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Springfield considers municipal prudery

Illinois Times

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. ●




John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

See Home Page/Learn/

Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago


The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

McLean County Museum

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A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois


Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives


Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum


The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.


I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

Illinois Labor History Society

The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

History on the Fox

An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than

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Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

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Lincoln: A Life 

One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

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A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

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The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

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A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

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Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

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SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

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The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog  (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more.  Of particular note are its Prairie State Books,  quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.

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Chicago Press

The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to

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The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.


Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order

by book title. 


Illinois Center for the Book

Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.

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