 or so others who belonged to A.M.M.O. (Adult Merchants something-or-other; I forget, and my work files don’t say). I attended a handful of meetings. Representatives of most if not all of the bigwig Southern California porn concerns showed up at various times, including Noel Bloom (who’d previously owned Swedish Erotica), Norm Arno (owner of film company VCX, Inc.), Art Weisberg (who produced and distributed adult movies through Coastline Films on 333 Nutmeg Street in San Diego), and Johnny Zaffarano (who owned or ran several X-rated theaters).
SD PORN CHRONOLOG #3: 1964 -- Porn distributor Reuben Sturman (aka Robert Stern, Roy C. English, Robert Butler, Paul Shuster, and Paul Bekker), son of Russian immigrants and a onetime distributor of candy, tobacco, and comic books, is indicted on federal obscenity charges. FBI agents had raided his Cleveland warehouse, seizing 590 copies of a paperback called Sex Life of a Cop. Sturman then sues J. Edgar Hoover -- both cases are later dropped. By 1985, Sturman controls General Video of America (GVA), among the largest distributors of X-rated tapes in the United States. Encompassing everything from production to retail sales and novelty production (as Doc Johnson), his empire financially controls around 200 businesses in 19 states, 1 Canadian province, and 6 foreign countries. Los Angeles police estimate Sturman owns 580 of the 765 adult peep-show booths in the city. He installs booths in about three dozen San Diego-area shops, typically providing equipment worth $22,000 to $60,000 to the store owner at no cost in return for a 50 percent kickback of the booth income.
1974 -- Yugoslav immigrant Gojko Vasic manages downtown’s X-rated Pussycat Theater, part of an exhibition chain that local real estate manager Vince Miranda owns. Vasic borrows money from his parents to open his first porn shop downtown on F Street, across from the Cabaret Theater (aka the Lyceum and Off Broadway), patterned after a porn shop called Curious Yellow that had operated next to the Pussycat for years. Vasic eventually runs nearly a dozen F Street bookstores, including shops in El Cajon (opened in 1985), Miramar, Chula Vista, Escondido, North Park, and Leucadia, with all but the latter including peep-show booths. In the late '70s, a costume-clad F Street penguin mascot shows up at events to pass out flyers and peep-show-booth tokens; efforts are undertaken by some to ban the F Street penguin from public events.
Sturman was easily the most mysterious and deferred-to figure at the merchant co-op meetings I attended (most held in closed, windowless bars, after-hours, in places as remote as Ramona). I got an instant sense of the power he seemed to hold over everyone. He once arrived with an expensive-looking briefcase handcuffed to his wrist. Everybody pretended not to notice; as always, they seemed intimidated, if not outright scared of the guy.
I was dying for someone to ask, “Hey, big bank deposit, or are you on a secret mission for Her Majesty?” but nobody commented on the Bondian maneuver. If it was all for show, it was a damned good one. (At more than one of these odd functions, I found myself mentally cuing the Godfather theme, though I saw no outward evidence that such paranoia was justified.)
Vasic put out a less peculiar -- and decidedly less La Cosa Nostra -- vibe than Sturman, but his clipped Yugoslav accent caused him to sound mildly sinister on occasion, depending on what he was saying. He complained about City and zoning harassment, and he proudly defied ordinances he claimed were effected solely with him in mind. This landed him in court often enough that he apparently thought he’d earned local martyrdom, if not outright deification. Vasic preached cinematic peep-show booths as the golden calf of his growing empire. Asked if he’d ever consider hiring live strippers, he’d say, “Peep shows don’t get periods or pregnant.”
I recall one meeting at which vice cops sat down with local strip-club operators, though Sturman was a no-show, as were the other bigwigs. Vice was there to help us hammer out a legally acceptable definition of “masturbation,” down to whether over-the-clothes rubbing counted. This was an amusing cross-conversation. Mohney was there, along with his live-in mistress, and I recall her interjecting, “It shouldn’t even count unless the person masturbating has an orgasm,” which drew blank stares from everyone. I still don’t know if she was joking.
