In the midst of porn's golden age, one group of MSU students brought the booty to campus
Not so long ago, the sordid quest of an ambitious Texas cheerleader named Debbie graced the projection screens of Wells Hall.
Also screened was the tale of a woman whose anatomic abnormality severely limited the way she could obtain sexual pleasure.
These films, along with many more of their genre, were screened on campus throughout the 1970s and early 1980s. They were humorous and entertaining to the scores of students who went to see them. They grossed millions of dollars nationwide.
They were porno films.
Today, the presence of a porn theater on campus would be preposterous to both students and faculty. Porn is something viewed behind closed doors and in back rooms. Only unkempt, perverted men in dingy raincoats and Pee Wee Herman go to see it in any sort of theater.
But as recently as about 20 years ago, pornographic films - infamous movies such as "Debbie Does Dallas" and "Deep Throat" - were on par with the mainstream movies shown on campus today. Guys took their dates to see them and people went with their friends. It was what some call the "golden age" of porn and, at least for a while, students were happy to participate.
Birth of a phenomenon
MSU's porn-peddling story began on campus with Michael Sunshine.
An agricultural economics graduate student from 1965-71, Sunshine was a film enthusiast who particularly enjoyed art films of the era. He grew tired of the selection of on-campus movies offered by the Residence Halls Association.
In 1968, Sunshine made the decision to begin showing the movies he liked on campus. Several of his Beal cooperative house roommates agreed to join him in the endeavor, and Beal Films was born. The group would show movies on campus for the next 15 years.
Starting up was easy enough. Being a student group, Beal Films was given permission to screen films on campus.
"We just booked a room," Sunshine recalled. "There were very few people who wanted to do this."
The group first showed "Nanook of the North," a film that has been credited as being the first documentary, and had a disappointing turnout.
"No one much wanted to see it," Sunshine said.
As it turned out, not a lot of people wanted to see many of the artsy films Sunshine and his colleagues were showing each weekend. RHA's films continued to draw the vast majority of campus movie-goers.
Change came in 1970 with the arrival of Michael Sunshine's younger brother, Steven Sunshine. Steven had recently graduated with a bachelor's degree in sociology from San Francisco State University and came to East Lansing to be with his brother and continue his education. Steven convinced Michael to begin screening different types of films, films that were gaining popularity throughout the country.
"When I was going to college in San Francisco, they had cutting edge pornography theaters," Steven said. "I had seen the movies and I had enjoyed them. The pictures we ran are the pictures I chose because I thought they were interesting, exciting, explicit and that the audience would get to see what they bought their ticket to see."
The first pornographic movie Beal Films screened was "Love is a Four-Letter Word." It proved to be much more successful than any of the films the group had shown previously. It occurred to Michael and Steven that skin flicks might be able to counter the financial losses the group was incurring from the art films it ran.
"It was an interesting situation," Michael said. "At Ohio State or Berkeley, you couldn't have done it. You would have been lynched. But MSU was not a particularly PC institution."
Soon, Beal was screening porno flicks six to seven nights a week at locations throughout campus. The group charged students about $2.50 per ticket.
"No one else was doing that," said Steven, referring to the two other porn theaters located in East Lansing at the time. "People would run 'Deep Throat' for a day or two and that was the end of it. We made this material available virtually all of time in an environment that was really conducive to the students enjoying it. They would all come together and have a good time."
As the popularity of the skin flicks Beal grew, university administration caught wind. Although officials frowned upon Beal's activity, they took no formal action.
"They understood this was a freedom of speech issue," Steven said. "They felt it wasn't appropriate for the university to be arguing against the freedom of speech."
It's probably a good thing the Sunshine brothers and their associates didn't have to deal with the university administration - their job was already complicated enough.
In order to operate, Beal had to first acquire projectors to show the pornographic films. While some of the other movies the group screened could be viewed in 8 mm or 16 mm format, the relatively new porn movies were only available in 35 mm. For a group that had done little but lose money on its endeavors, the prospect of buying highly expensive 35 mm projectors was a challenge. They managed, however, to prevail.
According to a feature in the 1977 Red Cedar Log, the Sunshines purchased the projection equipment with "their total savings from previous films."
"(The projectors) must have been made in the early '30s," said Steven, who took control of Beal Films after his brother graduated in 1971. "They barely held together, but they did the show."
With projectors secured, Beal still had the task of renting expensive film reels from distributors. Beyond a considerable flat rate to obtain the films, the group also had to turn over a percentage of its weekly earnings to distributors. Steven viewed the steep prices as a badge of honor for his growing operation.
"We ran these pictures at the very same time they were breaking in New York," he said. "We were running the best pornography being made and, if you wanted good pornography, it was not cheap. The assumption was that the audience could tell the difference."
Beyond the cost of films, there was labor to pay for. Steven worked six to seven days a week in various positions, but Beal Films was far from a one-man operation. One person had to sell tickets, another take them and someone had to run the projectors.
