A documentary about Chuck Holmes, who founded Falcon Studios, uncovers the risks (and adventures) of making sexy films for a gay audience.
Few men have had as much an effect on gay culture as Vaughn Kincey, Jack Dufault, Jim Hodges, and Chuck Holmes. In the late 1960s and early 70s, they — under the pseudonyms John Summers, Matt Sterling, John Travis, and Bill Clayton — helped pioneer what would become the gay pornography industry. Gay films made by gay men for a gay audience. Driven by the exuberance of gay liberation and profit, they delivered to millions of gay men the first vision of what an out, unashamed gay life might look like.
But 40 years later, they and the risks they took are still largely unknown and unacknowledged. While working on Seed Money, a documentary about Chuck Holmes — who founded Falcon Studios, and went on to become the most commercially successful of the four — I kept coming back to the risks and adventure of those first years post-Stonewall. Some of these stories made it into the film, which screens this summer at dozens of festivals, including Outfest in Los Angeles on July 13. But some of the best did not. Here, in the words of those who were there is how it all began.
(Interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.)
VAUGHN KINCEY (“John Summers”, co-founder Falcon Studios): It was just a very small group of us when we started. It wasn’t that many. At first, it started off me and John Travis. We were just shooting pictures and running whorehouses. And then next came Matt Sterling, which was Jack Dufault. And then came Chuck [Holmes].
I was working on Sutter Street at an art gallery. I was a curator, and every lunch time we’d go to Union Square to eat lunch and shop at I. Magnin’s, and you know — sissy shit. This one guy was a school teacher and I think he was holding up stores — you know, he had a gun and he was holding up stores convenience stores to raise money. He told me this story about a place on Castro Street that was a place of frequency: a whorehouse. And mmmmmm… I was interested.
So he took me over. The place was just dark and dingy. And the sissies were flying around there like birds and I thought — My God! Who would want to buy one of these fucking sissies? So we talked and said why don’t we come partners — I can bring in art and sheets and beautiful towels… Two months later we opened our place.
I met Bob Damron [of the Damron Gay Travel Guide]. He used to shoot boys, some of the guys in my business, to put into his catalog. J. Brian was the one that was the architect of it. It was calledGolden Boys.
JIM HODGES (“John Travis,” co-founder Falcon Studios): I was probably one of the first in the business. Bob Mizer [publisher of [of Physique Pictorial] was down here on West 11th Street in Los Angeles. We were shooting posing straps. And then it went from posing straps to ‘soft’ nudes [with flaccid penises]. And then it went from ‘soft’ nudes to piano wire holding the penis back — but hard so it would stay down, not go up. It was a lot of magazine publishing back then. That is really where it all started.
JOHN WATERS (“Pope of Trash,” director Pink Flamingos): When I was young there was no legal hardcore porn. What was thought of as porn back then was pin-up magazines like Vim and Vigor and all those Bruce of [LA]. And I used to shoplift them because I was too afraid of buying them. If you call that porn, that was the first porn I saw. I read Candy and Lady Chatterly’s Lover and Henry Miller and I went to all the nudist camp and exploitation movies right up to when hardcore finally became legal.
VAUGHN KINCEY: Before you couldn’t actually see a penis, you couldn’t actually see it. There were about three guys that were shooting what they called beefcake. They started shooting boys with no clothes on and oh — the books were selling like you wouldn’t believe.
They fired J. Brian and brought Jim Hodges in, which is John Travis. So they introduced me to Jim and we just were friends right away. He spent most of his time at one of my houses and actually almost moved in. I don’t think he went home but once or twice a month. He just stayed there all the time.
J. Brian opened up another company called J. Brian Enterprises over on Folsom Street. He kept wanting to make a movie like a romantic love story but with two guys. He kept wanting to do it. So the Dean of the University of Oregon gave us the money to do it, and they were shooting — John Travis was running the camera. They were shooting and shooting and shooting. Pretty soon, they had spent up that $20,000 dollars, and [J. Brian] would get drunk every night.
In between shots at the evening, Jim would shoot a little hardcore. We didn’t know it was hardcore at that time. He just shot a couple of guys kissing and actually have sex, but the movie that J. Brian was making was not sex. It was just beautiful guys running around half naked. But this was hard sex. And Jim had shot three or four scenes.