At least once the final wording was put into the new city ordinance, dancers busted for doing two-girl shows would be charged with “mutual masturbation” rather than the previous “crimes against nature.”
I stopped going to A.M.M.O. meetings -- and contributing dues -- when I realized Jolar had little in common with F Street, the Kitty Kat Theater, and the shops getting pushed out of the Gaslamp Quarter. The latter knew they were doomed; it was only a matter of when. It may sound silly, but I considered Jolar upscale by comparison, especially after a guy from Adult World defended his store's leaving illegal waist-level “glory holes” drilled between peep-show-booth walls (allowing anonymous physical contact between strangely inclined male patrons) because “Those booths make five times more money.”
Only a few meetings concerned those of us with live dancers (Body Shop, Les Girls, Star & Garter, and a couple of others), and Jolar was the only locale in the city with machine-operated live peep-show booths. Besides, I quickly grew uncomfortable being in close quarters with Vasic and Sturman. They were the two most unnerving people I’d met in my porn career to date, simply because the blood in their veins seemed to run so epically cold. Peep shows were only my job -- they were these guys’ lives.
SD PORN CHRONOLOG #4: 1985 -- Gail Palmer, who the previous year had reported Harry Mohney for tax evasion, sues him for using her name without permission to promote films like The Young Like It Hot after he supposedly excluded her from their financial “partnership.” In a court deposition dated November 19, 1985, Palmer states, “Although Mohney incorporated his business, he had total management and control over it while placing other people in positions of officers and directors to avoid being connected to the business. These named officers and directors were merely Mohney’s puppets.” A New Year’s Day fire at Mohney’s Indianapolis office uncovers documents that lead authorities to raid one of his Michigan warehouses. Hidden paperwork reveals Mohney’s hand in more than 70 corporations, including Jolar Cinema Ltd. Evidence surfaces that he may have skimmed over a million dollars a year from some operations. The Meese Commission report on pornography (1986) links his business dealings with organized crime bosses, stating (page 1230), “Mohney worked closely with the La Cosa Nostra [mafia] Colombo and DeCavalcante crime families, who dominated East Coast porn distribution with the Gambinos.”
On one of my worst days, a half dozen FBI guys showed up in my office. It seemed that Harry Mohney was in legal hot water, the feds having discovered that his company, not Jackie Hagerman, was Jolar’s true owner. When the feds saw the monitoring switch and speaker on my desk that eavesdropped on the private-talk-show booth phones, I was handcuffed and arrested for “maintaining an illegal surveillance system.” When they found a UPS box of porn videos sent from the Michigan office, they threatened to file federal charges against me for interstate transportation of pornography, which they claimed could earn me 20 years in prison.
I sat there with my mouth shut (a company edict I followed religiously) while they tore my office apart and took away files, bankbooks, and records, even my school notebook from a night class I was taking in graphic arts. The charges against me were later dropped, but the FBI visited me a few other times. Most of their questions were about Mohney, particularly about his and the company’s residential properties in and around La Costa. I didn’t know at the time that his ex, Gail Palmer, had filed suit against Mohney in February '85, claiming that she co-owned the house at 2520 La Costa Avenue (“I later discovered it was placed in the name of Caribbean Films, Inc.,” she wrote in a court declaration).
I was surprised to find out the FBI knew I’d house-sat in a couple of those La Costa homes (one periodically occupied by Hagerman, not Mohney).
That’s about the same time that I started noticing black cars without license plates following me as I drove to our various bank deposit drops (we maintained several; I knew better than to ask why). When the drivers didn’t turn out to be robbers, I assumed them to be feds.
I wondered if someone had been following me up to La Costa, perhaps on occasions when I was asked to prepare company houses for company guests. I’d be sent off by Hagerman or Mohney with a shopping list of snacks, fridge drinks, wine, condom boxes, and other stuff that I was to sprinkle around for visitors. I was occasionally instructed to introduce a “fun loving” dancer or three to male company associates, with the girls making their own deals with Mohney, Hagerman, and/or the visitor if there was to be monetary compensation for their time and efforts. I know, I know...weird gig.
