Everything They Knew Was Wrong: Firesign Theatre and the Mitchell Brothers

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Everything They Knew Was Wrong: Firesign Theatre and the Mitchell Brothers

Posted on: June 2nd, 2014 by tommyj

Click here to view original web page at somethingelsereviews.com

One of the great comedy teams that sprung from the 1960s counterculture is the Firesign Theatre. It was formed around Peter Bergman’s show Radio Free Oz on Los Angeles station KPFK, where Phil Austin, David Ossman, and Phil Proctor came into Bergman’s orbit and formed a team that created off the wall, improvisational comedy culled from popular culture, historical events, and literary works.

Having been influenced by the likes of the Goon Show, Spike Milligan and Bob and Ray, the Firesign Theatre eschewed punchline-based jokes and obvious sketch comedy. Instead what they went on to create could be best described as a cinema of the mind, as evidenced by their side-long (and later album-long) pieces released on LP by Columbia Records throughout the 1970s.

It was through those albums where Firesign Theatre gained national popularity beyond their origins at one local radio station. While the Columbia releases brought them a modicum of fame, their original brand of off-center (and occasionally very adult) comedy never reached the heights of some of their later, more conventional contemporaries like Steve Martin, or Cheech and Chong.

So when the Firesign Theatre produced a film based on their 1974 release Everything You Know is Wrong, they probably knew it wouldn’t get a major release considering their near-cult status at the time. But what they couldn’t have imagined was that it would eventually be shown at a porn theater — though not just any porn theater, but one that was owned by the notorious Mitchell Brothers, who were the reigning porn kings of the day.

And I would never have dreamed I’d be the one to facilitate this unlikely, if brief, business pairing.

For context, let me start with a little background about my own enthusiasm for the Firesign Theatre. I first learned about them when I read the lead album review in Rolling Stone for “Don’t Crush that Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers.” (The review appeared in the issue dated October 15, 1970). As an aspiring cartoonist and comedy aficionado with my own absurdist sense of humor, I was intrigued enough by that review to buy the album blind to hear what the hubbub was all about.

I was not disappointed. Beyond the originality and creativity of that album, there were items that I related to instantly — bits where, while funny unto themselves, were richer if you knew the context. I immediately recognized that “High School Madness” and its teen (?) hero Porgie Tirebiter was a take-off of the Henry Aldrich movie series of the 1940s. In those films, teenaged Henry would get into misadventures with his pal Dizzy. While the characters’ names of Porgie and Mudhead are obvious references to Archie and Jughead, Ossman’s portrayal of Porgie was obviously inspired by the Henry character portrayed by James Lydon in many of those films. (Phil Austin confirmed the Aldrich connection for this article.)

It was also apparent that Firesign Theatre watched the same late-night movie show on KCOP (channel 13) in Los Angeles, where I grew up. The real entertainment there wasn’t the featured film, but the commercial interruptions which would break in mid-scene (and more often than not in the middle of a line of dialog). “Pliers” perfectly captured those low-budget ads for local establishments with their echoey voiceovers and cheesy music, and those commercials were the main reason that I would stay up late watching station-mangled movies on a Saturday night. (Austin recalled that there may have been an actual KCOP ad for Ames Guns which they spoofed on “Pliers.”)

From then on, I followed FT religiously, particularly after attending one of their appearances in 1970 at the Ash Grove on Melrose in LA. At that performance, their improvisational chops took center stage; FT would frequently go off script, seizing upon what was funny for the moment and not simply reciting lines by rote. It was my priority to catch their rare performances (including a 1973 show at Pauley Pavilion) and ate up both group and solo albums; of the latter Phil Austin’s Roller Maidens from Outer Space was a particular favorite.

In 1975, I attended a showing of their film Everything You Know is Wrong at the Los Feliz Theatre in Los Angeles. As I watched the movie, I thought about how more people should have a chance to see this inventive visualization of the album beyond this special engagement, and an idea began forming in my mind. At the time, I was an assistant manager at a movie theater in Long Beach, and I thought about presenting the movie at a midnight showing. I hung around after the theater was empty and caught Phil Austin in the lobby where I excitedly told him my idea. Phil seemed interested and put me in touch with Fred Jones (who, if memory serves, was also there after the showing).

However, I didn’t work at an ordinary, main-stream movie theater — it was one of the many theaters run by porn kings Artie and Jim Mitchell. The Mitchell Brothers were riding high (in their genre, at least) on their own releases Behind the Green Door and The Resurrection of Eve. Green Door had garnered a lot of publicity as it starred Marilyn Chambers, who previously was a model. One of her gigs was posing for Ivory Snow detergent innocently holding a baby, and the Mitchells milked that dichotomy in promoting the film.

