Sex, Cash & Suicide | Carlos Tobalina

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Carlos Tobalina and His Palisades ‘House of Ill Fame’

By NATE BERG | Contributing Writer

PART TWO

Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, the two cliffside homes overlooking the ocean at 14914 and 14930 Corona Del Mar in Pacific Palisades were not exactly what they seemed. The bedrooms, the pool, even the bathroom floor served more than just domestic needs.

Little known to neighbors or the outside world, these were all sets for the adult films of the homes’ owner, pornographer Carlos Tobalina.

Decades-old broken-down cars litter the weed-pocked front yard of a Huntington home where a pornographer lived with his family. Rich Schmitt/Staff Photographer
Decades-old broken-down cars litter the weed-pocked front yard of a Huntington home where a pornographer lived with his family.
Rich Schmitt/Staff Photographer

His was some of the earliest—and at the time groundbreaking—hard-core pornography being produced. The dozens of films Tobalina made throughout his career came to typify the medium, with low production values, poor acting, weak storylines and nearly any conceivable pretext to insert an explicit sex scene.

Before his death in 1989, he produced and directed at least 47 feature-length adult films, including “Undulations,” “I Am Always Ready” and “Flesh Pond.” It wasn’t necessarily art, and he certainly didn’t invent the form, but it did make Tobalina a very wealthy man.

His homes—and by extension, the Palisades—have played a perhaps unexpected role in the evolution of pornography.

Through a series of arrests and court battles, Tobalina helped to establish the legality of pornography, shaping modern thinking about the First Amendment’s protection of freedom of speech and how the Supreme Court would come to interpret the concept of obscenity.

But his was also a suspicious and sometimes dangerous industry, dominated by the mafia and the constant threat of arrests and lawsuits. Though Tobalina’s life in the Palisades can be at least partially pieced together through the details of his work in the adult film industry and his real estate interests, much of his life remains a mystery.

Nearly three decades after his death, his properties on Corona Del Mar are also shrouded in mystery, literally hidden for years behind a padlocked chain link fence covered by a green construction screen.

BUILDING AN EMPIRE

Efrain “Carlos” Tobalina was born in Peru in 1925 and emigrated to Brazil and then to the U.S. in the early 1950s. According to court files, Tobalina arrived in California in 1956. He worked as a car salesman at various dealerships over the following years and moonlighted as an announcer on a Spanish-language station.

Peruvian-born Carlos Tobalina’s immigration card shows his move to Brazil in the early 1950s.
Peruvian-born Carlos Tobalina’s immigration card shows his move to Brazil in the early 1950s.

In 1964, he started his film business, C. Tobalina Productions, Inc. The same year, he married a bookkeeper named Maria Pia Palfrader, and became stepfather to her young daughter, Gloria.

In 1966, Carlos and Maria had a daughter, Linda. The family lived in the house at 14914 Corona Del Mar. The house next door was used for business only.

It’s unclear what, if anything, Tobalina’s company produced between its founding in 1964 and the release of “Infrasexum” in 1969. It’s also unclear where Tobalina’s money came from during these years.

The two properties Tobalina owned on Corona del Mar in the Huntington quietly came on the market in 2015 and were quickly purchased, selling for a total of $16.75 million. Photo: Spencer Rawnsley
The two properties Tobalina owned on Corona del Mar in the Huntington quietly came on the market in 2015 and were quickly purchased, selling for a total of $16.75 million. Photo: Spencer Rawnsley

He purchased the two homes on Corona Del Mar—one in December 1970, the other in March 1971—for an estimated combined total of just $76,000 (approximately $444,949 in 2016 dollars).

The prices were likely discounted because of the homes’ cliffside locations and two recent Southern California earthquakes measuring above 5 on the Richter scale.