The house Hagerman frequented had all-white carpets and furniture downstairs, furthering that Yokoesque association for me. She liked my girlfriend and invited us to spend evenings and weekends there by ourselves, though she usually slotted in some shopping, dry cleaning, or car-delivery errands for me to do (she had a new Mercedes that always needed to be moved from some airport or another, as her expensive gold hood ornament kept getting stolen in parking lots).
After the FBI raided my office, and as I began hearing more about the growing porn empires of Sturman, Vasic, and my own boss Harry Mohney, my girl flat out asked me, “Jay, are you working for the Mob?”
I allowed that I couldn’t say for sure about the first two guys (especially after Sturman’s handcuffed briefcase), but I didn’t think Mohney was with the Mob. Maybe a mob, but not the Mob, you know? I’d met him several times; he was a nice guy. He’d congratulated me a bunch and paid me nice bonuses for the increasing revenue at Jolar. He didn’t talk like a wiseguy or goodfella. He had a linguist’s elocution and vocabulary. He dressed like a high school math teacher.
Years later, I co-wrote a comic-book biography with one of the most famous porn stars Harry’s video company employed under contract, Hyapatia Lee.
When writing about her memories of him and the era, she said “In San Diego we were invited to stay in Harry's home in La Costa. [My husband] Bud and I were given directions and keys in Los Angeles and when we arrived, we were very pleasantly surprised. It was a beautiful place right on a golf course. We were so impressed with Harry's hospitality. He told us make ourselves at home in the downstairs bedroom. As we moved in the suitcases, I started to put things away. I opened the closet door and found clothes, a set of golf clubs, and a suitcase belonging to someone else. I was perplexed. I called it to Bud's attention.”
“We had never heard of the name on the suitcase tag. We started thinking. What if this person doesn't have his belongings anymore because he's dead? What if the mafia really does own this whole business and this guy crossed someone and they had him snuffed? Whose house were we really in? Were we in a safe position or dancing with the devil?”
She says Harry came to the house later that night with a friend and the suitcase owner’s name was mentioned. Bud asked Harry “Why didn’t he take his suitcase?” mentioning finding the labeled case in a bedroom closet.
"He always keeps his stuff here because he comes down here every other weekend," Harry replied.
"Are you sure he's not dead?" Bud asked?
Harry acted confused. "What are you talking about?"
“Well, we thought that if this business really is owned by the mafia, that maybe this guy got in your way and you had to snuff him."
Hyapatia says Harry looked at his friend for a minute, dumbfounded, and then they broke out in uproarious laughter.
"No, no, no," he said, tears creeping out of the corners of his eyes, “he just comes down here to play golf twice a month and leaves his stuff here. We're not the mafia."
Hyapatia recalls “They couldn't stop laughing and we felt relieved.”
One of my oddest experiences at Company homes took place at the Yoko house. After spending the night, my girl and I awoke to the sound of multiple voices coming from the backyard. Imagine our surprise to find about a dozen guys setting up cameras and lights around the pool and deck, for a morning video shoot, and I don’t mean the wedding type.
I found this was common and in fact I soon began recognizing Company houses as backdrops in porn vids screened at Jolar. Just as we were relaxing to the notion of what would soon be happening around us before we even ate breakfast, the director informed that Harry Mohney had commissioned this to be a “golden shower” video. (“Orange juice? Um, no thanks.”)
SD PORN CHRONOLOG #5: 1985 -- An indictment returned by a federal grand jury in Cleveland alleges Reuben Sturman conspired to evade millions of dollars in taxes by laundering $7 million through foreign bank accounts. He’s also accused of destroying records despite a grand jury subpoena. One of his codefendants, Scott Dormen, pleads guilty to conspiracy, admitting he delivered around $450,000 of unreported cash to Sturman. Meanwhile, Sturman-involved adult businesses in the Gaslamp Quarter (most operated under or serviced by his umbrella firm, Sovereign News Company) are being pushed out by new zoning and license restrictions. Mafia kingpins transplanted from the Northeast, such as John Antonelli (in the local porn and massage parlor business since the mid-'60s) and his associates, begin abandoning downtown porn emporiums.
