Film censor Mary Avara, 90 dies

Md. arbiter of morality for 21 years gained fame for tough views

August 10, 2000|By Jacques Kelly and Frederick N. Rasmussen | Jacques Kelly and Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Mary M. Avara, who as head of the Maryland State Board of Censors was the supreme arbiter of on-screen sexual mores for the state of Maryland and who once boasted that she had "looked at more nude bodies than 80 or 100 or 50,000 doctors," died yesterday of congestive heart failure in Clermont, Fla. She was 90.

Seconds before the start of every film shown in Maryland, a quivering black frame popped on the screen stating the movie was approved by the state board. It carried her signature, that of a tough Southwest Baltimore appointee who held her own against the condemnations of civil libertarians and the intrigues of neighborhood politics.

As films changed and became more sexually explicit in the 1970s, her morals remained as orthodox and chaste as the Baltimore Catechism she studied in her youth. Mary Avara became a national celebrity, interviewed and profiled by disbelieving reporters.

The ebullient former South Baltimore bail bondswoman, who was once called "America's Mother Superior of Censors," appeared on network television explaining her job to Johnny Carson, Dick Cavett, Merv Griffin and Mike Douglas.

Her powers extended from Walt Disney to porn star Linda Lovelace and The Block's peep shows. She could ban a film or compel producers to remove offending scenes, at times to a point where the story line made little sense.

Confused somewhat by the gyrations of flickering peep show sex, Mrs. Avara told The Sun in a 1997 interview, "I didn't know what they were doing. I thought they were wrestling. That's the truth. I learned everything I know from the censor board."

Appointed to the film censor board by Gov. J. Millard Tawes in 1960, Mrs. Avara stayed on for 21 years.

She was paid $2,000 a year to watch every film planned for a Maryland screening and arrived promptly for work each day at 9 a.m. Until leaving at 5 p.m., she sat in the board's darkened theater busily working her knitting needles and scrupulously watching the screen as the action unfolded.

Her first nude film featured actors hiding behind trees and bushes. That was tame compared with what followed.

"She would become extremely upset at obscene and dirty scenes and was very vocal in pronouncing it `trash,'" said Mildred Joerdens, the board's secretary until its demise in 1981.

"She was a religious person and had common sense and a heart of gold. Maryland was lucky to have her," she said.

In the 1970s, she tormented film director John Waters for his output of what have become cinema classics.

"Waters! I don't even want to discuss him," she told an interviewer. "Makes my mouth feel dirty."

Mr. Waters said yesterday, "My sympathy to her family and friends. But beyond that, for the first time in my life, no comment."

Don Walls, retired WBAL and Daily Record critic, recalled a typical day at the Maryland State Board of Censors nearly 30 years ago, when Mary Avara was in charge.

"She sat on a raised podium at a desk facing the main feature being shown on one screen. Around the sides of the room, there were six 8 mm projectors simultaneously showing skin flicks," Mr. Walls recalled.

"And while the great Lord Laurence Oliver was in `Sleuth,' Mary was on the phone telling her daughter how much fabric softener to put in the washing machine. It was bedlam," he said.

Mr. Walls said he often watched in amazement as she routinely argued with theater owners who challenged her decisions. "She could also scream and carry out. She'd lash out at anybody and mangle the English language in the process. She was a master of the malapropism."

Mrs. Avara never lost her sense of shock or wonder.

"The actors - if you could call them that - were like acrobats: inside out, upside down, all numbers and combinations, gigantic closeups of some of the worst-looking things I ever seen in my life.

"I made up my own ratings: G for garbage and R for rotten. How else could you describe such filth?" she said.

But she wasn't a prude, she insisted. When criticized for chopping a film, she would say, "My parents had sex and it wasn't dirty."

Mrs. Avara and the board were sometimes overruled. In 1971, an exhibitor defied the board and screened "Sexual Freedom in Denmark" at the New Glen and Irvington theaters, and the exhibitor later won the court battle.

"My mother had 18 children. I got a family myself. I'd be pretty stupid if I didn't know what sex was," she explained to The Evening Sun in 1985.

"The love between a man and his wife is a beautiful secret to be shared by them alone. But when love is expressed in front of a crowd on the street or the top of an automobile, it becomes as ugly as it is ridiculous. You can call that kind of stuff art or culture until you're blue in the face, but you can't change my mind about it," she said.

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