LOS ANGELES—Kirdy Stevens, one of the pioneers of the adult industry in Los Angeles, died of pneumonia on October 20 at the age of 92. Although he made just 14 feature films during a career in pornography that lasted more than 25 years, several—especially his Taboo series, of which he directed five volumes—remain among the best-selling adult movies of all time.
"The thing about Kirdy, he wasn't high profile like a lot of these guys, like Damiano and Cecil Howard and Henri Pachard; he didn't make a lot of movies like they did," recalled former AVN publisher Paul Fishbein. "Taboo was obviously the biggest, and he had the Standard Video stuff, but he wasn't in the media a lot, he wasn't a very high-profile guy, so you don't think of him in the same way as those guys, but he was a pioneer in the same way. He didn't have a lot of output but he had a lot of impact."
According to his wife, Helene Terrie, who wrote nearly all of Stevens' scripts, Stevens first got into adult movies when, in 1957, he and two partners built a film developing lab which they used to process black-and-white adult movies which the trio had shot themselves, since at that point, most of the adult film content that was available for purchase was being imported, illegally, from Europe.
Stevens also owned a pawn shop during this period of time. One day, a man came in with a reel of 16mm film that he wanted to pawn.
"Kirdy said, 'Is that porno?'" Terrie recalled. "And he said, 'No, no, it's a girlie film. I sell it to people on Main Street in Los Angeles.' So Kirdy sold the pawn shop two days later and built an arcade."
In those days, Main Street (and according to his son Steve Stevens, Grand Avenue as well) in downtown Los Angeles had several stores, known as "arcades," devoted to showing "girlie movies"—nudity but no hardcore—on Panoram machines, which had previously been used primarily as video jukeboxes in bars because of their ability to play silent 16mm films, usually sports-related, accompanied by musical "soundtracks." Stevens' movies were much sought-after because they were in color, while most of his competitors were still showing black-and-white loops. However, after about three months in business, police raided several arcades on the street, arrested the owners and put Stevens out of business.
Although he beat those charges, Stevens changed his business model and began advertising in the back of magazines such as Popular Photography and Modern Photography, offering undeveloped rolls of film containing nude and scantily clad women, which purchasers could develop for themselves and enjoy.
However, it wasn't until he became aware of the 1969 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Stanley v. Georgia, which legalized private ownership of obscene matter, that he decided to go into the mail-order adult movie business.
"So in 1970, Kirdy went to his lawyer, Stanley Fleischman, and he asked, 'What if I send a letter to my customers and had a card that they would send back saying they were over 18 and wanted to receive porno?'" Terrie recalled. "And Stanley said that would be good, so Kirdy said, 'What would you charge me to fight it through every state in the United States up through the Supreme Court?' Because at that time, if it flew over a state, then the post office could indict you in the state the plane flew over. I forget the figure Stanley gave him, but Kirdy said, 'Okay, I'm going with it.' So we sent out letters, and they had to send back the card saying they were over 21—I don't remember whether it was 18 or 21—and $2, and we got a deluge of mail. Then Kirdy started shooting porno, and he had more trouble developing it, because it was color—that was another goal, to make it color, and it was really slow to develop color, and you couldn't go to a regular lab because they wouldn't have you."
Almost needless to say, this "business opportunity" led to another series of busts by the local vice squad, since Stevens was only one of several entrepreneurs with the same business model, and when Fleischman advised him that he couldn't win the case, but that if he pled guilty, he would receive only three years' probation if he agreed to get out of the mail-order business, Stevens accepted his fate ... and began shooting R-rated "exploitation" movies which he hoped to sell to drive-in movie theaters and the like.
"One was called Inside Amy; another was Play Dead, one was Six Women, and another was Fusion, but that business never went anywhere," Terrie said. "All the drive-ins were being raided and closed, and it was a financial disaster. But the day he was off of probation, he said, 'I'm going back,' and he did, and he made Lollipop Palace, which was set in the '30s in San Francisco."
"When we started making hardcore 35mm pictures, I thought he'd be nervous or afraid, but he actually had no fear; he said they were art, as far as he was concerned," she continued. "He absolutely had no fear of getting arrested or going to jail for what he believed in. He just was a true believer in the First Amendment and the right to artistic expression."
And so followed several little-seen Kirdy Stevens movies—the country had not yet succumbed to the "video craze"— such as Little Me and Marla Strangelove (his son Steve's favorite of his father's works), Taste of Sugar and The Sensuous Detective, one of the earliest adult movies to have received, in a censored version, mainstream theater play.