Mohney (or rather the company) bought an adult bookstore at 827 National City Boulevard, and Hagerman and I began remodeling the cavernous interior, setting it up like Jolar, with live dancer booths. However, there was some doubt about whether the City would allow us to open the doors. Mohney wasn’t a legal county resident, I was told, or perhaps he was merely unwilling to apply his name to the license. Lord knows, in-house paper trails regarding his many business interests were treated like top-secret documents: need-to-know prioritized, arcanely coded, and promptly shredded. We were instructed to refer to him as “our friend” in company correspondences and reports.
In a meeting with Hagerman and Mohney, I was approached to front as owner of the National City shop, at least temporarily, until the permits cleared and the business could open. I considered the substantial offer to put my name on the business license as owner and on incorporation paperwork as president and controlling officer of the new corporation while we remodeled.
We opened the front section as a bookstore, managed by a Jolar part-timer named Tom Gray, who would later go to a federal prison camp in Boron for dealing meth.
The only reason the doors were opened was to stave off the City's threat of condemnation. In what is in hindsight a rare wise decision, I declined to become a part-owner of the National City store. Sure enough, it was shut down a few weeks later before the remodeling was finished, and neither Hagerman nor Mohney ever referred to it again.
Mohney was eyeing other San Diego sites for what would eventually become his Deja Vu clubs. Downtown was seeing the death of its peep-show population. At the same time, the city was becoming a hot spot for both porn producers and resident stars, with more and more videos being produced (and sold) within city limits. We briefly carried, on consignment, a few videos literally handmade by the dancers themselves (or by their entrepreneurial pimps-slash-boyfriends).
The company saw the future was clearly in live nude girls, especially those industrious enough to market themselves with trinkets like handmade videos, Polaroids, and even worn undergarments (which we briefly offered to customers free as a happy hour promotion, part of a paid private-talk-booth show and given right off the ladies’ backs, as it were).
The company opened new stores patterned after Jolar, such as Pandora’s Box on Sixth Avenue in Tucson, Arizona. Similar shops were started in Phoenix, Galveston, Las Vegas, and elsewhere, and Hagerman and I trained some of the new managers in Tucson or at Jolar. In-store porn-star signings became popular, with occasional media coverage. It wasn't always positive coverage (“You’ll be shocked to hear what’s happening in your neighborhood!”), but anything that mentioned us was considered good press.
SD PORN CHRONOLOG #6: 1985 -- Though Reuben Sturman avoids conviction in a federal sting operation dubbed MIPORN, he finally faces prison thanks to an IRS agent who, since 1975, had been investigating his worldwide holdings, including kickback money earned from peep booths set up in San Diego. Sturman's found guilty of tax evasion in 1989, earning four years at Boron federal prison camp near Barstow (plus a million-dollar fine). While in prison, he faces charges of conspiracy in a bombing said to stem from his hiring bikers to extort kickback money from porn shops. Sturman has a helicopter assist him in escaping from the low-security facility on December 7, 1992. He’s arrested eight weeks later in an apartment near Disneyland. He’s acquitted of the bombings but convicted of conspiring to commit extortion through the use of violence. Since he owes $29 million in back taxes, the IRS seizes all his available assets. Sturman dies of a stroke in late 1997. Gojko Vasic, founder of the F Street adult bookstore chain, dies in 1993. His wife Alma takes over the chain.
The dancers were making far too much money for Hagerman’s liking. She came to visit for a week and revamped the system (her gold Mercedes hood ornament was stolen twice while parked out front, I suspect by angry dancers). She rebooked the girls as independent contractors and rented them booth space at the club to perform. We charged $75 per day off the top of anything they made, and then took 50 percent of their tips, which customers put through the slots into the lockboxes. The women didn't handle their money until the end of the week, when we’d deduct our booth-rental fees and our half of the week’s tips.
