SPECIAL REPORT: Sex, Cash & Suicide
Carlos Tobalina and His Palisades ‘House of Ill Fame’
By NATE BERG | Contributing Writer
The modest, single-story 1960s ranch-style home at 14914 Corona Del Mar was, in its time, a fairly standard house in the upper middle-class Huntington neighborhood of Pacific Palisades: Four bedrooms, 3,500 square feet and a backyard with a pool and a tennis court.
As the decades passed and the neighborhood’s property values skyrocketed, many of the surrounding homes saw upgrades—new pools, new wings, modern renovations and mansion-like replacements built from the ground up. But the home at 14914 Corona Del Mar has added only one new amenity in those years: a padlocked chain link fence around its perimeter covered with a green construction screen.
For nearly 15 years the house and the empty lot next door have sat behind this veil, seemingly vacant and unused, a rare blotch of brown in the Huntington’s verdant and value-conscious real estate market. Decades-old broken-down cars littered its weed-pocked front yard, just behind a “No Parking” sign hung on the street side of the fence.
Neighbors saw this property as a blight, decaying before their eyes over the years. Though the house may look abandoned, or even haunted, it wasn’t quite empty. Some neighbors recall periodically seeing a mysterious woman entering the house late at night. “It was always such a horrible eyesore,” says neighbor Harold Wrobel.
That these two multi-million-dollar cliffside properties and their unobstructed views of the Pacific Ocean would sit behind a construction fence for more than a decade has been something of a mystery to many in the neighborhood.
The mystery, from a real estate perspective, is clearing up. The two properties quietly came on the market last summer and were quickly purchased, selling for a total of $16.75 million to subsidiaries of a Japanese conglomerate. The green fence, for now, still stands.
Behind the fence lies a unique and untold chapter of the history of the Palisades. These properties have a secret past dating back to the early 1970s that involves sex, drugs, the U.S. Supreme Court, the mob, a gunshot wound to the head and a pornographer named Efrain “Carlos” Tobalina.
X-Rated Moviemaking in the Huntington
By the time Carlos Tobalina purchased the house at 14914 Corona Del Mar and the single-story Spanish-style home that was then next door at 14930, he was a successful adult film producer.
A gregarious Latin American with bushy brown hair and an accent from his native Peru, Tobalina had four feature-length X-rated films to his name, and more to come. It was early 1971, and the genre had only recently made the jump from short, 8-millimeter film strips of dancing naked women typically played at stag parties to full-length, “hard-core” movies featuring story lines, nudity and, increasingly, full unsimulated intercourse.
Tobalina was one of the early film producers making these types of explicit adult movies, which had wide release in the growing number of adult movie theaters across the country, from Hollywood to Times Square—a small chain of which Tobalina himself would eventually own.
This was the beginning of a new era in erotica that would become known as the Golden Age of adult cinema, when high profit margins on relatively low-budget films fueled a boom in X-rated movies across the United States.
Between 1972 and 1983, adult films accounted for roughly 16 percent of the total box office sales in the U.S., according to Luke Ford’s 1999 book “A History of X.” A 1976 cover of Time Magazine warned of “The Porno Plague.”
Throughout the ’70s, adult films flourished, before the advent of home video technology in the 1980s and, later, the Internet would all but eliminate the theatrical market for feature-length adult films.
For filmmakers like Carlos Tobalina, the late ’60s through the early ’80s was a golden age for making money. The money Tobalina made in this realm would flow back to the Palisades, in the form of cars, drugs and the proceeds of a small Southern California real estate empire.
But when he first began producing X-rated movies in the late ’60s, sex on film was considered by state and municipal laws to be obscene and was punishable as a felony. Police, sometimes undercover, would monitor adult movie theaters and even sit through entire X-rated films before serving arrest warrants on producers, directors, actors and theater operators. It was a risky business.
Tobalina’s first feature-length film, “Infrasexum,” was released in July 1969. An ad in the Los Angeles Times for the film’s run at the Mayan Theater in downtown LA called it “Hollywood’s answer to the new European films,” with the caveat, “Warning: Restricted to persons over 21 only!”
Another ad, announcing its run at two theaters in Denver, touts that the film presents nudity and sex “so candidly as to un-nerve the viewer while the cameras probe into very real and very shocking slices of life.”
In a sign of the legal complications of producing and exhibiting X-rated films at the time, the ad includes a copy of a 10-point waiver theater-goers would be asked to sign, acknowledging their awareness that the film included sexual acts and was intended for adults.
Item 9 on the waiver asked viewers to agree that “I believe that the will of the majority of the people is Law, and all authorities should submit to this law. I, as an individual, and as a citizen, declare my support for production and showing of such films, or the like, in my community when they are clearly identified as such and restricted to persons of legal age.”
Enforced differently from city to city and state to state, obscenity laws were among the major challenges of being involved in the adult film industry. Many of the early producers and performers tried to conceal their activities to avoid being arrested.
These standards began to slowly change with the release of the X-rated film “Deep Throat” in 1972. Showcased in theaters—adult and non-adult—the film gathered national attention, and at one point was even mentioned on “The Tonight Show.”
Perceived by many Americans as a risqué novelty, ticket sales for the film skyrocketed, eventually making anywhere between $30 million and $600 million (depending on the source and accounting) in ticket sales and rental revenue.
“Deep Throat” transformed adult film from a seedy endeavor into a new type of kinky, almost mainstream entertainment.
Linda Lovelace and Harry Reems, the stars of “Deep Throat,” would also appear in some of Tobalina’s adult films, including “Sexual Ecstasy of the Macumba” and Tobalina’s final release, “Pulsating Flesh.”