In parallel to X-rated film production, Artie and Jim created their own theater chain, and in doing so moved porn away from the realm of seedy peep shows. They accomplished this by taking over failing, well-maintained United Artists cinemas and using those to first showcase their productions, and second profit by exhibiting other films, usually ones with good production values (relatively speaking).

My own involvement in the theater stemmed from being unemployed and offered a job by a good friend, Steve Koehn. Steve was managing the Mitchell Brothers Theatre in Long Beach, and began staffing it with other kindred spirits, including Wayne Babiash and Debi Patton. Essentially, we were all a bunch of young hippies who weren’t into porn. We worked there because it was a job that wasn’t run of the mill, to say the least. We were all heavily into the rock music of the day, and Steve and I were especially into progressive rock.

Steve had put a receiver and turntable in the lobby behind the concession stand, and mounted a pair of large speakers on either side near the doors that led into the theater. When the district managers weren’t around we would blast our favorite records or Long Beach FM station KNAC (which was totally progressive rock at the time) at full volume, caring little what the clientele thought. We implicitly reasoned that their being able to hear dialog wasn’t tantamount here. I recall one instance where, during my attending to my hourly task of checking the exit doors in the theatre, I realized that Yes’ Close to the Edge, which was blasting in the lobby, could be heard almost as loudly in the theater itself. But as far as I can remember, no one complained (what would they have said if they did?) and it only fed into our cavalier attitude toward the entire enterprise.

We eventually learned that the Mitchell Brothers were struggling to complete their latest production and one of the most ambitious porn films to date. Sodom and Gomorrah: The Last Seven Days was to be one of the most expensive porn films ever, er, mounted. The Mitchells may have been buoyed by the success of their recent releases, assuming that with an epic theme and major studio-like production values X-rated films could break through to the masses. (The quasi-popular success of Deep Throat probably contributed to this notion).

Unfortunately, issues in financing the production began to take their toll. Soon the theaters were reduced to showing 16-millimeter cheapie, peep-show quality productions, and I recall being startled at seeing how the small size of the projected image was dwarfed by the unused screen real estate that surrounded it. Promotional T-shirts were cheaply (and shoddily) produced and sold at the Mitchell’s theater chain, depicting a tall man seated on the ground performing oral sex on himself. Much to the staff’s chagrin, we were all required to wear the shirt while at work, doing our best to avoid being seen through the theater’s glass doors, a mere few feet from the street.

As the Mitchells were in need of funds, I knew that the idea of presenting Everything You Know is Wrong as a midnight show may not be a hard sell to management. If we could pull it off it would bring the ailing Brothers some much-needed revenue, but that really wasn’t my intent: I was starting to sour on the job due to some skirmishes between myself and management for some long-forgotten reasons. Enthusiastic about the creativity of the film, my goal was to have showings for eager fans, including those who may have missed it at the Los Feliz. The fact that the Mitchells needed the money was just a means to that end.

Ultimately the business factions between Firesign Theater and the Mitchell Brothers made the deal, and with two shows scheduled for June 27-28, 1975, we were off and running. The theater projectionist was a guy named Gary Cirillo, who was a bit older than us and a movie buff. As a union projectionist, he was assigned to that theater and shared the staff’s disinterest in the subject matter. I thought it might be a good idea to show some shorts prior to the film to increase interest. With his longtime professional experience, Gary was instrumental in helping to obtain this extra content. I chose a Max Fleisher Superman cartoon along with a couple of other shorts (the titles which, unfortunately, I can’t recall). But we somehow got a short clip from the original “Mickey Mouse Club” TV show where Mickey opened a segment within the show by greeting the viewer (similar to the YouTube video below), and we gleefully targeted that for our opening. If the shorts weren’t enough of a bonus, it was decided to serve free popcorn as yet another incentive. We weren’t hedging our bets.

At some point, I went to Fred Jones’ home studio, and it was there where I first met Firesign Theatre colleague Edgar Bullington, who was assisting Fred in producing some radio ads to be broadcast on KNAC. Edgar was eager to assist in helping to promote the showing, and he was my conduit to the FT camp to help coordinate the logistics. (Edgar and I became fast, and lasting, friends, and though we have lived on opposite ends of the West Coast, our friendship has continued to this day.)