This angered a lot of dancers, but none that I recall quit. In fact, competition became fierce to rent booths on weekend nights, with women paying days in advance to keep their preferred booth and shifts. Rent soon went up to $100 per booth shift.
After a few weeks of this system, the state Labor Commissioner came down on us. I was visited on June 26, 1985, by deputy labor commissioner Victor Rojas, who brought with him several vice cops and a fire inspector, Captain Marion Stillwell. Stillwell kept me busy with eight cited violations, while Rojas and vice grilled the dancers.
The labor department then informed us that dancers had to be treated as employees from that point forward, threatening us with years’ worth of dancers’ back taxes if we challenged the decree. Hagerman chose not to fight and put all the dancers on the payroll, requiring them to clock in (I had to buy a time clock) and paying most of them minimum wage. All their tips went into lockboxes that the company kept for each woman until the end of the week. Then Jolar would cut them a check for 50 percent of their total tips.
It wasn’t just vice and the City that were campaigning to erase the pornographic blight on University Avenue. There were also occasional protestors. The 20 or so matronly ladies carrying “Jolar Exploits Women” signs around the building on four consecutive weekends (10:00 a.m. to 2:00 a.m., same shifts as the dancers) were my favorite. They actually listened to the dancers when they went outside to say that they weren’t being sold into slavery and that the lowest wage earner among them took home more cash per night than the club manager (i.e., me). “Who’s exploiting who?” they posited. The protest signs didn’t come down, but it was enjoyable and amusing to see such disparate women, leading such unrelated lives, having a lively discussion in the front parking lot about a woman’s right to buy a condo off wages legally earned while nude.
The club was raided again in February 1986, this time by cops holding warrants for the arrest of several dancers and myself. One of the dancers, “Angie,” had solicited an undercover cop, and others had been caught performing forbidden acts in private-booth shows for secret Sheriff shoppers (many of whom, the dancers insisted to me, exposed themselves and masturbated).
POLICE REPORT against Ellwest, excerpt: “The window in booth permitted each side to view the other, and customers were asked to expose their penises and masturbate to show that they were not police. Each officer made excuses, however, and the performers did not insist. Officers saw defendant perform twice, each time with another woman. Each time, the performers fondled and licked each other's breasts and masturbated.... Officers who watched other performances testified that women other than defendant fondled and licked each other vaginally as well.... Manager arrested for operating or maintaining a house of prostitution and pandering, class 5 felonies.”
I’d never spent more than a couple of hours in jail for the company; someone had always bailed me out while the handcuffs were still warm and taken care of my court appearances. I can't recall ever being in a courtroom for them, despite being arrested four times over dancer infractions (in addition to the unnerving if never-pressed FBI bust). Charges against me, anyways, were always dropped, if ever filed at all. This time I had to spend the night in a downtown holding cell, and I was unhappy about this, as you can imagine. Besides, I kept seeing those unmarked black cars...
When Harry Mohney next came to the club a few weeks later, I was still seething, and I complained up and down for who knows how long. I recall being pretty foulmouthed. I hadn’t even been offered the standard company bonus for taking the trip to jail ($1000 on each previous occasion).
On top of everything, he’d brought two young children, about two and four, into the back of the club where the dancer booths were. This was illegal and more than upsetting. Women seeing the kids through their booth windows were grabbing for their clothes and freaking out. Erreca, a stunning young mom and our highest-grossing day girl, ran up to my office crying and announced she had to go home, immediately. “I can’t be in there shoving my hand up myself while little kids are running around and laughing two feet away from me! This is sick!”
I agreed, and a few minutes later I flat out told Mohney to take the kids (his, I later discovered) outside; I refused to let them stay another moment. He stared at me, mouth agape. Hagerman had heard me go off a time a two, but Mohney was the guy everyone in the company deferred and referred to with a reverence bordering on messianic. Even as I was kicking him out of his own store, I realized my days at Jolar were numbered.
Harry quietly gathered his kids and drove them somewhere. I don’t think he said another word to me. Ever. He showed up with a bunch of workers a few days later, and they began tearing apart one wall of the bookstore to build a connecting hall between the counter and my office. I hadn’t been informed this major remodeling was about to happen, and Mohney drove off before I could ask, “Wot the...?”
