Sex on Wheels

Playboy magazine throws a sexual revolution party, and nobody comes

San Francisco Chronicle and Channel 4 political reporter Phil Matier stands on the rain-drenched corner of Polk and O'Farrell streets, scowling, cell phone clamped to ear, huddled under the Mitchell Brothers porn theater sign. Cryptic phrases from the marquee appear to hover above his head: "Kopenhagen." "Ultra Room." "Experience the Cabanarama."

In contrast to Matier's scowl, the small crowd up the block is in high spirits, awaiting this morning's Playboy magazine tour of San Francisco's most memorable sexual revolution sites. No complimentary martinis or half-naked Bunnies, however -- just a rental bus parked in front of the Great American Music Hall, with a Playboy banner crudely duct-taped to its side. (The sign is actually magnetic, someone explains, but it's taped on because the only buses they could find had plastic side panels.)

Narrating the trip will be Playboy senior staff writer James Petersen. After 25 years answering readers' letters as the Playboy Advisor, Petersen is compiling a comprehensive history of the American sexual revolution for the magazine, and hosting associated bus tours in major U.S. cities.

According to publicist Bruce Cohen, the magazine's New York tour focused on heavyweight topics like gay rights at Stonewall, while the Washington, D.C., tour attracted women working in the federal bureaucracy who were curious about political issues. A trip around Los Angeles will cover the '70s porn industry.

But few local reporters have actually bothered to show up for San Francisco's bus tour, which will look at everything from Barbary Coast brothels to the club where Carol Doda first danced topless. You'd think such an excursion would attract more than two radio stations, a camera crew from the virtually unwatched Bay TV cable channel, a woman from an anti-censorship organization, Matier, and me.

Actually, a member of the publicity team confides, San Francisco has been by far the most difficult city in which to get press.

Of course we are. We're not about to let some out-of-towners tell us something we've already forgotten, even if it's interesting.

A friendly and accessible guy, Petersen, 50, wears khakis, running shoes, a denim shirt and tie, and a green corduroy jacket with a small Playboy Bunny head pin. I have recently published a book about the sexual revolution, but after chatting with Petersen, and realizing his access to the incredible treasure trove of the Hefner archives, I am silently seething with jealousy. I take some comfort, however, in the fact that he seems a bit thrown by my presence, as though I might suddenly correct him.

Inside the ornate Music Hall, Petersen describes how the room once thrived as a male-only burlesque palace run by fan dancer Sally Rand, whose Nude Ranch nudist revue was the hit of the 1939 Pacific Exposition/Fair at Treasure Island. We then file onto the bus for a two-hour joy ride back through time. But after asking a few on-camera questions, Phil Matier has mysteriously disappeared.

The bus nudges through downtown traffic, past the St. Francis Hotel. Petersen summarizes the 1921 Fatty Arbuckle rape scandal, how the silent-film comedian endured three trials, with women spitting on him as he entered the court, before being acquitted of the charges. He says this is a prime example of the way our nation occasionally throws a trial that publicly reshapes our sexual mores. I'm impressed with the detail about the spitting, which I'd never heard. He has done his homework.

We roll on into what once was the infamous Barbary Coast section of town, in the heart of the Financial District at Clay and Montgomery streets. Petersen describes a shadowy, sinful world in which sex was readily available to lower-class men and venereal disease was rampant. The area was bulldozed in 1917, like most U.S. red-light districts, leaving our government's boys healthy and disease-free for World War I. No wonder we won.

The bus turns onto Columbus and parks near Broadway. Petersen points to City Lights Bookstore, and quickly describes the "electric arc" of the 1950s beat poets and comedians. "If it wasn't for Mort Sahl," he says, "Hefner wouldn't have known what was hip."

We walk over to the Condor sports bar, where on June 19, 1964, waitress Carol Doda first danced topless for the country. She was refused service in many North Beach restaurants at the time, says Petersen. He smiles at the plaque proclaiming the club a historical landmark.

"It was the start of something, and the end of something," he says, somewhat cryptically. Petersen is given to such carefully crafted soundbites: "An erection is grace under pressure," he observes at one point. "When you make sex visible, you can change it," he says at another.

As our bus belches onward, more factoids tumble forth. Howard Hughes chose San Francisco to premiere his film The Outlaw, the first movie to defy the Hollywood morality code. An early 20th-century Prohibitionist named Dr. Cogsworth donated to Washington Square Park a statue of Founding Father Ben Franklin, obviously unaware that Franklin was also a well-known essayist on topics like mistresses and flatulence. Petersen then recites from memory what he believes is the first written female description of an orgasm in 1901: "It will feel as though heaven is saying yes to you." He adds that the woman stenographer who wrote this was sentenced to jail, and then committed suicide. Our crowd is silent.

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