When censors edited reel life

Baltimore Glimpses

April 27, 1993|By GILBERT SANDLER

GLIMPSES readers of a certain age will complain loudly: "Have you seen what they show in the movies lately? Disgraceful, shocking smut! The f-word every other sentence! How can they get away with that?"

Well, until 1981 they couldn't, at least not in Maryland.

June 1981: Outside 1 S. Calvert St. on this ordinary day, life in Baltimore moved in its familiar rhythm. The wheels of commerce turned; in the shops there was the usual exchange of goods and services. The panhandlers were out in force.

But inside the building, in a small room painted entirely black, history was being made. In the center of that room was a table filled to overflowing with platters of pasta, pretzels, crackers, cheese, soft drinks.

But the festivity suggested by the cuisine was deceptive; more serious business was going on. What was happening in this dark room was the viewing of a movie by the Maryland State Board of Censors, Mary Avara presiding. This would be the last time the board would assemble to do a scissors job on movies scheduled for showing in theaters across Maryland.

Maryland's was the last censor board still functioning in the nation. In the room, sitting on either side of the pencil beam of light coming from the projection booth, a few other members of the board were watching (without a trace of emotion) a James Bond movie, "For Your Eyes Only."

What a delicious irony!

Ms. Avara, in carrying out her duties as Maryland's chief censor, was not happy with the film. Ordering cuts here and there, she mused, "I wonder what's going to happen to the younger generation when this board is gone."

Since 1916, the board had viewed an average of 400 films a year. For many of those years it was under the firm leadership of Ms. Avara, who was 71 when the censor board was abolished.

In those days, of course, there were no videos, so the only way to see a film as originally produced was to travel to Washington, Delaware or Pennsylvania.

"I don't rely totally on my personal standards," Ms. Avara insisted. "If I did, you wouldn't see half of what you do see."

On this historic last day of movie censorship in the Free State, Ms. Avara and her colleagues had a full day ahead of them. Still to be considered were "French Pussycat," "Night Riders" and "Country Blue." But despite vigorous and vocal pleading, the censorship of movies in Maryland came to an end that day, June 26, 1981, in a dark room in downtown Baltimore.

Ms. Avara is still carrying the torch for cleaning up movies, but now from the vantage point of a private citizen.

So next Saturday night, when you're watching a movie and seeing a little more skin than you figured on, or you're hearing some language you never heard in Mrs. Thistlebottom's fourth-grade class at P.S. 59, think of Mary Avara.

You're not seeing anything like the movie she had in mind. You can bet your cup of popcorn on that.

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