Carlos Tobalina’s real estate empire included X-rated theaters (clockwise from above) the Star Theater in La Puente, the Mayan Theater in downtown LA and the X Theater on Hollywood Blvd. Mayan: Rich Schmitt/Staff Photographer
Carlos Tobalina’s real estate empire included X-rated theaters (clockwise from above) the Star Theater in La Puente, the Mayan Theater in downtown LA and the X Theater on Hollywood Blvd.
Mayan: Rich Schmitt/Staff Photographer
Star Theater in La Puente
Star Theater in La Puente
X Theater on Hollywood Blvd.
X Theater on Hollywood Blvd.

By the fall of 1971 Tobalina became owner of the Mayan Theater on Hill Street in downtown Los Angeles.

“He went to San Francisco and came back with a bag full of cash,” says William Larraburre, a friend of Tobalina’s who also did camera work on “Infrasexum.” He says Tobalina wouldn’t reveal where the money came from but hinted at a rich uncle associated with the Catholic Church.

“I’m not sure if he was telling me the truth or not, but he came and bought the Mayan Theater for cash,” Larraburre says.

Tobalina paid an estimated $300,000 (about $1,701,000 in 2016 dollars) for the building. (All property purchase prices are estimates, based on the documentary transfer tax shown on grant deeds from these sales.)

The theater, which had up to that point featured performances and films geared toward a Spanish-speaking audience, quickly transformed into an adult film theater.

The Mayan Theater became the primary venue for Tobalina’s own films—all distributed to other theaters across the country by another Tobalina company, Hollywood International Film Corporation of America.

Due to the enforcement of obscenity laws at the time, some of these early adult films were made under the auspices of being educational in nature.

The first scene of Tobalina’s 1971 film “Refinements in Love” attempts to establish its educational value with this acknowledgment: “Our thanks to the many medical doctors, psychiatrists and neurologists from Tokyo, Paris, Rome, London, Moscow, Berlin and Buenos Aires for their answers to our questionaires [sic] and especially to: The London Psycho-Therapy Association, The Freudian Friends (Berlin) and Asociacion Neurologica de Latino America (Rio de Janeiro, Brasil) for their valuable cooperation in our research.”

Others were little more than re-packaged footage from pre-existing films. In his 1970 film “I Am Curious Tahiti,” the main character—a Soviet spy played by Tobalina’s wife Maria—uses a device to see through walls and spy on couples having sex, the footage of which was merely compiled together from other films.

“Tobalina was sort of the Ed Wood of X. He made terrible movies,” says William Margold, an adult film actor who appeared in many Tobalina films and who also wrote the advertising copy for films appearing at the Mayan Theater.

“His movies were often neither fish nor fowl,” writes Liz Renay, another performer in Tobalina films, in her autobiography, “My First 2,000 Men.” “They had too much of a story line to qualify as good X, and too much X to qualify as a good story.”

But these films were apparently very successful, starting with his first film, “Infrasexum.”

“People just poured in to see that film, because it was a novelty at the time,” Larraburre says. “And he made a lot of money.”

Throughout the ’70s, Tobalina gradually built up a small string of adult theaters in Southern California, starting with the Mayan Theater in downtown LA.

In November 1975 Tobalina and his wife purchased what became known as the X Theater on Hollywood Boulevard for an estimated $220,000 ($969,598 in 2016 dollars). In December 1976, Tobalina went in with a partner to purchase the Star Theater in La Puente for an estimated $53,000 ($220,859 in 2016 dollars).

Tobalina’s company apparently operated a number of other theaters. A July 1971 article from the San Bernardino County Sun references theaters in San Bernardino and Ontario that were run by C. Tobalina Productions, Inc.

Maria Tobalina is quoted in the article as saying the company also ran theaters in Seattle, Tacoma, San Diego and Long Beach.

Records for these other theaters could not be found. Though they may have been part of Tobalina’s small empire, he was also known to exaggerate his success and fabricate his history.

