Mary Avara scrubbed those dirty movies

The Baltimore Sun

If saloon-smashing Carry Nation had her ax, then the late Mary M. Avara had her scissors.

And if Avara were alive today and still head of the now-defunct Maryland State Board of Motion Picture Censors, those students down there at College Park viewing Pirates II: Stagnetti's Revenge last week might not have been watching it at all if she decided to excise its sex scenes with her scissors or outright ban its showing.

The Baltimore Sun reported that more than 100 students took in the pornographic film that in recent weeks pitted lawmakers, who had threatened to withhold funding from the University of Maryland, against anxious university officials, who in the wake of such a threat canceled the screening.

The brouhaha ended when university officials agreed the curtain could go up on the film as long as it included an "educational component," the newspaper reported.

"If the kids wanted to show the movie, why didn't they just go out and rent a theater. Why do it at the university? What's the point?" Don Walls, retired WBAL and Daily Record film critic, and a veteran of the Avara era, said in a telephone interview the other day.

"It sounds like someone wanted to make a little publicity for the film. In a way, sort of, it is shades of the 1960s," he said.

"However, this whole thing makes it look cheesy for the kids at College Park who are supposed to be there getting an education making a big deal out of a movie that no one ever heard of," Walls said.

"Over the years, like Mary, I saw a million porn movies with a million nude bodies, and this doesn't equal anything she had to deal with," he said.

"It's not like they went to Hollywood and got some star with a shapely looking body, which, by the way, isn't hard to do in Hollywood, and put them in an X-rated movie."

Appointed to the film censor board in 1960 by Gov. J. Millard Tawes, Avara, a bail bondswoman and political activist, told The Sun that by the time the board was disbanded in 1981, she had "looked at more nude bodies than 80, 100 or 50,000 doctors."

And during her two-decade reign, she wielded tremendous power in the face of relentless condemnations from civil libertarians and theater owners who challenged the films she banned or the scenes she found personally offensive and ordered expunged by Hollywood filmmakers and producers.

Along the way, the Union Square resident - who was called variously "America's Mother Superior of Censors" or "Celluloid Mary" - became a national celebrity in her role as head of the nation's last movie censor board.

During her tenure on the board, she became a much sought after late-night TV guest, making appearances on the Johnny Carson, Dick Cavett, Merv Griffin and Mike Douglas shows, explaining in her characteristic forthright manner the rigors of her job.

After viewing a screening of Deep Throat in 1974, Avara told reporters, "It made me deathly ill. Have you eaten yet? It'll make you upchuck."

When a reporter asked about John Waters, Avara quickly replied, "Waters! I don't even want to discuss him. Makes my mouth feel dirty."

She brought her characteristic directness to Annapolis for years, beginning in 1968, when legislators first began contemplating ending the censor board that had been founded in 1916.

Avara, who feared no one - not Waters, Hollywood producers, theater owners or wisecracking legislative critics - warned legislators in 1977 that "distributors are bringing in films so high school students can go to drive-in theaters and see fellatio acts, cunnilingus acts, et cetera."

She added: "For 17 long years I've looked at garbage. Fellatio, cunnilingus - didn't even know those words before I got on the board."

Born one of 18, she explained to legislators that her parents weren't "playing tiddlywinks, that's for sure," when it came to sex.

She added, "If you do it in the privacy of your bedroom, fine. Just don't do it on the screen."

Avara, a devout Roman Catholic, insisted she wasn't a prude and stuck by her guns in being the defender of public morality when it came to movies exhibited in the Free State.

She was paid a salary of $2,000 a year, passed her days at the board's headquarters at 1 S. Calvert St., sitting in a darkened room from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. while six 8 mm projectors hummed away showing films proposed to be shown in movie houses throughout the state.

Like a hawk on its perch, Avara was ever watchful for anything that was remotely sexually offensive or arousing.

It mattered nothing to Avara from an artistic or continuity standpoint if her random snippets destroyed a film's integrity or derailed its story line.

"I have to look at this five days a week. At the end of the week, I say, 'Thank you, Jesus,' " Avara told The Evening Sun.

She developed her own homemade motion picture code of decency: "G for garbage and R for rotten," she explained.

During the 1970s, Avara went after an independent student movie house at the University of Maryland after it showed the X-rated film Bel Ami.

When James D. McKenzie Jr., faculty sponsor for the student organization known as Company Cinemateque, failed to show an expurgated version of Bel Ami that had been approved by the censor board, Avara swung into action.

She ordered the movie house shut down indefinitely after she received "lots of complaints from students and their families concerning the hard-core pornography that's being shown there."

A planned showing of John Waters' Pink Flamingos at the University of Maryland was canceled after Avara warned McKenzie the film could be labeled "pornographic and may be illegal to show."

McKenzie told The Evening Sun that the movie was "very gross and deliberately outrageous" but he did not consider it pornographic.

With the demise of the board, Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America, said, "This removes a staining blot on the First Amendment to the Constitution.

"It makes Maryland, the fabled Free State, a free state at last, along with the other 49."

When Avara died in 2000, Waters told The Sun, "My sympathy to her family and friends. But beyond that, for the first time in my life, no comment."

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