FROM SFGATE Los Angeles — On Easter Sunday, inside the million-dollar houses on a quiet cul-de-sac in Encino, the neighborhood kids delighted in what the Easter Bunny had brought.
Then, about 10 a.m., the porn stars showed up.
Helaine Gesas, who has lived on Hayvenhurst Avenue for 38 years, was cooking when she noticed men hauling cameras and lights into the two-story house across the street.
Neighbor Kerry Cohen, a paralegal and mother, was on her way to organize a charity event. As she squeezed past several large production trucks, Cohen saw scantily clad women heading toward the same house.
As far as John R. Johnson was concerned, "that was the end of Easter Sunday."
Johnson, another neighbor, told his 9-year-old daughter to stay inside while what he described as a "prison-yard break" — a large film crew, many of its members covered in tattoos — entered the house in the 3600 block of Hayvenhurst.
Outraged, Johnson called the city seeking to halt the porn shoot. But everything, he was told, was perfectly legal.
In any given year, about 3,900 adult films are shot in Los Angeles, according to industry estimates. As with any other shoot, those films obtain permits from the city. But the city doesn’t restrict the content of the projects it approves.
Which means that if your neighbor decides, as Johnson’s did, to rent out his house for the filming of "The Alphabet" — in which sexual acts are performed in alphabetical order by 21-year-old identical twins — there’s not much you can do to stop him.
Many in L.A. have endured film shoots in their neighborhoods and know about traffic congestion and sidewalks swarming with production crews. But along with the hassle often comes a little cachet — if you lived in a dump, chances are they wouldn’t be shooting a romantic comedy or a luxury-car commercial next door.
When the call sheet calls for orgiastic sex, cachet isn’t what the neighbors talk about. Morality, their children’s safety, property values are the topics on many people’s minds.
The tale of the Hayvenhurst cul-de-sac, where several adult productions have been shooting almost nonstop for two weeks (and were booked to continue through May 1), pulls back the curtain on how one of the region’s most thriving industries — pornography — coexists with the city.
A week before Easter Sunday, neighborhood residents received a flyer notifying them that there would be filming down the street in the coming days. Johnson, who works at home as an advertising consultant, said he didn’t think much of it.
But soon after the crews started arriving two weeks ago, Johnson’s wife called the number on the flyer to find out more about the company. She was told it was Califa Productions, which shoots films for Vivid Entertainment Group, one of the world’s largest purveyors of hard-core porn.
The next day, after Johnson barraged city officials with e-mail and phone calls, he was told the production was legal: Califa had been issued the proper permit.
"As far as content, we don’t have any authority to go in and do anything unless there’s an impact on the neighborhood," said Steve MacDonald, president of Film L.A., the city agency that authorized almost 55,000 individual days of shooting in 2005 — with fewer than 3,000 of those, he said, devoted to porn. (City officials believe many porn films don’t obtain the required permits.)
MacDonald and his staff said that because of the free-speech provision of the First Amendment, they do not discriminate against adult film producers as long as they abide by the conditions of their permit.
Permits for porn films are the same as for any other shoot in terms of parking and street activity, but different in that interiors and exteriors must not be audible or visible to the public.
The Hayvenhurst residents say they’re all for creative freedom. The neighbors concede they didn’t actually see any nudity or obscene activity, but the mere idea that it was going on bothered them. To all but those getting paid $1,750 a day by Califa Productions, what was happening on the street at holiday time just didn’t seem right.
"I was stunned that whoever issues permits for this would be that insensitive," Johnson said. "If they had been shooting a ‘West Wing’ episode that day, I wouldn’t have had the same reaction."
As it turned out, Easter was just the beginning.
Not 24 hours after the Califa trucks drove off, a new crew arrived. This time it was Playboy Entertainment Group, working on a reality television show. The Playboy shoot went through the end of the week, with dozens of trucks entering and exiting the cul-de-sac.
Last Monday yet another company arrived, PW Productions — to shoot explicit DVD and video cover art for a series of porn films.
Residents circulated a petition that alleged the filming has "introduced unsavory and undesirable elements" into their neighborhood. Twenty-two residents signed.
Regulations require certification of ownership to rent out a home as a film location. According to property records, the house — a 15-year-old, four-bedroom, five-bath, 5,000-square-foot, stone-and-brick traditional — sold last year for $1.65 million to Hamid Banafsheha.
When reached by phone, Banafsheha — a 40-year-old electric supply warehouse owner — said he had just found out about the filming from neighbors. Banafsheha said he had rented the home to a couple with two infant daughters.
"I’m sorry for all the neighbors," he said, adding that he had told his tenants to cease and desist.
A woman who answered the phone at the film site last week and identified herself as tenant Odelia Bustenay did offer a response to the neighbors’ concerns before hanging up.
"Everything we do here is legal," she said. "We got permits for everything. If they are upset then they are nosy."
Steven Hirsch, the co-founder of Vivid, which distributes 60 films a year, said adult productions make some people uneasy. That makes Vivid crews more careful.
"We are cognizant that the neighbors are around when we shoot," he said. "We are quiet, and we don’t bring a lot of equipment. There aren’t people running around naked, and you can’t look through the fence in the backyard and see what we are doing."
Hirsch added that the reason this particular house has attracted so many productions is that it’s cheap. Many houses charge upward of $5,000 per day, or almost three times what Banafsheha’s tenants were getting.
Brooke, 22, a tall, skinny blonde who got rid of her last name long ago, costarred alongside the twins — Lacey and Lyndsey Love — in Vivid’s "The Alphabet" and doesn’t understand why residents got so worked up.
"I’m a human being, and I don’t see what the big deal is," she said. "The person in the next house should get a life, because we’re shooting inside and it doesn’t harm them. It was just a normal day. I did what I had to do and went home and had dinner with my family."
Meanwhile, Film L.A. staffers said that in the wake of the petition, they have flagged the home as overused, with too many productions shot there in too short a time. They do not plan to issue any more permits for the time being.
Larry Flynt Productions, due to shoot at the house, has canceled. The neighborhood opposition, the company told the city, had ruined the mood.