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The Grandmother Who Fought Porn: Mary Avara

This week we’re reposting something that we found over the holiday weekend. This piece inspired us to dig into the underbelly to see what we might have on porn fighting granny Mary Avara and we weren’t disappointed. So we took the liberty of adding a couple photos. You can access the original post on the excellent GoRetro blog here.

Mary Avara and the Chairman of the Board—no, not Frank Sinatra—Egbert L. Quinn reviewing "The Girl Can't Stop" (1965) a.k.a. "Les Chiens Dans La Nuit." You do know what that translates to, don't you? Maryland State Board of Motion Picture Censors 1, A. Aubrey Bodine, ca. 1967, MdHS, B1598.1.

Mary Avara and the Chairman of the Board—no, not Frank Sinatra—Egbert L. Quinn reviewing “The Girl Can’t Stop” (1965) a.k.a. “Les Chiens Dans La Nuit.”You do know what that translates to, don’t you? Maryland State Board of Motion Picture Censors 1, A. Aubrey Bodine, ca. 1967, MdHS, B1598.1.

If you went to see a movie in a Maryland theater between 1960 and 1981, then anything you watched—even if it was a Disney film—was approved by Mary Avara and her movie censor board. For 21 years, Avara served as the head of The Maryland State Board of Censors. A feisty Catholic Italian grandmother who invoked the ire of filmmakers and movie critics, she gained celebrity status in the 1970s because of her fierce stance on pornographic pictures, making several appearances on TV talk shows hosted by Merv Griffin, Dick Cavett and Mike Douglas, as well as The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.

Boss of the three-person board, Egbert Quinn. Chairman of the Maryland State Board of Motion Picture Censors Egbert L. Quinn, A. Aubrey Bodine, Ca. 1967, MdHS,  B1598.4.

Boss of the three-person board, Egbert Quinn. Chairman of the Maryland State Board of Motion Picture Censors Egbert L. Quinn, A. Aubrey Bodine, Ca. 1967, MdHS, B1598.4.

I was reminded of Mary Avara when I watched The Wolf of Wall Street, as the never ending parade of nude women, sex, drug use and swear words would not have passed muster with her. Lots of people accused her of being a cranky old prude. In all of her interviews, however, Avara insisted that she didn’t have a problem with nudity on the screen, or even sex, but with the way sex was portrayed when women were degraded or brutalized in a film, particularly in the porn industry that was gaining prominence in the 1970s. ”My parents had sex and it wasn’t dirty. My mother had 18 children. I got a family myself. I’d be pretty stupid if I didn’t know what sex was,” she told 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.

“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?”

Mrs. Mary Avara wanted to cut your hair and your film. Photo taken from GoRetro.

Mrs. Mary Avara wanted to cut your hair and your film and maybe even bail you out of jail. Photo taken from GoRetro, courtesy Baltimore Sun: “April 5, 1977 – Mary Avara symbolically cuts roll of film for photo in her son’s barber shop located at W. Pratt Street and S. Stricker Street. Photo by Walter M. McCardell.”

Wherever Mary Avara appeared, someone usually argued with her over censorship and the right to artistic freedom. She got into an on-air tussle with Bobby Darin on The Mike Douglas Show in 1970, and with movie critic Rex Reed on the same show in 1974 when Deep Throat was released. Darin comes across as very articulate in the appearance, and claimed that as a parent he should have the right to decide what his son would be allowed to see, not a state board. Avara countered that not everyone had good enough parents who could make those judgments, and that she did her job to protect the youngsters. Reed actually admitted that he understood Avara’s point of view, and was torn between arguing with her and agreeing with her.

I feel the same way myself. Censorship is dangerous territory. The problem with censorship is that everyone has a different opinion on what kind of content in a movie should be censored (Avara herself never really answers the question in the Mike Douglas clip about what constitutes her definition of a dirty movie.) And of course, everyone should have the right to decide for themselves what they would like to watch and what their kids should be allowed to watch (even if their judgment is bad.) But like Avara, I’m not a fan of porn and the way women have been portrayed in many of these movies. And like her, I would struggle to label such a film–or any film that completely turns me off–as a “form of artistic expression.” But what turns one person off doesn’t turn others off–I loved Django Unchained; the friends I went to see it with flinched and covered their eyes during many of the violent scenes.

You can’t blame Avara for being so outspoken. During the 1970s, filmmakers–and not just porn ones–were starting to push the envelope with increased violence, swearing, nudity and sex in their work. In the movie rating system’s early years, several mainstream films earned the “X” rating: A Clockwork Orange (1971), Midnight Cowboy (1969), and Last Tango in Paris(1973.)

Of course, being banned can often be a blessing in disguise for a movie. One of Avara’s biggest foes was director John Waters. He was still an inspiring director in the 1970s when she took aim at two of his underground films–Pink Flamingos andFemale Trouble–which wouldn’t have gained notoriety if she hadn’t been so vocal about her contempt for them. She once quipped that saying his name “makes my mouth feel dirty” and that she had a special rating for his films, R.T. for “real trash.”

In his 1981 book “Shock Value,” Waters described his experiences with Avara: “Her Baltimore accent is so heavy, and she uses such bad English that I almost needed a translator to understand her. I looked at her crooked wig hat and polyester pants suit and realized there was no point in arguing style.” Steve Yeager, who produced two documentaries on Waters, noted ironically that with her larger than life persona, Avara was not unlike the quirky Baltimore characters in many of Waters’ films.

It should probably come as no surprise that Avara began her career as a South Baltimore bail bondswoman, before being appointed by the governor of Maryland to serve on the state’s censor board beginning in 1960. She was paid $2,000 a year (which increased to $4,500 by 1981) to watch movies and she often brought her knitting along.

In 1981, the Maryland Senate, led by Senator Howard A. Denis [R-Montgomery County] (who was not exactly a fan of Avara’s) refused to renew the annual $90,000 appropriation which included the censors’ salaries. Avara expressed disappointment at the time, saying that she would continue to do her work without a salary if she could (“I was doing something I was really proud of,” she explained.) She passed away in 2000 at the age of 90.

Maybe she was secretly a fan of smut?

Love her or hate her, you have to admit the lady had guts. (Pam Sosnowski / Go Retro)

Here’s some clips of Avara’s aforementioned TV appearances in the 1970s:

Suggested reading:

Agency History for the Maryland State Board of Censors, Maryland State Archives.

The Baltimore Sun, “Film censor, with ‘armor of God,’ fights in legislature to save panel,” February 8, 1980: C1; ”House votes 85-45 to keep censor board,” February 9, 1980: B4; “Movie censors say budget cuts doom agency,” Nov 14, 1980: D10; “Censor Board moves closer to ‘sunset’ as Senate rejects rescue, 25-20,” Mar 25, 1981: B4; “New job for censor board projectionist,” July 2, 1981: C13.