Other notable porn performers to appear in Tobalina films include John Holmes, Ron Jeremy, Marilyn Chambers and Liz Renay. Tobalina and his wife even appeared in many of the films, though in non-sexual roles.
Between 1969 and 1989, Tobalina is credited with directing at least 47 sex films under his own name, as well as the pseudonyms Jeremiah Schlotter, Bruce van Buren and, most often, Troy Benny.
“I am not ashamed of the films I have made,” Tobalina told the Hollywood Independent in 1975. “I have made films that show the beauty of sex.”
Unbeknownst to neighbors who were engaging in more typical Pacific Palisades activities, like shopping in the Palisades Village or eating at the Hot Dog Show, Tobalina was inside the otherwise inconspicuous home at 14930 Corona Del Mar shooting many of these sex films right in the heart of the Palisades.
But some, including the Los Angeles Police Department, knew what was going on behind closed doors.
Trouble with the Law
“[Carlos] knew he was breaking the law. But he was having so much fun,” says William Margold, a veteran adult film actor who appeared in multiple Tobalina films.
He recalls filming many of them inside the house at 14930 Corona Del Mar—a Spanish-style courtyard home, with eclectic furnishings, tile floors, fur blankets and a taxidermied South American pig.
The LAPD and other southern California police departments were well aware of Tobalina and his films by the early ’70s, issuing obscenity charges and arresting him more than once.
By the mid-’70s, LAPD officers were trailing his movements as well as the comings and goings at his two houses on Corona Del Mar.
Between July 1974 and April 1975, police officers meticulously watched over Tobalina, tracking the people who came to his houses, what they did and how much they were paid. According to court files, male and female performers were observed on multiple occasions engaging in sexual intercourse and oral copulation while Tobalina filmed with his camera. Performers were paid between $100 and $200 in cash, and up to $1,400 in checks from C. Tobalina Productions, Inc.
Half a dozen people who participated in these filming sessions were charged with various crimes, including the violation of California Penal Code sections 182.1 and 288a, which at the time made the “crime of conspiracy to commit oral copulation” a felony.
Tobalina himself was charged in two separate cases with the crime of pandering or causing someone to engage in prostitution. He was similarly charged with aiding and abetting oral copulation, and 14930 Corona Del Mar was labeled “a house of ill fame.”
Tobalina and five of his performers were arrested under these charges in April 1975. Most of the performers had their bail set at $2,500. Tobalina’s was set at $10,000.
Tobalina quickly paid the bail for himself and his performers and contested the charges.
In the 1975 article in the Hollywood Independent, Tobalina recounted the experience, calling out the LAPD officer who’d been trailing him, Lloyd Martin, for trying to stretch the pandering and oral copulation laws to apply to pornography.
“He is a very sadistic man. He gets very violent and threatens people if they don’t cooperate,” Tobalina was quoted as saying. “And he likes to serve an arrest warrant on a person’s birthday. My birthday is April 5th. He had the search warrant and the arrest warrant long before that, but he went out of his way to put me in jail on my birthday! Sick.”
But according to Margold, who was one of the performers arrested along with Tobalina, the filmmaker hadn’t been especially quiet about his work or his industry’s complicated relationship with law enforcement.
“They hated Carlos because Carlos sort of dared them to come and get him,” says Margold.
By December 1976, both cases against Tobalina and his performers were dismissed based on changes in how the laws were being interpreted.
But whether it was a moral fight against pornography or not, the police did have reason to be suspicious of those in the adult film industry. Much of the pornography industry in the 1970s was run by the mob.
According to testimony before the U.S. Congress by LAPD Chief Daryl Gates in 1986, “organized crime infiltrated the pornography industry in Los Angeles in 1969 due to its lucrative financial benefits. By 1975, organized crime controlled 80 percent of the industry.”
Tobalina’s first film, “Infrasexum,” was released in 1969. By 1975, he had produced at least 14 hard-core adult films and owned a string of adult theaters.
It’s unclear whether Tobalina was explicitly involved in organized crime.
According to Margold, who also worked in one of Tobalina’s adult film theaters in the ’70s, it’s likely that mob members came to visit Tobalina. He says he never saw it personally, but it’s a fair assumption. That doesn’t necessarily mean Tobalina was affiliated; Margold himself recalls interacting with members of the mafia during his adult film career simply because they were so entrenched in the industry.
Tobalina’s FBI files, obtained from the Department of Justice through a Freedom of Information request, suggest at least a tangential connection. Files relating to indictments against Tobalina and other adult film distributors for “interstate transportation of obscene matter” include some mention of the mafia. One heavily redacted section of a 1977 arrest report for the operator of an Atlanta area theater includes the following potentially telling detail: “On July 26, 1977, a review of Atlanta file 92-387, captioned ‘LA COSA NOSTRA, Membership Index, AR-CONSPIRACY,’ reveals that [redacted].”
In 1975, Tobalina and his wife were arrested by LAPD officers who were conducting a raid on the house at 14914 Corona Del Mar “in the course of an investigation relative to the type of films” Tobalina produced, according to court records.
In the course of the search, a plastic bag containing nearly a pound of marijuana was found. Carlos and Maria Tobalina claimed it did not belong to them, and must have gotten into the house during a film session. They were sentenced to six months probation.
The Tobalina Mystique
How entwined Tobalina was with this criminal world may never be known. Most of his associates are dead. His remaining family declined to comment.
What’s left behind are the properties on Corona Del Mar. Though these, too, may soon fade away. Even if they’re redeveloped by their new owners, they’ll carry the infamy of being the homes of pornographer Carlos Tobalina—and the site of his death by a single gunshot to the head.
Casey P. Smith contributed to this report.
Read Part Two here.