We had fliers printed to post and distribute everywhere — including the Long Beach Arena, which was practically across the street from the theater. A few days before our midnight showings, Yes was scheduled to perform at the arena, and since Wayne and I were attending that concert we brought a bunch of flyers which we taped all over the hallways prior to the show. (Later, upon exiting the hall, I noticed that the flyers had been removed, and a few days later I intercepted a mail from the arena management — stating something to the effect of: “How would you like it if we papered your theater lobby with ads for our events?”)

On Friday, June 27, the theater staff was all set and excited in anticipation of the showing, and district manager Jim Gish was in attendance to oversee the activities. While the theater janitor arrived earlier than usual, we only had less than half an hour after the last scheduled showing that night before opening the doors to an altogether different clientele, so the theatre staff assisted in cleaning the theater before letting people in around 11:30. In the process, we found more than one unsavory item, but we were diligent in ensuring that the theatre seats and floor were clean prior to letting eager Firesign Theatre fans inside.

At about 11 p.m., five or six people got into line — and only a handful more showed up by 11:15. With the doors scheduled to open just a few minutes away, I started to fear we wouldn’t get much of a turnout. Gish — with whom I already had a strained relationship, due to the aforementioned skirmish — made it crystal clear that he was not a happy camper, and that it was my neck on the line should these showings not meet expectations for revenue. As uncomfortable as that was, I really wanted to promote EYKIW, and the prospect of a small turnout would thwart those efforts.

While it may sound clichéd, a huge crowd suddenly seemed to appear out of nowhere, and the line to buy tickets swelled to well around the block. Ultimately, the theater was filled close to capacity, and Edgar assisted the staff in serving up the free popcorn to the appreciative hoards. I was behind the concessions counter when I heard that Gary had started what I had chosen as the introductory music: it was the opening of Yes’ “The Gates of Delirium.” I raced to the projection booth, where I slowly reduced the lighting in the theater, timing it so the fanfare-like conclusion of the Yes piece would coincide with the lights totally extinguished and the curtains drawn open, with Mickey Mouse popping up on the screen to the delight of the crowd. (I’m sure that the incongruity of Walt Disney’s squeaky-clean character making an appearance at a porno theater wasn’t lost on the FT fans, and we were probably lucky that the folks at Disney never learned about this.)

The first part of the show consisted of the shorts, followed by a brief intermission which had been mandated by Gish to sell more concessions and milk every penny from the customers. (Many audience members grumbled, clearly unhappy about delaying the main attraction.) When Everything You Know is Wrong was finally presented, I stopped doing any work whatsoever and sat down with my girlfriend (and current wife) Cindy to watch the movie: I had worked for this moment and no one was going to deprive me of my much-anticipated enjoyment.

After it was all over and the hall cleared, the staff had a private party in the theater lobby, and Gish commended me on the success of the show. What he didn’t know was that while I was relieved the show wasn’t a bust it was for an altogether different reason: A lot of happy people got to see Everything You Know is Wrong. Its budget may have been miles away from what the Mitchells ultimately spent on their own opus — Sodom and Gomorrah ended up costing nearly $1 million — but Firesign Theatre took the opportunity to create visual humor that added an extra dimension beyond the recorded work. It was apparent that FT was truly inspired and came up with some great visual bits in what would be their only starring film.

For some reason, I don’t recall much of the showing the subsequent night. If memory serves, it may have been slightly less attended, but not substantially. At the end of that show, we may have convened at Gary’s house for a late night party, where Gary had a penchant for showing old movies and shorts on his 16mm projector to entertain his partygoers.

However, that this wasn’t the end of the Mitchell Brothers involvement with Everything You Know is Wrong. The Mitchells apparently misunderstood the movie’s appeal to the Firesign Theatre’s core fan base. Coincidentally, an old friend of mine worked in the box office of one of the Mitchell’s Bay Area theaters, and I learned from him that EYKIW was being presented throughout the day with the standard porn fare shown in the evenings. Not surprisingly, customers who attended the matinees would immediately exit the theater in a state of confusion, demanding their money back as they were expecting something else altogether. One has to wonder if whatever profits the Mitchells made at the Long Beach showing were ultimately lost due to that miscalculation.

Not long after our midnight shows, I parted ways with the Mitchell Brothers to move to Toronto to attempt to forge a career as a rock-stage lighting director. Wayne Babiash went on to manage a MB theater in Santa Ana, taking a position that Gish had offered me which I wisely decided against. Santa Ana is in the heart of crimson-red conservative Orange County, where there were some well documented efforts to shut down the theater. Wayne would later abandon that job, and go on to marry Debi Patton; they eventually moved to Wayne’s home town Green Bay, Wisconsin where they live today. We all lost touch with Gary Cirello and Steve Koehn, and an exhaustive search on the Internet proved unsuccessful.

