This article was originally published in the Dec. 10, 1985 issue of the Daily Trojan. Pussycat Theaters was a prominent chain of adult movie theaters with 30 locations in California in the 1980s.
“Obscene” means different things to different people, but the president of Pussycat Theaters, Jimmie Johnson, has a definition all his own.
“Obscene? Oh, wow,” Johnson said. “Obscene films are boring films; films that are on the screen too long. Also films that rip the public off by promising (titillation) and then not delivering.”
Johnson has spent a large part of his 17-year association with California’s premier adult theater organization persuading the courts, the police and the public that his chain is not obscene — by anyone’s definition. [He started as a] truck driver and worked his way up to become president five years ago. Though he’s been arrested and involved in numerous obscenity trials, he’s always been acquitted.
In the 1970s he was an easy target for quota-seeking policemen, he said, because he often had to travel far to get prints, and police, he continued, usually illegally, were often hot on his tail.
Before a film can be confiscated on the grounds of obscenity, a policeman must enter the theater, view the film in its entirety, and report to a judge for a warrant. Then he must come back to the theater with the warrant and confiscate the film.
Too often, Johnson said, these procedures are ignored. He referred to an incident in Buena Park in the early 1970s, in which he said a judge was standing on a sidewalk issuing blank warrants. Johnson said he received a warrant for simply picking up a film for a theater, even though the judge had obviously not seen the film.
Police officials in Buena Park would not discuss the incident with the Daily Trojan.
Despite the dogged monitoring of the FBI, religious groups and policemen, the Pussycat Theaters remain 34 screens strong and eager to celebrate their 25th anniversary.
The first Pussycat Theater opened in Huntington Park in 1961. For its first few months of operation, the theater showed general-release features. But Johnson said it quickly became a babysitter for hyperactive children.
“The theater was practically ripped apart,” Johnson said. “Constant repairs were needed — kids would fight the manager and each other.
But Johnson also admitted that the theater couldn’t make money showing general releases. “Mainstream movies are very competitive. If you don’t have a lot of theaters, you can’t get first-run product.”
Pussycat’s ’60s product reveals less skin than its ’80s offerings, but the controversy surrounding its showing was just as strong.
“Guys always kept their clothes on in the movies back then,” Johnson said. “The girls would be seen only with bare breasts — everything else was covered. Gradually, more and more was revealed until the ‘how-to’ documentaries of the ’70s, when the whole industry went hardcore.”
And that marked the start of the Pussycat success story — a story largely restricted to those over 18. It also marked the start of a growing public furor over Pussycat’s films, a furor Johnson must fight every day.
As the chain’s primary booking agent, Johnson selects films for each of the 34 theaters. He views them all in a plush screening room next to his office, and employs rigid criteria in determining which features are worthy.
“I like my movies to move,” Johnson said. “Have you ever gone to a movie and started squirming in your seat after 15 minutes? That’s because you’re bored. The same things that make an adult film exciting make a mainstream film exciting — good plot, good name entertainment and good technical qualities.”
Unwilling to discount “adult qualities” entirely, Johnson added, “and good, exciting sex.”
Johnson said the only sex his films will not show are child pornography and bestiality. “I really haven’t seen much of that anyway. I think it’s mostly popular in Europe.”
And though there have been allegations that the industry trafficks in “snuff” films (where women are supposedly murdered on camera), Johnson insists that none have been made.
But his insistence hasn’t convinced his opponents. “When people hear ‘adult theater’ they think of a snuff/kid-porn double feature. With a lot of these people, there’s nothing I can do to change their minds. They will never come to my theaters, so I can’t show them otherwise.”
If they would come to his theaters, Johnson said, what they’d find would surprise them. “First and foremost, we are a group of theaters. We’re not a series of auditoriums with 39 folding chairs. All our staff is in uniform. Our bathrooms are clean. We have a rule book four inches thick.”
His rule book may guarantee quality, but it can’t ensure profits. For some of his theaters, Johnson said 1985 has been a “learning year.” He said some of his locations are losing money for the first time since their opening.
“Adult theaters have to compete now. Everyone is making and showing movies these days — cable companies, commercial jetliners, luxury hotels and of course, the video market,” Johnson said.
With the proliferation of adult video tapes, potential Pussycat patrons can watch the same or similar films at home. But that’s not Johnson’s only grievance.
“Producers went too far by bringing adult features into the homes. A lot of fundamentalist groups don’t like it, and they have loud voices. That makes their fight against theaters even stronger,” he added.
As if financial competition weren’t enough of a problem, Johnson also faces strict zoning ordinances. “Some of those laws are ridiculous,” he said. The ordinances restrict his theaters’ locations. They may not be near another adult theater, a school, a church, a park, and what Johnson calls the most frustrating — any place where a minor is “likely to congregate.”
“Who knows where a minor is going to congregate? It’s impossible to predict,” he said. “The law requires the city to find us a place to operate, but you should see some of the places they come up with. One was in the middle of a Lockheed hangar.”
But Johnson is generally pleased with the cooperation he’s received from Los Angeles, where 18 of his theaters are located. A large autographed portrait of Tom Bradley hangs in his office.
“The big people downtown know what we do and how we do it. They know we’re a quality operation. Yes, we’ve contributed money to political campaigns, but we never do it as ‘Pussycat Theaters.’ Anyway, nobody downtown would be embarrassed to accept money from Pussycat Theaters,” Johnson said.
He said most of his problems come from other cities, which he didn’t identify.
Johnson is throwing “one hell of a party” to commemorate Pussycat’s 25th birthday. He plans in-house promotions and prize give-aways to push Pussycat into the public eye. Most of all, he wants to recapture the spirit of the early 1970s, which was rich with profit and enthusiasm.
Those were the days of Deep Throat.
“You know, when I first saw that film, before it came out, I had no idea it would be the smash that it was. I played it for 10 years,” Johnson said. Daily Variety reports Deep Throat to be Los Angeles’ undisputed box-office attraction for 1972 and 1973.
“I beat all the competition. I had that film in one theater and it beat stuff like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Lady Sings the Blues. Those were playing everywhere. Every day I had a 596-seat house filled for 13 shows. People waited in the rain for four hours to see Deep Throat.”
Johnson couldn’t pinpoint precisely what made Deep Throat so special, but said it is still quite “adult,” even by today’s standards.
Although his films are geared toward adults, young people benefit from their profits. After some questioning, Johnson admitted that he has done a lot of charity work over the years, especially with the Variety Club. “We don’t publicize things like that,” he said, “because that’s not the reason we do it.”
One may question the morality of the “entertainment” Johnson provides, but there is no questioning the cleanliness of his theaters and the friendliness of his staff.
A visitor to the Pussycat at 1508 North Western Avenue found the theater and bathroom immaculate, and the employees congenial. The theater is quite large, reasonably well-lit (once your eyes adjust), the seats are comfortable, and uniformed ushers are always on patrol.
As for Burning Snow, the film being screened at the time, well … that’s better discussed in an editorial.