When J. Brian found out what he had shot, they got into a fistfight. Like two bitches going at each other. I had to break them up. So we had to take the film away from J. Brian and have it edited because the guy had a lot of money [invested] in it.
JIM HODGES: I was traveling the country, checking into hotels, meeting interested customers that were interested in buying [hardcore] films. And I had what you call a demo, an 8mm film that I would run. It would take about twenty minutes. It would show four or five short subjects on eight or nine films I had available and they would buy them while they were there. And then we would talk and chit chat. And in one of my encounters back at Cincinnati, Ohio, I met Chuck. And we chit-chatted and talked. He said, “Oh, I want to get into the business! Oh, I would love to get into that business!” I said, “No, I don´t think you really want to deal with the Feds and Postal Inspectors and all the other shit involved.” “Oh, I want to get into that business and I want to make movies.” Blah, blah, blah, blah. Six or seven months later he moved out to San Francisco.
STEVEN SCARBOROUGH (director Falcon Studios, founder Hot House Entertainment): It was extremely closeted. As [Chuck] told it, he had some friends who were in it — I think he means Hodges and Vaughn… And he said: “Oh, I’m smarter than those guys are, and they seem to be making a good living so I know I can do it.” So, evidently, he borrowed $5,000 dollars from someone and that was how he started Falcon.
JEFF STRYKER (porn star): Chuck was the business brain behind everything. He was the financial whiz. John Travis was the cameraman. He was the creative aspect of everything. He was the original pioneer. But Chuck knew how to capitalize off this. He was very, very good with money. So when they got together, it was Travis shooting them and Chuck marketing them and taking it from there. But in the beginning, it was a two man operation. Vaughn Kincey came in because he would sell them the mailing list that he got from this company, that company and the other.
VAUGHN KINCEY: I don’t even remember what we discussed. It was so unprofessional. It was like someone says “Hey, let’s do this.” I said I’m going to set you up, give you all the contacts. I want $5,000 and a little percentage of whatever. And we just started doing it. It just blossomed. You know sex sells. It just blossomed overnight.
MARTY ROSENTHAL (Le Salon bookstore, San Francisco): When I first got into the industry, they were selling anything at all. The 15 minute loops, those 8mm loops, were so poorly lit and people’s body hair was not manicured. Their hair didn’t matter. Dirty feet. This was straight and gay porn. It didn’t matter because it was sex, but sometimes you could hardly even what was going on.
As the industry matured, it became very professional and well-lit, extreme close-ups, beautiful models. I think Chuck was a major part in getting the industry to that point.
While sex had been filmed since the invention of the camera, the sale or exhibition of “porn” — actual sex on film — was illegal. In 1969, San Francisco had became the first city in the US to allow porn to screen in theaters, and the business flourished, leading the New York Times to proclaim it the “Smut Capital of the United States” in 1970. Demand for hardcore product increased nationally, with most of it coming out of San Francisco.
HABIB CAROUBA (owner, Market Street Cinema, San Francisco): On film we just kept pushing the envelope. Whatever you could do. Like, you could show a dick but you can’t show a hard dick — so one time you show him half-hard. But in the old days, with the gay films, we could show anything you want because the cops didn’t want to go [in]. And if you had a gay cop, then he liked it — so he didn’t bust it.
PHIL ST. JOHN (performer and director): San Francisco was wild when I got there in ’71. We went to San Francisco because we had had with the rest of America. We wanted to be free. We wanted to have sex. We wanted to be gay. We wanted to be queer, and we wanted to take a lot of drugs and party and listen to really good music… And porn was part of that. Porn is freedom.
I just started going back to school and one day I was walking on Market Street. and some woman came up to me and she said “Do you want to be in a porn movie?”
And I said “A gay porn movie?” And she said “Yeah, yeah, gay, gay.” I said okay. And I was in film school so I thought I kind of owe it to myself to see what it’s like on the other side of the camera. And much to my embarrassment, there was a guy right from film class, one of my straight buddies from film school, who was the cameraman.
He had the lens shoved up right on my ass with me getting fucked on camera. It was wild.
VAUGHN KINCEY: We weren’t making films so that people would say they are having good sex or they are showing how sex should be done. We were making them because we enjoyed it. We loved it, and that’s what we liked doing.