At times, the operation could have benefited from security personnel on the payroll as well.
One evening, as Steven switched from one projector to the other at the end of the first reel, the sensual scenes vanished and the screen went blank.
"There was no film in the machine," he said. "Thieves had stolen three reels."
Luckily, Steven was able to locate the stolen merchandise in tact and return it to the distributor. The cost of purchasing the stolen reels might have put Beal out of business.
But despite high operating costs and thievery, Beal proved marginally successful in its years of operation.
Depending on the popularity of the films, the group's profits could be large or nonexistent.
"The money we made was radically up and down," Steven said, noting that porn films generally made enough to offset losses caused by the art films the group continued to show. "Everybody understood that these pictures would probably do pretty well. "
The golden age
"Pretty well" is an understatement when describing the nationwide success of the movies made in porn's golden age. During the period, which dates roughly from 1969-73, people throughout the country were publicly and proudly enjoying pornography.
"You could find hard-core pornographic films even potentially in neighborhood theaters," said Jennifer Fay, co-coordinator of MSU's Film Studies program. "It was not just in the seedy areas of town and it wasn't just for salacious film goers. It became really a mainstream kind of phenomenon."
Fay touches on the popularity of pornography during the period for a class she teaches on American cinema in the 1970s.
She said trends and factors - beginning when movies became protected under the First Amendment in the mid-50s - pushed the film industry toward more sensational, graphic, and taboo subjects. Eventually this led to porn in the mainstream, a movement that culminated with the 1972 release of "Deep Throat."
The movie, which stars a woman who can only achieve sexual pleasure through oral sex, was made for about $25,000 and has generated at least $600 million in sales, according to a 2002 article published by The New York Times.
The film's success was unprecedented for any porn film before it. Fay said this was partially the result of a number of films that pushed the boundaries of how sex was depicted on the screen. Among them was "Midnight Cowboy", an X-rated film that won 1969's Academy Award for Best Picture.
"If you go back and watch those films, they are shocking too," Fay said. "In that context, a film like 'Deep Throat' becomes a lot less shocking. It's not nearly as artistic, it's low budget, it's very explicit and difficult to watch if you're not used to those kinds of things, but it's part of a larger film culture that's dealing with very troubling, super-disturbing, changing mores of sexuality in the United States."
The fact that pornographic films during the time period were considered entertaining and humorous also contributed to their success.
"If you watch 'Deep Throat,' it's a very campy film; it doesn't take itself seriously," Fay said. "The idea that this was a date movie suggests that people didn't go to these films for the sake of sexual gratification. They were there because they were curious."
Pornographic cinema's stay in mainstream culture didn't last long.
In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a ruling giving communities the power to determine what constitutes obscenity. After the ruling, porn was scrutinized and began to be more restricted. Campaigns were mobilized against pornography. The AIDS scare also changed how the American public saw the films.
These elements, combined with the emergence of home video, set into motion the process that made porn the underground juggernaut it is today.
"Now, pornography is super taboo simply because it is hidden," Fay said. "You have to go in back rooms to see it."
The curtain falls
The end of Beal Films and its activity on campus came as a result of society's changing views. Although Steven Sunshine estimates only about 30 percent of the films the group showed were porn, the stigma the films attached to Beal was unavoidable.
People began to picket outside buildings where the movies were shown. Acceptance of Beal's movies turned to disdain.
"There was an attitude that, instead of being a liberating thing, porn was creating a very hostile environment and that it was a very bad thing," Steven said.
At some point in 1983, Beal Co-op residents decided they no longer approved of sponsoring porn films.
"The people at Beal wanted this to go on but they were very torn about the types of films they might have to show," Steven said. "They didn't feel comfortable with the situation anymore so we parted ways. They wanted me and my management skills to go somewhere else."
Without the support of a student group, the university wouldn't allow Steven to continue his activities on campus. Beal Films was dead.
Now, more than 20 years since he last exhibited porn on campus, a 57-year-old Steven Sunshine remains proud of his activities with Beal Films.
"I absolutely believe what I did was a good thing," he said. "My position today is what it was then. The ideas that have to be protected are those that are unpopular.
"If what you want to do is talk about mom and apple pie, you don't need the First Amendment."
These days, the Sunshine brothers own several bead stores in California. It's an occupation that Michael would've never anticipated while studying for his graduate degree at MSU. Upon graduating, however, he discovered his venture in pornography would limit his career choices.
"I could not get a college teaching job as the result of this stunt," he said. "I graduated from the Department of Agricultural Economics and I'm selling beads."
Despite this fact, Michael does not regret founding Beal Films. At 61, he still dabbles in movies, although his passion for them isn't what it once was.
"I prefer to read now," he said. "Films aren't as good as they used to be."
Dirk VanderHart is The State News enterprise reporter. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.