I decided it was a good time to take a vacation, and I said so, out loud, to myself in the office, just in case the FBI might be listening. On Hagerman’s next visit, I gave her the dates I planned to be gone. She looked me in the eye and said -- ever concise and up front -- “You realize you won’t have a job when you get back?"
“We don’t get vacations,” she went on. “Remember what happened when Lee Bickel took a vacation?” she said, referencing the event that’d landed me in company management. I packed up my stuff from the office, took down my Buddy Holly Story movie poster, made one last deposit, and visited the East Coast. When I returned to San Diego, Hagerman had hired a guy named George -- whom I hear she later married -- to run Jolar.
It was over ten years before I’d again see Jackie Hagerman or Harry Mohney. Hagerman won a “Good Guy” retailer award at a 1997 porn industry award show. She appeared pretty much the same as I remembered her, remarkably well preserved and as wired looking as ever. Mohney made a rare personal appearance when Larry Flynt inducted him into Hustler’s “Porn Walk of Fame” in L.A. on October 29, 1993. He looked 30 or more years older than I recalled, appearing wizened and tired. He’d surely been through a lot.
SD PORN CHRONOLOG #7: While Harry Mohney escapes personal conviction in MIPORN, his company, Wide World of Video, faces corporate charges. In the last MIPORN trial, in 1987, he pleads guilty and pays millions in fines. 1990 -- federal prosecutors call Harry Mohney “the nation's second-largest purveyor of pornography” and estimate his net worth at over $100 million. In October 1992, he begins serving three years for tax evasion at Boron federal prison camp. "He used scores of corporate entities to hide himself in a very effective way,” says Richard Delonis, the assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted Mohney. “I have not encountered anyone who took cheating on their taxes to this kind of level." A federal tax lien totaling $14,454,611 is levied against Mohney’s companies in October 1993.
The next time I visited Jolar, a year or so after my vacation, Hagerman had hired a new guy to run things. Willem Hoiejenbos, a European, was listed in the articles of incorporation as “president of Jolar Cinema of San Diego Ltd.” In the years since, I’ve dated several of the Jolar dancers and gotten to know him a bit. At one time, Hoiejenbos and I both dated a platinum blonde stripper calling herself “Savannah” (who lived with me while she worked at the club). Contemporary Jolar girls told me the dancers weren’t making nearly as much money as in the old days, when $20,000 to $30,000 weeks were becoming commonplace.
Post-Jolar, taking a cue from how popular porn stars are, I founded my own comic book publishing company, Carnal Comics, featuring porn-star autobiographies. True Stories of Adult Film Stars became the top-selling adult comic book title of the '90s. I got to work with and often befriend women like Annie Sprinkle, Marilyn Chambers, Jasmin St. Claire, Jenna Jameson, Hyapatia Lee, Annabel Chong, Jill Kelly, Kendra Jade, Christina Angel, Ginger Lynn, Aja, Savannah, and dozens more lubricious ladies. I fell in love with one porn star and lived with a few others, though those are tales best left untold, assuming you’d even believe me if I shared them. Jolar eventually proved to be nowhere near my weirdest gig.
SD PORN CHRONOLOG #8: 2000 -- Harry Mohney co-owns the Deja Vu strip club chain (reportedly grossing $10 million yearly), and his Deja Vu Consulting firm manages over 60 strip joints (nee “gentleman’s clubs”) in the United States and Europe, including the Hustler Clubs. He has eight children, four born out of wedlock. April 2000 -- 19 local peep-booth establishments are inspected by vice, who issue notices of violation at 12. Four arrests are made for violation of California Penal Code section 647(a) (Lewd Act in Public), and one person is arrested for violation of Health and Safety Code section 11364 (possession of narcotics paraphernalia). In May, City Attorney Casey Gwinn spearheads an effort to have doors removed from area peep-show booths “to prevent group sex, masturbation, and a variety of unsanitary and unsafe sex practices.” He introduces the vice report at a city council meeting, citing items found in booths, including “excrement, sexual paraphernalia, used condoms, semen, used Kleenex, used napkins, clothing, urine, narcotics paraphernalia, balloons, and matches.”
