One Weird Gig

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 Déjà 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.

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