In his 1971 film “Refinements in Love,” Tobalina includes clips of himself from what’s purported to be a television news interview in which he boasts of one of his films winning a first prize for erotic films at the Cannes Film Festival—a prize that does not exist—and that he has a list of more than 2,000 women willing to work in his films. He also says he’s the nephew of a late South American president.

Despite these dubious claims, court records show that Tobalina was indeed making a lot of money. By the mid-’70s, he owned the two homes on Corona Del Mar, homes in Peru and Pacoima, a six-unit apartment building in downtown LA, two motorcycles, eight cars (two of which were antiques) and a 30-foot yacht. His income was estimated at roughly $10,000 a month ($44,072 in 2016 dollars).

The exact source of all this money is not clear.

From the late ’60s on, the adult film industry in Los Angeles was dominated by the mafia, which used films and theaters to launder money. It’s estimated that the mafia controlled 80 percent of the industry by the mid-’70s.

Though there’s no evidence Tobalina was involved, it’s unlikely he wouldn’t have crossed paths with the mafia in one way or another. Whether he was simply a pornographer making his way in the industry or was closely connected to its criminal side is currently unknown.

The FBI had suspicions. Included in the roughly 550 pages of heavily redacted FBI files released to the Palisadian-Post is a brief note suggesting that “[a]s recently as February 6, 1973, he was believed to be producing films in Peru and unsubstantiated information is available that he was allegedly shipping cocaine to the United States in film cans.” Tobalina was never explicitly connected to the mafia or the drug trade.

TOBALINA AND THE FIRST AMENDMENT

Tobalina had a long relationship with law enforcement and the criminal justice system. As early as 1969, Tobalina hired lawyers to defend himself and his films from what he saw as overzealous obscenity laws.

One case involved his film “Infrasexum” being cited as obscene material in the state of Colorado. The court eventually sided with the defendants, owners of a small chain of adult film theaters. Tobalina then countersued the prosecution—including the mayor of Denver, the state attorney general and the governor. His suit called for the government to stop enforcing a newly passed obscenity law.

Tobalina would soon take this moral fight even further.

A 1973 edition of the Santa Cruz Sentinel details the Supreme Court’s ruling on obscenity laws. Source: Santa Cruz Sentinel
A 1973 edition of the Santa Cruz Sentinel details the Supreme Court’s ruling on obscenity laws.
Source: Santa Cruz Sentinel

In September 1971, Tobalina was found guilty in the Los Angeles County Superior Court of violating California Penal Code section 311.2—exhibiting obscene matter—for showing the 1971 film “Januarius.” He was sentenced to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.

He soon hired the law offices of Stanley Fleishman, a prominent First Amendment lawyer who famously represented author Henry Miller in his Supreme Court fight to have his book “Tropic of Cancer” labeled non-obscene. Fleishman appealed the ruling in Tobalina’s case to the Los Angeles County appellate court, which subsequently upheld the original ruling.

When the California Supreme Court then declined to review the case, Fleischman petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court.

From the mid-’60s on, obscenity laws were based on whether the material in question was deemed “patently offensive” and “utterly without redeeming social value.” Being relatively imprecise terms, these standards were interpreted differently at the state level.

By the early ’70s, an increase in pornography-related cases like Tobalina’s led the Supreme Court’s justices to seek out a standard that could be more clear.

In a case argued before the Supreme Court in 1972 and decided in 1973, the court established a new three-prong test to determine whether material is obscene.

Under the new ruling, the language “utterly without redeeming social value” was deemed unconstitutional and replaced with criteria that center around whether or not “the average person, applying contemporary community standards” would find that the material in question “appeals to the prurient interest”—a significantly more lenient interpretation of the law.

That case was decided on June 21, 1973. Four days later, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the ruling in Tobalina’s case and sent it back to the LA County appeals court.

Though the appeals court eventually ruled against Tobalina and the Supreme Court denied a second request for review of his case in October 1974, Tobalina apparently never served his six-month jail term nor paid his fine.