Despite the issues that plagued it, Sodom and Gomorrah: The Last Seven Days was finally completed and released. I watched it before I left for Toronto, and recall that the production values were pretty impressive, for a porn film. (How’s that for damning it with faint praise?) Unfortunately for the Mitchells and their investors, it wasn’t the breakthrough success that they hoped for, and the subject matter — which included a great deal of sodomy — probably didn’t help. At the time of its release, the film reportedly did not recoup its huge price tag. Jim Mitchell later fatally shot brother Artie in 1991, and after being found guilty of voluntary manslaughter served three of his six-year sentence in San Quentin Prison before dying of a heart attack in 2007.

The Firesign Theatre continued to record albums. While live performances were rare in the Columbia years, they later performed more frequently and continued to do so up until 2012, when Peter Bergman passed away on March 9 from complications due to leukemia. The remaining members haven’t publicly announced any plans for continuing as a unit, and have moved on to other projects, including shoring up their long legacy. While Peter’s death was a huge blow in itself, it probably had a deeper impact and resonance for the surviving members: If not for Peter — a radio star in his own right who could have hogged the spotlight but didn’t — there may have never have been a Firesign Theatre, with its unconventional brand of comedy that stood proudly away from the pack.

Finally, the movie version of Everything You Know is Wrong has not been released on DVD, though there are still VHS tape copies available (including through Amazon), and video from the film can be found on YouTube. Surprisingly, I haven’t seen the entire film since the showing at the Mitchell Brothers Long Beach theatre. When I do finally have the opportunity to revisit it, I may first cue the intro to “The Gates of Delirium,” possibly follow it with one of Max Fleischer’s Superman cartoons, and remember that time in my life and the people who were a part of the experience — and how my dedication to the Firesign Theatre resulted in my playing a small, forgotten part in bringing together that unusual association.

To the curious and uninitiated, there are two ways to experience the work of the Firesign Theatre.

For a gradual indoctrination check out Dear Friends. Released as a double album, this collection of shorter bits from their radio show and live performances (from the aforementioned Ash Grove) may be easier to initially digest.

Their longer works are denser and will benefit from repeated listenings. Aside of Everything You Know is Wrong, I would recommend their second (and probably best known) album How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You’re Not Anywhere at All. This album consisted of two side-long pieces when it was released on vinyl; the second of the two, “Nick Danger, Third Eye” is a 1940s-style radio play that skews that format’s conventions, and which is probably the group’s most accessible work.

Many fans refer to the album by a different (and shorter) title which was a phrase that appeared on the cover: All Hail Marx and Lennon, with accompanying photos of Groucho and John respectively. John Lennon might have been a fan, as photographs exist of the late Beatle wearing a “Not Insane” button (which contains additional text in reference to the Firesign Theatre album “Not Insane or Anything You Want To”). Regardless, How Can You Be in Two Places … is amongst the Firesign Theatre’s best recorded works.

More info about the Firesign Theatre can be found via their website.

With regard to recommendations for the work of the Mitchell Brothers, sorry but I can’t help you. To paraphrase the title of a Firesign Theatre album: In the X world, you’re on your own.

Special thanks to Edgar Bullington and Wayne and Debi Babiash for their valuable input, verification, and artifacts. Special mention: Additional theater staff Marsha, Karen, and Starr.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Mike Tiano is known worldwide through his association with Yes. He joined the staff of the first major online fanzine Notes From the Edge in 1993, and it was through Mike that the band gained attention to the fanzine. With the band’s blessing Mike launched the band’s official website YesWorld (the name was coined by ex-frontman Jon Anderson) with the intent of covering Yes band members both past and present. Mike’s writing talents were evident in his editorials that would appear under the heading ‘Sound Chaser.’ He was commissioned by Rhino to write the liner notes for four of their remastered CDs, as well as to provide an essay on his first Yes concert for their compilation ‘The Word is Live.’ Even though Mike is knowledgeable about progressive rock, his interests don’t end there. Mike is a media maven in the sense that he is a huge movie buff, ardent TV watcher, savvy Beatles fan, and a musician in his own right: Mike plays guitar and is a creative songwriter who is currently working on his solo album, and performing live with singer/musician Chuck Brewer in their duo Creetisvan. Mike lives in the Seattle area with his wife Cindy, and says he is “excited to be contributing articles about various media aspects to SER.”

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