I bumped into several ex-Jolar dancers over the years. Anorexic-thin “Toni” became a street prostitute and was battling AIDS when I last saw her. Her voluptuous little sister “Honey,” with the Betty Boop voice -- whom I hired on her 18th birthday -- is an actress I’ve seen in several mainstream movies and TV shows (including Married...with Children). “Sandy” started her own real estate office in East County and has, I hear, done very well. “Mary Jane” has a high-profile job in a famous zoo run by her father. Russian transplant “Sapphire Skies” ended up managing Deja Vu’s Kearny Mesa club, as well as appearing in an issue of Carnal Comics.
“Tiffany” filed a lawsuit against Jolar after ten years of employment, spending her last day locked (by herself) in her dancer booth and having to be removed by police who disassembled the booth door. “Madalyn” is currently suing Jolar, claiming she was fired while pregnant (though she’s another former roommate, I declined to file a deposition).
“Jezebel Flaire,” “Shyanne,” “Justan Obsession,” “Becky Sunshine,” “Annah Marie,” “Bonnie Michaels,” and several others became relatively anonymous porn “stars,” none of them to any notable acclaim. “Shyanne’s” porn website contributed to her losing custody of both her children.
SD PORN CHRONOLOG #9: 2000 -- The City implements a no-touch rule at strip clubs that ends lap dancing. When the ban is contested, a city hall scandal erupts involving FBI wiretaps and bribery accusations regarding Cheetahs owner Michael Galardi allegedly paying off three city council members: Michael Zucchet, Ralph Inzunza, and the late Charles Lewis. San Diego strip clubs are said to generate around $20 million annual combined revenue. The city’s adult bookstores earn about $25 million. In 2001, zoning issues force two of F Street’s San Diego stores to close. Of the 30 adult boutiques once based in the Gaslamp Quarter, only 2 remain. By 2004, only 19 of the city’s licensed 39 adult entertainment businesses have peep-show devices. A local ordinance is drafted and passed that forbids peep shows from operating between 2:00 and 6:00 a.m.
In January 2001, a new law went into effect, AB 2509, amending section 350 of the Labor Code to read, "Any amounts [of cash] paid directly by a patron to a dancer...shall be deemed a gratuity," i.e., the ladies could keep 100 percent of their tips. Jolar attorney George Mull filed a lawsuit against the Labor Commission contending that the new law treats strip clubs differently than other industries and that the law “interferes with the contracts clubs have with their dancers.” The labor dispute is still in contention. At this writing, Jolar takes out the first $50 from the dancers’ booth machines, with the rest of the machine money split in half. The dancers keep all cash tips, in accordance with the new law, and they’re also paid an hourly minimum wage. They’re fined $100 if they leave their shift early.
Jolar principals keep popping in and out of my life. I cocreated a mildly successful comic book series with “Bonnie Michaels” (Nightingale: Mistress of Dreams) and “Deja Sin” (Fallen Angel). I paid for “Jezebel Flaire” to go to massage school while she was my mistress, and I covered the rent for “Mary Jane” for about a year while we were sleeping together (I guess qualifying her as another mistress, though she’d kick the ass of anyone calling her that). I dated “Shyanne” while she worked at Jolar a couple of years ago, though I was living with her long before she became a self-described “HoJo” (i.e., Jolar Ho).
I now regret recommending the Jolar gig to her, as other dancers then encouraged her (back) into drug use and prostitution. Not that she wouldn’t have drifted toward that anyway, but strip clubs too often provided her -- and many others -- with an irresistible one-stop shop.
According to Shyanne, the company opened a new locale on Barnett Avenue, where she sometimes “dances” in the same peep-show-booth setups. She told me robberies are frequent, vice are constantly on patrol, and her bosses claim the City is trying to shut them down. Again. The battle of the peeps goes on.