JOHN KARR (journalist, The Bay Area Reporter): They were very post-Stonewall. They were reflecting new gay freedoms. The ability to have sex — which had been clandestine and furtive. The explosion of gay men’s visibility: on the streets, in the world, in bars that no longer had their windows painted black and the movies quickly reflected this. It was an incredible explosion. How quickly the sense of freedom replaced The Boys in the Band era.=
PHIL ST. JOHN: I was living in the Castro and I had heard about this movie theater downtown. And they said: “It’s a mainstream movie but don’t be put off by that, there is like the wildest sex that you ever saw in your life going on there.” So I went to find it and I didn’t think it was as big as it was. It was a huge theater. I mean it held maybe six, seven hundred people on the main floor but then the balcony maybe was twice the size. I mean it was huge, and the bathrooms were wild, too.
There were soldiers. There were sailors. There were like leather guys. There were cowboys. There were even a few drag queens working the bathroom. I mean it was a really wild place.
It took me a while to find the balcony, but once I did, I never left. God, I spent like all my off days from film school in the balcony at the Strand theater. And it was great!
JOHN KARR: There were double bills that changed every other week. It cost $5 dollars to get in — that was expensive for me to have discretionary income. But I couldn’t deny I wasn’t in the theater every other week when a new movie opened.
Over on Polk Street at California, there was the Laurel Theater. I’m in there watching a movie one evening — and the police arrive. And people were shivering and shaking and crying. And I said, “They just want us to leave. Just leave.” I don’t know what was really going on, but they were hassling the business.
TED SAWICKI (cameraman and editor, Delta Productions): You have to understand it’s before video and basically the dark ages. No one had ever done this before.
You are going to look at the history. There’s some nudity and some running around, and then it’s going to go to kissing. And it’s going to go to some full frontal — shocking! But as far as hard core sex coming on the scene, creeping in ’68, ’69, ’70, ’71, ’71, it had gotten hard core. Still very illegal. It was interstate transportation of pornography. It was a felony — and it’s equivalent to smuggling cocaine.
STEVEN SCARBOROUGH: They all hid. They all had noms de porn. At the first hint of a bust they’d all pick up their teepees and run.
There was a motel down there on Sunset [Blvd in Los Angeles], The Saharan, that they all used to shoot in. And there are stories about the FBI sitting out there in their sunglasses at the swimming pool and watching and shit like that! One time they had to get the tapes out, they couldn’t get the tapes out of the room — the FBI was downstairs. So Vaughn tied a towel on his head and got the laundry basket and went up there like the maid, and put the freaking tapes in the laundry basket and went like this, rode out past the FBI.
VAUGHN KINCEY: You had to be very careful. No one knew where they were going to shoot that day until they were going there. It was a secret. It was terrible. It was like the McCarthy Era for making sex films.
MARTY ROSENTHAL: You weren’t supposed to ship obscene materials across state lines. There were certain areas of the country where we knew we were not supposed to ship anything into. Any porn into certain parts of the South, like Atlanta or Florida. It depended on community standards.
STEVEN SCARBOROUGH: [Chuck] was indicted along with Matt Sterling. The trial was actually in Texas. I think it was a mail order sting.
They showed an interracial scene in the courtroom and one of the prosecutors said “Ladies and Gentleman of the jury — this could be your son!” and one of the women in the jury box threw up. And they went to the judge in chambers and said “Judge we don’t feel like we’re getting a fair trial.” And the judge said “Fair trial? Fair trial? Hell, not too many years ago we’d have taken those old boys out behind the courthouse and hung ’em!” That was what the legal climate was like.
Chuck delayed it. And eventually had it moved to San Francisco. But Matt Sterling wouldn’t spend the money and ended up going to prison [for three years].
JIM HODGES I decided to discontinue shooting for myself because I just didn’t want to deal with the entanglement of the Feds and postal inspectors, all that shit. So I let Chuck take the brunt.
The arrest and prosecutions would continue, but by the mid-1970s, there was no real way to put the genie back in the bottle — demand was too great, and the monetary reward matched the risk. What had started as a handful of men in San Francisco filming sex had grown into a massive industry and Chuck Holmes, as the founder of Falcon Studio, had become its godfather.
Seed Money: The Chuck Holmes Story, screens at Outfest in Los Angeles on July 13th, and across the country this summer and fall. For a list of upcoming screenings (more to come) visit the Seed Money official site.