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Over seven years in the making, "Madams of the Barbary Coast" features interviews with some of the leading San Francisco and Gold Rush historians, reinactments, photographs from gold rush archives, drawings, maps, and other unearthed historical discoveries and rare footage.
Madams of the Barbary Coast brings alive a time when madams, prostitutes, and other courageous pioneering women lived and worked in the world's most dangerous and sinful city - Sodom and Gomorrah of the frontier West. These were plucky, resourceful entrepreneurs, with colorful names like Belle Cora, Ah Toy, Tessie Wall and Mammy Pleasant. Some became society's darlings whose cultural and political power were the envy of this Paris of the Pacific. Some died broken hearted or impoverished. And until now, forgotten.


Winner of the "Best Historical Documentary"
New York International Film and Video Festival
Winner of "Best Art Direction"
2005 San Francisco Golden Gate Film Festival


JoAnn Levy is often considered the voice of the women who took part in the California Gold Rush. She is also the award winning author of several books on California history and numerous articles in such publications as American History, The Californians, Old West, Overland Journal, and the Museum of California Quarterly. One of her books “They Saw the Elephant” about women in the gold rush was published in 1990 and garnered high praise. The San Francisco Chronicle acclaimed it "one of the best and most comprehensive accounts of gold rush life to date." She has been writing about western history for nearly twenty years.
"The California Gold Rush had many voices," she said. "It was one event if you found gold, a different event if you did not. And it was different if you were a woman." Jo Ann Levy

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Curt Gentry is a well known American writer and author of “The Madams of San Francisco: An Irreverent History of the City by the Golden Gate.” He currently resides in San Francisco and has subsequently written several books on a variety of historical subjects, and wrote the well known "Helter Skelter."

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Historian Daniel Bacon was Director for the San Francisco Historical Society and has continued serving on the SFMHS Board of Directors since 2002. He is one of the guiding founders of the Barbary Coast trail, and the author of Walking San Francisco on the Barbary Coast Trail. "San Francisco has a great history," said Daniel Bacon, "I think in some ways it's more dynamic than the history of any other city."

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Reverend Harry Chuck has worked in the San Francisco Chinatown community for more than fifty years, as executive director of Donaldina Cameron House, parish pastor and president of the city’s Public Housing Authority. He met Donaldina Cameron, and offers a wealth of personal insight regarding the legacy of the Donaldina Cameron house and aspects of San Francisco’s Chinatown history.


Dr. Susheel Bibbs lectures at the University of California at Berkeley. Backed by her Ph.D in Communications (focused on the mass communication of African-Diaspora history as well), her research and work have been hailed in musical, media, and humanities circles: The history Panel of the California Council for the Humanities has certified her research on Mary Pleasant. In 2004, Dr. Bibbs was awarded a "Keeper of the Negro Spiritual Achievement Award" by Friends of the Negro Spiritual, Oakland, and "for her unique recitals and master classes, which have contributed to intercultural understanding in the arts, for her performances, and for her landmark research and presentations on Mary Ellen Pleasant." In 1999, Dr. Bibbs was dubbed the "world's foremost authority on Pleasant" in a commendation by the Supervisors of the City and County of San Francisco.

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Carol Leigh was seated on the San Francisco Board of Supervisor's Task Force on Prostitution representing San Francisco's Commission on the Status of Women. She has been working as an activist and an artist in the Bay Area for more than twenty years. Since the late seventies, she has written and performed political satire as "Scarlet Harlot," and produced work in a variety of genres on women's issues including work based on her experience in San Francisco massage parlors. Leigh is one of the leaders of the sex workers' rights movement in the US and internationally- in fact, she coined the term "sex work" in the late seventies.


We would like to express our gratitude to these knowledgeable individuals and the many others who participated in making this documentary; and urge viewers to support their work.


"It has been an incredible opportunity to not only make a film about a
subject so fascinating and rarely shown, but also the privilege of
being involved in a project where the lives of women in history, and
society's relationship to women's identity, strength and sexuality
could be explored."
Executive Producer, Vénus Oriane

"Assembling a documentary that conveys the passion, intrigue, murder, sex and redemption in the debaucherous untamed San Francisco of over a hundred years ago was no easy task. It entailed combing dusty archives, pouring through thousands of 19th century images, scouring the Western back roads and literally crawling through basements to unearth the last remaining resources. Ultimately, the end result was to enrich and bring to life some of the most fascinating and colorful women in history in one of the most dangerous of places - The notorious Barbary Coast."
Writer & Director, Michael Rohde