The last censor hasn't mellowed Guardian: At 87, she is still outspoken in defense of her old-fashioned virtues. And she still doesn't like John Waters.

Catching up with ... Mary Avara

October 27, 1997|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

Mary Avara, 87 years old and still frank, feisty and furious at John Waters, stands ready to start all over again.

For two decades she reigned as Maryland's, and America's, last, loudest and best-known movie censor, snipping away at "dirty pictures" like the priest in "Cinema Paradiso."

She helped slash scenes in films from Ingmar Bergman's "Monika," to "Promises! Promises!" which featured a half-clothed Jayne Mansfield, to that raunch classic, "Deep Throat."

"If they appointed me, I'd go back tomorrow," she says. "I don't think I'd see anything worse than I've seen."

"Multiple Maniacs," a 1970 film by her Baltimore bete noire, John Waters, might not have been the worst. But it's the one she remembers the best.

"When you make a picture about Blessed Mother " she gasps, still aghast and momentarily speechless, "I wanted to throw him out the window."

Waters remembers Avara well, too. "Multiple Maniacs" didn't show in a commercial theater in Baltimore for more than 10 years. In a dispatch from the set of his latest picture, "Pecker," he declines comment about a possible revival of Mary Avara. "My mother always said if you can't say something nice about someone, don't say it," Waters says.

Avara would have excommunicated "Maniacs." The film had a parody of the crucifixion, lesbian nuns making love in a church and the ineffable Divine, Waters' 300-pound drag queen superheroine, being raped by a giant lobster.

Nothing could have been more offensive to the deeply religious, Roman Catholic Avara. Critics and judges agreed it was "totally offensive" and "obnoxious, but not legally obscene."

"My humor is not everyone's," Waters conceded.

"Maniacs" finally played at midnight at the Charles Theatre on a weekend in January 1981, just six months before the Maryland Board of Censors closed forever.

Waters, of course, went on to commercial success with "Pink Flamingos," "Hairspray" and "Serial Mom."

Avara went back to the Hollins Market neighborhood near where she was born, grew up and ran the Sixth District Ladies Civic and Improvement Association, her very successful political club. They met above a grocery store near the market.

"I did play politics," she says. "That's the only way you get these jobs."

She had political allies like Harry "Soft Shoes" McGuirk, the stalwart of the Stonewall Democratic Club, Julian "Chicken" Carrick, a sub-boss from Southwest Baltimore, and Gov. J. Millard Tawes.

"What an angel Tawes was," Avara recalls. He appointed her to the censor board after he was elected governor in 1958.

"I worked like a dog for Governor Tawes," she says. "He'd have reappointed me forever."

She got $2,000 a year to watch all the films she could stomach. Which she did. She was tough.

Movies, 9 to 5

Before Avara, the censor post was pretty much a no-show political plum. But she made it a full-time job. She watched movies from 9 to 5, and not just sexually explicit films or peep shows.

"I watched everything," she says. "We had a lot of good movies come through."

Her favorite actor? Charlton Heston. "What a good man!" she gushes.

The first film she censored was one of those old nudies where everybody's hiding out behind trees and bushes and the view is more pastoral that sensual.

"They were mild," Avara recalls.

Peep shows, with their 1,001 varieties of sex, would come later.

"I didn't know what they were doing," she says. "I thought they were wrestling. That's the truth. I learned everything I know from the censor board."

"I'm old-fashioned," she says. "You don't have to show your body to anybody before you marry the man you love."

The board usually had three members, but Avara was the leader, best-known, longest serving and hardest working.

"Men were very hard to work with," she says. "They couldn't take it." The other women on the board, she says, often were too educated and too ladylike, not loud enough.

"Make a lot of noise," is still her advice. "I think you holler louder, you're heard."

The national talk shows heard her. They loved her old-fashioned morals and her uncensored tongue. She talked censorship with Dick Cavett, Merv Griffin, Mike Douglas and Johnny Carson.

She was on Oprah Winfrey's show, when Oprah was still in Baltimore and Richard Sher was her partner. Sher used to go out with Avara on "raids," when she pounced on exhibitors who tried to sneak back in scenes she'd already cut.

These days Avara complains of some of the infirmities of age, but she looks splendid in a red jogging suit, only slightly older, and perhaps a little slimmer, than when she left office.

She holds forth at her son Simon's home for a couple of hours of lively conversation. She migrates now with the seasons between Simon's handsome, comfortable house in Springdale on the edge of the Loch Raven watershed and the home of her daughter, Carmelita, near Orlando, Fla.

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