Springfield considers municipal prudery
March 28, 1980
Porno movies exhibitors no less than haberdashers or drive-though banks felt the need in the 1970s to migrate to the city periphery where their customers were. Springfieldians made it quite clear in the case described here that more convenient shopping for Deep Throat was not what they moved to the subdivisions for.
Hard-core sex came to the suburbs in Springfield last month, and the residents there don't like it one bit. The invasion was spearheaded by the Frisina Theater, a movie house that stands in the middle class Laketown district on the city's south side. Though it has been described in the press as a "family" theater it has never been any such thing. Yet even with the showing of current R-rated and even X-rated features the Frisina was losing money, and the chain that owned it was forced to sell it.
The buyer was a company which subsequent inquiries revealed is owned by a Michigan man, described by the Springfield daily as a Midwest "porno kingpin," who was arrested by the FBI in March on charges of illegal transportation of obscene material. The same man reputedly also owns the Cinema Art Theatre in downtown Springfield, for years a fixture of the city's vice district.
When the Frisina reopened with a double feature of Deep Throat and The Devil in Miss Jones—the former the Gone with the Wind of the hardcore circuit—the neighborhood was incensed. It is "a creeping, horrendous thing," one resident told reporters. The priest at the local Catholic parish decried it from the pulpit. The township board bought ads to get people out for a public meeting to complain about it. Springfield Mayor Mike Houston acknowledged that he was barraged by telephone and mail complaints. So bounteous was their anger that it overflowed normal business hours, even the middle class's customary regard for the law; an official of the firm that sold the Frisina reported getting anonymous phone calls in the middle of the night, and some protesters have suggested picketing, a park-in on the theater's lot, even the photographing of patrons as they go in.
When it was discovered early in March that the Frisina was operating without a city license, the city ordered it closed. It remains closed after its license request was turned down on March 21 on the grounds that the application did not properly list the true owners of the theater.
On March 25 a resolution was passed by the Springfield city council calling for a study of an amendment to city zoning statutes to forbid operation of so-called "adult use" facilities within 500 feet of a residential area. The ordinance is disquietingly vague. It defines "adult use facilities" as including theaters or nightclubs that present "any form of entertainment that has an emphasis on" specified sexual activities—a definition which quite plausibly could include any corner bar with a TV set capable of showing ABC-TV's present primetime lineup of jiggle sitcoms and smutty game shows. Any good bookstore stocked with classic novels would also be in jeopardy, and if you think I'm exaggerating the threat to such "legitimate" shops posed by such an ordinance I remind you that even today some school boards are banning such works as Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath as being obscene.
The Frisina flap, then, is leading us down some dark and twisting paths, though I'm not quite sure I understand why. I thought they loved sex in the suburbs. There is nothing more pornographic than the imagination of many a typical middle-level bureaucrat or insurance salesman. I recall Steve Slack's report in the State Journal-Register in which a former Frisina official is quoted saying, "All these church people that are upset, they should see who's going in there. It's not the same as downtown. They're not getting the scrounges." (You can tell the suburban scrounges from the downtown scrounges because the suburban ones wear London Fog raincoats.)
As is usually the case in such disputes, the residents are opposing the Frisina's new fare in the name of the neighborhood's children. This desire among the middle class to protect their young from corrupting influences is admirable, if a little fitful. I recall waiting in the lobby of another local suburban theater during a summer matinee and counting some forty children who looked to be under the age of fourteen—some of them under the age of five—as they were led by their parents out of the room in which Mom and Dad had just treated them to a showing of The Amityville Horror, a nasty horror film which had been rated R because of its violence.
Concern also has been expressed about the theater attracting undesirables to the neighborhood. I sympathize , But if I were living in Laketown I would have petitioned the city long ago to close down the twenty-four-hour convenience grocery that stands across the street from the Frisina. For a while, that place was getting robbed so often that the police made more stops there than the Butternut delivery man.
I don't wish to make light of Laketown's worries, even though I find them exaggerated. At their root is the fear that their kids will be enticed to take up sex or worse (though I suspect that exposure to films like Deep Throat is more likely to turn them off of sex, which is just as regrettable in some ways) and they would like to see the place closed down, just in case. And the Frisina should be closed—if it becomes unsightly, or if it posts salacious advertisements in public view, or if it exploits the innocence of underage children for profit by enticing them to watch things they should not see—all failures for which there already are remedies in the city code. The trouble is that one can make the same kinds of complaints (albeit on different grounds) against McDonald's restaurants, the TV networks, the public schools and (in the particular case of films) most theaters in most cities which routinely admit underage children to see proscribed R- and X-rated flicks.
Mayor Houston, while intelligently cautioning against precipitate legal action, has said that he wouldn't mind seeing a ban on all such "adult" theaters in the city, and has promised to use the city's zoning power to at least keep them out of residential areas. But as was noted in a recent commentary broadcast on WSSR by Larry Golden, a Sangamon State University professor active in the American Civil Liberties Union, the Frisina case "demonstrates exactly why we have a First Amendment in this country." The fight over the Frisina, Golden pointed out, is a fight over censorship. He noted that he had seen one of the most vicious and repugnant films of the decade, Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, at the Frisina. To those who would argue that Stanley Kubrick is one thing and Georgina Spelvin quite another, Golden asks, "How are we to distinguish obscenity from mere sex? Who is to draw that line?"
The City of Springfield has tried to close such theaters before; it twice took Cinema Art to court on obscenity charges, trips which ended with an acquittal and a hung jury. I don't think the city had the right to close Cinema Art then, and I don't think it has the right—barring some actual criminal misconduct by the theater—to close the Frisina now. I wish to make it clear that by saying that I am speaking in defense of Constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression as well as unguaranteed traditional artistic freedoms and not necessarily in defense of either the owners or the clients of the Frisina. It's just that I fear censorship for the same reason I fear shotguns. Both are crude weapons, and when you pull the trigger of either one in close quarters you can never be sure what you'll hit.
I've lived in Springfield for more than thirty years. In that time I have never seen a neighborhood destroyed by a porno house. I have seen a great many neighborhoods destroyed by unfair taxation policies, shopping center developers, incompetent city planners, blockbusting real estate agents and redlining bankers. When the city pledges to use its full powers to protect neighborhoods from such corrupters, I will stand up and cheer. Until then, I wish the city and those who are urging it into this treacherous corner of the law would remember that pornography is not a disease that one catches by exposure, the way one catches a cold, but a deficiency disease. If parents want to protect their children from it, they can do so by keeping the need for pornography out of their lives, not by keeping theaters out of neighborhoods. □