Joplin's Porsche goes to auction tonight with a DCPA paint job

Janis Joplin and her Porsche.
Janis Joplin with her 1964 Porsche 356 convertible that goes up for auction tonight in New York. Photo courtesy Michael Joplin.

Update: Joplin’s Porsche goes for whopping $1.76 million

Janis Joplin may have prayed for a Mercedes Benz in song, but she drove a psychedelic 1964 Porsche 356 convertible that spent much of 1994 on display right here at the Denver Center for the entire run of the Theatre Company’s world premiere musical Love, Janis.

Tonight, the Sotheby’s auction house expects the car to sell for between $400,000 and $600,000 in New York City. Unfortunately, none of those proceeds will go to DCPA Charge Scenic Artist Jana Mitchell, even though she played the largest part in restoring the car to its irresistibly funky super-‘60s look. She considers it the best project she has ever worked on – or ever will.

Joplin’s convertible was originally pearl white with a black interior before Dave Richards got hold of it. Richards, a roadie in Joplin’s band Big Brother and the Holding Company, imagined the trippy mural design that he once said depicts the history of the universe. Like most art, that’s in the eye of the beholder. Look closely and there are landscapes, birds, butterflies, the floating eye of God, mushrooms and skull-like faces. Flipping up the gas cap reveals a screaming face.

But Laura Joplin says every inch of the car reflects her sister’s personality. The back corner, for example, depicts a grinning sun meant to represent Joplin’s Capricorn sign. The two heads on the hood are “The Everyman.” The right door depicts a typical valley town. The left side honors Joplin’s band.

Joplin bought the car used in 1968 and drove it all over San Francisco until her death in 1970, her sister said. When people saw it around town, they knew whose it was. Fans would tuck notes under the windshield wipers.

When renowned theatre director Randal Myler decided to adapt Laura Joplin’s book Love, Janis for the stage, it was obvious the Porsche would have to be an essential member of the creative team. Myler asked a DCPA dream team that included Mitchell, Amber Owen and now Associate Technical Director Bob Orzolek to restore the Porsche to its original, iconic design in advance of the musical’s opening at the Stage Theatre. So it made its way to the DCPA scenic shop for its transformation.

Time had not been kind to Joplin’s psychedelic turbo baby. “It got wrecked a couple of times,” Mitchell said, “and then it baked in the sun for two years at her brother Michael’s place in Tucson.”

The Joplin family had the body repaired and repainted to primer gray. Richards’ original fever dream was no more. Mitchell was geeked to bring it back to life.

“When we first started, I was so intimidated,” she said. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is Janis Joplin’s car – Don’t (bleep) it up!”

But deep down, she knew she could do it.

“My job is translating a picture from a designer into a drop or a scenery,” Mitchell told the Porsche magazine 356 Registry for a 2005 story about the restoration project. “I am basically a giant color Xerox machine.”

But seriously, is there enough color in any Xerox machine to replicate this? Two decades later, Mitchell vividly remembers taking that question on.

“I turned on some Joplin music to set the mood,” she said, “and I thought maybe I should have a bottle of Jack Daniels handy.”  

(Photo above right: Jana Mitchell says a final goodbye to the car she restored as it left Denver for Cleveland in 1996.) 

The first drop is always the hardest

Meticulously following old photos, a grainy video and notes from Joplin’s sister, Mitchell began by penciling out Richards’ design onto the primer coat. Mitchell said the hardest part of the job was applying the very first drop of paint.

After that, it became a 17-day party. Laura Joplin, who lives in Colorado, would drop by the shop from time to time offering Mitchell cookies. “Or maybe some brownies,” Mitchell responded with a laugh. “I was having so much fun. I can’t believe they were paying me to do this.”

Mitchell ultimately chose to use a high-tech, high-gloss enamel for the job – the kind normally used for sign painting. A final clear coat was applied to both preserve the job and pop the colors.

The end result wasn’t a perfect replication, Mitchell said, but few other than she would ever know. “For example, my bird is a little fatter than the original bird,” she said.

Throughout the restoration, the Porsche convertible taunted Mitchell, daring her to take her out for a spin. One problem – by then, the car had no engine.

“Can you believe it? I had the damn keys to Janis Joplin’s Porsche … and it didn’t even run,” she said. “Although maybe that’s a good thing. I probably would have gotten into a whole lot of trouble if it did.”

Throughout the run of the play, Denver Center audiences visited with the car as they entered and exited the lobby of the Bonfils Theatre Complex. Mitchell did, too.

“I used to love to go hang out in the lobby before the play,” Mitchell told the Porsche magazine. “I would eavesdrop on people’s conversations about the car. It was really funny. A lot of people remembered the car, but some of them would have their stories way wrong.”

Once the play was running, Mitchell got feedback from Janis herself, in the form of a dream. “I ran into Janis backstage and she told me, ‘Hey, that’s really cool. Thanks for painting my car.’ I was telling everyone that I met Janis, and they just assumed I was talking about the actress playing Janis. But I felt I really had connected somehow with the real Janis.”

Because of that personal connection, Mitchel has mixed feelings about tonight’s auction. After all, the Porsche moved from Denver to the Rock ‘N Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, where it has entertained Joplin fans since 1996.  But now it has a new, 95-horsepower engine, and is road-ready to ride.

“Part of me is a little sad that it is going to a private owner, because my work has been on display in the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame,” Mitchell said. “I just think a car like that kind of belongs to the people.”

The Joplins plan to use the proceeds from the sale of the car to support social programs in Janis’ memory.

Note: News reports and original interviews contributed to his report.

Courtesy Michael Joplin, above. The car, at looks going to auction, below. Courtesy

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