By the mid-’70s, the gradual mainstreaming of adult film had loosened the “contemporary community standards” that the Supreme Court had set as the criteria for obscenity. Tobalina’s case, though ultimately unsuccessful, played a role in that shift and the increasing lenience offered by courts to pornographic material.

Tobalina continued to produce increasingly explicit films. From the late ’70s to the early ’80s, Tobalina produced at least 25 films, eight of which were released in 1983 alone. By the mid-’80s his output began to slow.

At the same time, the advent of home video was dramatically reshaping the adult film industry. Demand for theater-run feature films declined precipitously. Tobalina would go on to direct only a handful of films in the latter part of the decade, releasing his final film, “Pulsating Flesh,” in 1987.

SUICIDE BY SMITH & WESSON

On March 31, 1989, days before his 64th birthday, Tobalina was found dead from a single gunshot wound to the head.

He was last seen alive around noon that day, according to a coroner’s investigatory report.

Three and a half hours later, his wife Maria found him unresponsive, lying face up on a red velvet blanket in the enclosed back patio of the Spanish-style home-turned-pornography-set at 14930 Corona Del Mar. Within 20 minutes, an LAPD officer called to the house confirmed his death.

A .38 caliber Smith & Wesson revolver lay in Tobalina’s right hand, one expended cartridge under the hammer and five live rounds in the cylinder. Shot through his right temple, the bullet bounced off a concrete wall and landed next to his body.

Nearby, a note explained that he’d taken his own life because he was suffering with terminal liver cancer.

A page from Carlos Tobalina’s FBI file
A page from Carlos Tobalina’s FBI file

Despite his many years in a quasi-legal industry widely run by the mafia, no foul play could be found in Tobalina’s death. It was ruled a suicide.

“There was no evidence of any other trauma or of crime,” according to the investigator’s report. Though violent and perhaps shocking, it was the fast alternative to a slow and painful death by disease.

The home at 14930 Corona Del Mar was demolished in 1996 after suffering significant damage during the 1994 Northridge earthquake. Over the following decade, a number of permits were filed to shore up the land, secure the slope and even build a new house.

But since the original home was demolished, the land has remained empty. Maria continued to live in the house at 14914 Corona Del Mar until her death in 2007.

Ownership of the two properties, along with the various theaters, was passed to Tobalina’s daughter Linda and step-daughter Gloria Nakamura. Linda declined to comment. Nakamura declined to speak on the record.

The two properties on Corona Del Mar were sold in August 2015 to two subsidiaries of the Japanese conglomerate Belluna, both of which were established in July, seemingly for these transactions exclusively.

Granbell Corona LLC purchased the house at 14914 Corona Del Mar for $8.5 million. Belluna Corona LLC bought the empty lot next door for $8.25 million.

The agent listed for the two companies did not return calls to his office seeking information about the new owners’ plans. His phone number was subsequently disconnected.

In the months following the sale of the properties this past summer, a large moving container could be seen parked in the front yard, nestled near the two out-of-order cars, each at least 30 years old, that have been sitting in the dirt yard for years.

By mid-December, the moving container and the old cars were gone, the front yard strewn with a jumble of moving boxes, storage containers and garbage.

Seen locking up the chain link fence around the properties recently, Tobalina’s stepdaughter Nakamura was collecting the last bits of mail that had been delivered to the house. Very little evidence of Tobalina’s life as a pornographer was still around by the time the house was packed up, she said.

The house, now empty, will likely soon be demolished by its new owners and replaced with the type of high-priced real estate this neighborhood has become known for.

For the time being, the two properties remain shrouded by green fencing, as they have for more than a decade.

As the waves of the Pacific Ocean crash down below, these two cliffside properties are the last physical traces in the Palisades of the salacious, mysterious and ultimately tragic life of Carlos Tobalina.

Casey P. Smith contributed to this report.

Missed Part One? Read it here.