And then came 1980's Taboo, the landmark adult classic starring Kay Parker as a mom with the hots for her own son (Mike Ranger), who receives encouragement to take the sexual plunge from her best friend (Juliet Anderson) and winds up in a series of sexual encounters, including a suburban orgy.
"He really took great pride in his work," Terrie noted, "but when the Pussycat Theaters and all those theaters started getting closed down, we sold our picture Taboo to Norman Arno at VCX, and I don't even want to tell you how little we got for it."
Indeed; according to Terrie, Arno's boasts of how many videocassettes of Taboo he had sold (at $50 or $60 apiece) inspired Stevens to create a sequel, Taboo II, which continued Parker's sexual adventures and added new characters who would form the basis for yet more sequels—five in all, though the series continued under other directors for several years.
The Stevens family lived a relaxed lifestyle, as Fishbein found out during one of his periodic visits to Los Angeles before moving the magazine there in 1991.
"Back in the mid-'80s, I used to fly a few times a year from Philadelphia to L.A. to visit customers, and Kirdy was already a pretty good advertiser in AVN every month but I'd never met him; we had done it by phone," Fishbein reminisced. "So I put them on my list, and every day I would book appointments like every couple of hours, and I would always book a breakfast appointment, a lunch appointment and a dinner appointment, and I would go meet people in between. So I called Kirdy up one day and I said, 'I'm going to be in L.A.; I'd like to come see you; do you want to have breakfast one day?' And he said, 'Oh, yeah, I get up early; what time?' I go, 'I don't know; you tell me.' He goes, 'Like 8 o'clock.' I go, 'What address?' He says, 'Come to my office.'
"So he gives me the office address, which is the office address I had, so this is the first time I'm meeting him, and I go to this address, and I'm looking and looking and looking, and it's just like in a neighborhood; it's a house," he continued. "And I'm thinking, 'Who are these people? They work out of their home?' I thought I was going to their office, pick them up and go to breakfast somewhere, and I'm like at their house, and of course it was some address in the West Valley, so I knock on the door, and Helene answers the door in her bathrobe and a nightgown. She goes, 'Oh, nice to see you! Come on in.' And Kirdy is sitting in the kitchen in his underwear. And now I'm having my first meeting with my customers with the two of them in their kitchen. Helene says, 'What do you want for breakfast?' I said, 'I thought I was taking you out for breakfast.' She goes, 'I got plenty of food here,' and Kirdy goes, 'Yeah, you'll eat here, you'll eat here; what do you want?' And they made me breakfast. But my point is, he was not very high profile, not a showy guy, didn't have all the pretense; he was just a worker."
But in fact, there was something of the political activist about Stevens. After one of his busts, the Los Angeles Times not only reported the arrest but also included Stevens' home address.
"He had a big fight with them, and he got the law changed," Terrie stated. "Because he said, 'You can't do that; you get somebody arrested and then you put their home address? That's not right.' I guess that was around '69, '70."
But in 1987, Congress added "obscene matter" to the "predicate crimes" that could fall under the Racketeer-Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, and Stevens decided that it was time to retire from the adult movie business.
"Our lawyer said that from the day Kirdy started his first arcade back in the '60s and got busted, they could go back and take every dollar from then till now because 'every dollar you made over your lifetime came from adult or porn,'" Terrie explained. "So Kirdy said, 'The hell with it; I'm getting out anyway, because I'm not gonna fight the RICO thing.' California had the strictest RICO law in the country, thanks to Ronald Reagan."
His final movie was Taboo V. A DVD set of the first three Taboo movies has just been released.
"When he shot the films, he was so gentlemanly with the women," insisted Terrie, who accompanied her husband to all of his adult sets. "He treated them like they were just lovely ladies. A lot of people treated them poorly, but he was really terrific with them—a perfect gentleman."
Kirdy Stevens' name had two sources, according to Terrie. "Kirdy" was the name of a warrior in one of the director's favorite books, the title of which she doesn't recall, and "Stevens" was a version of his son's first name. (She has asked that his real name not be revealed here.) Stevens was born in San Francisco in 1920 and grew up in an orphanage there, until he left that institution at the age of 14 or 15, hopped a freight train out of town and traveled the country for nearly five years until World War II broke out, at which time he returned to his home town and worked in shipyards for the duration of hostilities. After the war, he worked as a taxi driver, then a truck driver, during which time he met Helene.
"When I met him in 1952—I met him at the beach; he picked me up," Helene remembered. "I was 18 and he was 32, and he was cute, so we got married."
The couple would have celebrated their 60th anniversary in March, 2013. A private memorial service will be held this Sunday.