I first met her in New York City in 1975.
I was hooked.
Marilyn Chambers and I spoke on the phone about her appearing on The Underground Tonight Show, cable television’s first XXX-rated talk and variety show. The show, which I produced and directed during its three-year run, was my first foray as a free speech advocate. Marilyn knew of the previous year’s Betty Dodson segment, which put us on the map as a wild and wacky show with serious intent. It was during that period in 1974 that we coined the phrase “The airwaves belong to the people.” (And they still do, by the way.) Ms. Chambers graciously accepted my invitation.
By then, I was already a fan of the gorgeous, lithe, free-spirited beauty. I had seen her in The Owl and the Pussycat, Herbert Ross’ 1970 film. There was another attempt at a mainstream career in 1971 in the forgettable Together. I missed that one.
Around that time, through a series of almost accidental events, Marilyn became the spokesperson and box-cover girl for Ivory Snow, a major name in dirty laundry. Her clean-as-a-whistle, girl-next-door image was worth millions in the world of detergent. Marilyn Chambers had become the sex symbol for cleanliness.
But a change in attitude was brewing within the woman. She needed to become a bit more … dirty. In fact, she needed to become purely, unquestionably filthy. And so she did. The queen of clean became the new face and body of porn.
In 1972 Marilyn landed the starring role in Behind the Green Door. Nobody missed that one. The Ivory Snow girl was gone. She had grown into one of the most erotic creatures the cinema has ever produced.
Born to be a star, she exuded passion in every frame of celluloid, emanating from her love of sex. She appeared in Resurrection of Eve that same year. The genie was out of the bottle, and “Marilyn Chambers” was on everyone’s tongue—or so they all wished.
She walked into the Sterling-Manhattan cable station’s headquarters/production facility on 23rd Street in Manhattan and the air in the room changed. She brought with her the fragrance of springtime. In her early 20s, wearing a flowing skirt and summer blouse, her golden hair a bit tousled from the subway ride over, she exuded the confidence of a pro—a pro who hadn’t given up her innocent demeanor and was not about to. Demure, delightful and devastatingly pretty, she sat with eager anticipation as we began the live cable broadcast. We were wired up to accept telephone calls from our viewers, the late-night-television-watching hipsters of the Big Apple.
As was customary on The Underground Tonight Show, parodying the Tonight Show, the host, after his monologue, would introduce the first guest. On this night he said, “Please welcome ... Marilyn Chambers.”
The camera loved her. You could tell that the feeling was mutual. One can clearly see that Marilyn was indeed the very first, the original Porn Star. She carried the crown with her head held high.
The phones in the studio began to ring off the hook. Because cable access was, and still is, an uncensorable channel, X-rated cable television was again making history on The Underground Tonight Show. The queries and requests ran the gamut from racy to lewd. It started tamely enough as the viewers carefully phrased their words, slowly realizing that anything goes on cable access. Tom from Brooklyn asked, “Marilyn, can you, uh, would you, uh, take off your blouse for us?”
“Certainly, Tom,” she said, while slowly unveiling her bra-less breasts. “I love Brooklyn,” she toyed, always with that big smile which lit up the already bright studio. The next call came in from the Bronx. It seems a couple watching at home and surfing through the newfangled push-button, wired remote control had come upon the show and recognized her from Green Door. “It changed our lives,” said the husband, with his wife chuckling in the background. “That’s what we hoped for,” Marilyn quipped back.
As the requests came in, the callers became bolder. “Hi, Marilyn. This is Tony from 18th Street. Can you bend over and spread those beautiful cheeks?” Marilyn Chambers, her skirt already off, in just her panties, and with a sexy smile, ever so slowly turned around in her chair and obliged Tony from 18th St. “Here ya go, Tony,”
The very next caller asked Marilyn to “…put a finger in there, would ya, sweetheart?”
You know she did. And so it began. It was 1975. Talk about interactive television!
It was an historic moment for television and for the new cultural shift that was beginning to spread across the nation.
Even though Marilyn and I ran into each other and hung out a bit during several of the awards shows during the ’90s, both in Las Vegas and Los Angeles (one particular bout of late-night club hopping—beginning at the Rio in Vegas and ending ,well, uh, somewhere else—comes to mind immediately), it wasn’t until 2007 that the perfect opportunity presented itself for us to work together again. It was that year when I was asked to curate and moderate the Classic Porn Panel during the First Los Angeles Erotic Film Festival, sponsored by X-Fanz.com, the sister company to X-biz.
My goal was to compile a montage of clips from the Golden Era of porn that would be shown on giant screens behind the live panel during the discussion and question/answer segments. The task of choosing the panel members and the assorted clips was really a no-brainer for me.
Having made my bones during the golden age—producing and directing 16mm and 35mm films, which would be shown at the Pussycat Theater chain—I knew all the players. I knew right off who the three women had to be (in order of film release): Georgina Spelvin, Marilyn Chambers and Seka. I chose three males to round out the panel: director/producer Henri Pachard, an all-around debonair gentleman and one heck of a great guy; Ron Jeremy, ubiquitous and never at a loss for words; and of course me—after all, I could provide an insider point of view that few others have. Just to bring a more modern face to the panel, I asked Christy Canyon to join us. After a bit of logistical manipulation, everything was set.
Marilyn was fantastic, telling stories that made us all laugh. The live audience applauded her candor on a variety of subjects. Her inner beauty shone through the polished veneer of a life lived in front of the lights and the cameras and the fans. Ah, yes—the fans. X-fanz was entirely for the fans and so was Marilyn. “The fans come first,” she would say. “Otherwise I could just stay home.” Home for many years was raising a daughter and growing into full-blown womanhood.
It was rare to hear Marilyn speak off script, and particularly about the good ol’ days. Rare indeed. Real stories of life as a sex star were coming from those fabulous lips, that wonderful mouth. The same mouth that fans all over the world admired with a bit of sin in their hearts.
Little did we know the classic porn panel at the Knitting Factory in 2007 would be one of Marilyn’s last public appearances.
Those of us who were present that day got a full glimpse of the lady we simply called Marilyn.
There will never be another.