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Arlene Elster Papers
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Collection Details
Table of contents What's This?
  • Descriptive Summary
  • Access
  • Publication Rights
  • Preferred Citation
  • Acquisition Information
  • Biography / Administrative History
  • Scope and Content of Collection
  • Arrangement
  • Separated Material

  • Descriptive Summary

    Title: Arlene Elster papers
    Dates: 1970 -- 1976
    Bulk Dates: 1970 -- 1972
    Collection number: 2002-11
    Creator: Elster, Arlene
    Collection Size: 2 manuscript boxes 15 1/2W x 10 1/2 H x 5D
    Repository: Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Historical Society
    San Francisco, California 94105
    Abstract: The bulk of the collection contains newspaper clippings and articles about the porn industry in general during the 1970's and Elster's Sutter Cinema in particular. Also included in the collection are advertisements for the theater and films produced by Leo Productions, documents related to the Erotic Film Festival, and materials from sexual liberation groups such as COYOTE, The Sexual Freedom League, the Psychedelic Venus Church, and the Adult Film Association of America. The collection provides a history of the politics surrounding pornography in San Francisco, with an emphasis on San Francisco's adult film industry, during the 1970's.
    Physical location: Stored at the Archives of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Historical Society in San Francisco, California
    Languages: Languages represented in the collection: English


    Collection open for research.

    Publication Rights

    Copyright to unpublished manuscript materials has been transferred to the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Historical Society.

    Preferred Citation

    Arlene Elster papers, 2002-11, Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Historical Society.

    Acquisition Information

    Donated to the Library by Arlene Elster in 2002.

    Biography / Administrative History

    Arlene Elster owned and operated the Sutter Cinema in San Francisco between 1970 and 1975. She was the first, and possibly only, woman to operate an adult theater. Elster was trained as a medical technologist and holds a degree in Biological Science from the University of Texas. She grew up in Port Arthur Texas, eventually making her way to San Francisco where she worked in the research department of the Irwin Memorial Blood Bank. She met Lowell Pickett while doing volunteer lab work at the Haight Ashbury Clinc where Pickett was an administrator. During this time she began exploring creative endeavors, including photography and eventually partnered with Pickett in the adult film business.
    In December 1970 Elster and Pickett hosted the first International Erotic Film Festival at the Presidio Theater. They opened the Sutter Cinema together in 1971 and produced "soft core" porn films for the theater through their company, Leo Productions. After ending their business association, Elster operated the theater alone.
    Elster was arrested on 311.2 Exhibiting Obscenity to Others in 1970 and was convicted in 1971. She appealed the conviction to the Supreme Court, with her attorney, Carol Hughes, asking for a clear definition of obscenity. The Supreme Court declined and Elster received a fine of $1,000 but no jail time.
    Between 1970-1974 Elster was arrested on obscenity charges 14 times. During this time, the San Francisco police, supported by the Mayor and Board of Supervisors, continually arrested adult theater owners. Although the owners were rarely convicted, the strategy was to put the theater owners out of business with legal hassels and fees. At the time, obscenity was defined as "Appealing to a sick interest in sex, far beyond community standards, and without any social value." Elster and Picket were committed to creating films that were appealing to both men and women and many considered their style to be more artistic than the films shown at other adult theaters. The November 15, 1970 issue of The Sunday Oregonian reported that "The Sutter Cinema takes small ads, features a delicate, feminine drawing in an 18th centry style and offers simply erotic films." The theater closed in the early 1980's.
    Elster was active in a number of sexual liberation organizations including COYOTE, the Sexual Freedom League and the Psychedelic Venus Church.
    More information about Elster may be found in the June 27, 1973 issue of The San Francisco Examiner and the February 9-22, 1972 issue of The Night Times, Volume 2, Number 3 (Issue 12).

    Scope and Content of Collection

    The Arlene Elster Papers capture the climate of San Francisco during the 1970's when the City was prominent in the adult film industry. Most of the collection is comprised of Elster's papers from the Sutter Cinema and the First International Erotic Film Festival and newspaper articles and clippings chronicling the struggle between adult filmmakers and legislators who were trying to close the theaters. The majority of articles and clippings within the collection are from the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Francisco Examiner, but the Berkeley Barb, Daily Californian, Enterprise Record, Independent, LA Times, and Washington Post are also represented.
    People, organizations, and institutions represented in the collection include Marilyn Chambers, Dianne Feinstein, Maurice Girodias, Paul Lawrence, Tom Lynch, Phyllis Lyon, the Mitchell Brothers, Lowell Pickett, Mary Rexroth, Margo St. James, the Adult Film Association of America, COYOTE, Olympia Press, the Psychedelic Venus Church, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, and the Sexual Freedom League.


    The collection is divided into 4 series:
    • 1. Clippings
    • 2. Sutter Cinema
    • 3. Organizations
    • 4. Miscellaneoous

    Subjects and Indexing Terms

    Gay men
    Motion pictures

    Separated Material

    First Erotic Film Festival Posters (2) removed to Oversize papers from Manuscripts Collections Box E.