Cover Story: Cutting Edge

Censorship at the Esquire Theatre just another chapter in Cincinnati's history

Walter Deller



Esquire Theatre operator Gary Goldman likely was confident that no one would ever learn about the secret editing of director Wayne Wang's adult drama The Center of the World in 2001.

The chance that a customer had caught the film in another city before re-watching it at the Esquire was slim. It was also unlikely that one of the area's movie critics, myself included — I'd already watched the full version on an advance screener tape — would come to the Esquire to watch it a second time with audiences and notice the edit.

Theater manager and projectionist Maurice Barnes, who says Goldman ordered him to cut a short sex scene from the film, signed a non-disclosure clause when he started working at the Esquire. So Goldman likely felt safe that Barnes would keep his mouth shut about the edit.

Other Esquire managers were asked to sign the same non-disclosure clause. Telling anyone about the workings of the Clifton neighborhood cinema could place them at legal risk.

The decision makers behind the cut certainly weren't discussing the matter publicly. There was no reason to worry that news of the edit would ever leave the inner circle of Theatre Management Corporation and Clifton Theater Corporation.

Two phone calls to CityBeat changed everything.

The first came from Barnes on May 25, 2001, speaking anonymously at the time, blowing the whistle on the illicit edit. The voicemail message said: "The owner of the Esquire cut the lollipop scene out of The Center of the World, and I think your readers should know."

On June 1, after what would become one of my last press screenings at the Esquire Theatre, I asked one of the concession workers if he knew anything about the cut scene in The Center of the World.

"That's the worst kept secret here," the young man said, laughing, before directing me to the upstairs projection booth where Barnes was working.

Inside the booth, Barnes confided that he was the one who blew the whistle on Goldman. He confirmed that Goldman's phone call instructing him to cut the film came the day before the film opened and thus wasn't in response to outside complaints. No audience had watched the film yet.

Barnes peeled off the cut strip of film taped to its canister and handed it to me, although he refused to let me take it. With him watching, I called Amorette Jones, executive vice president of worldwide marketing for Artisan Entertainment, distributor of The Center of the World, to tell her that the film had been cut. I told her I planned to run a story about the editing and wanted a comment.

The second call was to Goldman's office. I informed his assistant I had proof that The Center of the World had been edited, that I was going to run a story and that Goldman should comment. The last call from the projection booth went to CityBeat Editor John Fox to inform him to expect a call from Goldman.

Goldman's phone call came the following morning, when he told Fox that a mistake had been made and in fact the film hadn't been cut. Told that I'd seen the cut piece of film, Goldman flipped his story to Barnes mistakenly making a cut without a direct order to do so. He said he talked to Barnes about possibly cutting the film and the young theater manager must have misconstrued the conversation as an order.

Told that the story was going to run as planned, Goldman declined comment. Word got out, and media from around the globe picked up on the story of the "censorship row" in Cincinnati.

Goldman left town for a vacation, but before heading out he faxed a statement to the media that read in part: "I deeply regret the controversial issues surrounding The Center of the World and accept the ultimate responsibility for the approximately three seconds of film that were edited therefrom during its recent exhibition at the Esquire. As operator of the Esquire Theatre I have a great appreciation and a sincere respect for the arts. I felt this film deserved to be shown to the residents of our community. The Esquire has always prided itself with exhibiting 'cutting edge' films."

The secret edit became just the latest incident in a sad tradition of local movie censorship, going back to the 1970s when a mainstream theater manager would routinely cut racy scenes from what was then considered adult-oriented movies like the studio comedy Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice.

But the players involved also represent the ongoing struggle in this area over controversial art, from Mapplethorpe photographs to nudity in stage plays. For every person in position to cut a film, close an art exhibition or shut down a play, there's someone else standing up to defend the targeted art.

And so the battle continues.

'Exercised bad judgment'
In his erotic drama The Center of the World, filmmaker Wayne Wang — also responsible for the acclaimed films Smoke, The Joy Luck Club and Chan Is Missing — tells the story of a nerdy San Francisco dot-com millionaire (Peter Sarsgaard) who hires a stripper (Molly Parker) to accompany him to Las Vegas for a weekend. While there, the proposed business relationship takes an unexpected, more personal turn.

The fleeting moment that has tainted the Esquire's reputation is called the "lollipop scene." Taking place early in the movie, a stripper leans over her male customer. She inserts a lollipop into her vagina, quickly pulls it out and inserts it into the mouth of her mesmerized customer.

What Cincinnati audiences saw between during the film's one-week run in 2001 was the stripper moving the lollipop below her waist and then immediately raising it up and putting it into the customer's mouth.

The Esquire Theater broke its copyright agreement with the film's distributor, Artisan Entertainment, when it cut The Center of the World. Artisan levied a fine against the Esquire to cover damages to the film print.

Wang and Artisan had worked hard to release the film unrated in order to maintain the integrity of its adult story. That rating usually limits the number of theaters that will show such a film.

Goldman acknowledged the risk he took in booking the unrated film.

"Obviously I exercised bad judgment and should have chosen not to play the film," he said in his faxed statement after the controversy broke in the media. "For that, I apologize. My only wish is that this film would have received this same degree of attention as this controversy while it was showing at the Esquire."

In an interview that took place weeks prior to the film's Cincinnati opening, Wang described The Center of the World as "the Last Tango in Paris of its generation." What he didn't realize is that both films would share a similar fate in Cincinnati.

'Be a hero for the community'
Before a Chinese restaurant occupied the space, The Studio Cinemas were a pair of 150-seat movie theaters on Seventh Street just east of Walnut Street in the same downtown office building that housed the Playboy Club.

The dual cinemas were one of four downtown movie houses operated by Roy White, owner and chief financial officer of Mid-States Theaters, the dominant movie exhibitor in Cincinnati at the time. They were among the first multi-screen theaters in this area before the arrival of the suburban multiplex.

White would play the same movie in both auditoriums, staggering the start times, in order to handle larger crowds. A projectionist would take a reel of film off one projector and run it to the person in the neighboring booth to load it for the other audience.

Director Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris played theaters in New York and Los Angeles and other major cities earlier in 1972 to great acclaim and controversy before opening in Cincinnati. In terms of attracting newspaper headlines and debate, it was the Fahrenheit 9/11 of its time.

Last Tango tells the story of a middle-aged man (Marlon Brando) who, in despair over the apparent suicide of his wife, embarks on a sexual affair with a young woman (Maria Schneider). It catapulted Bertolucci into international fame, brought additional acclaim to Brando and made a star out of Schneider, who was unknown at the time and who created a scandal for being naked throughout most of the film.

A court in Bologna, Italy, judged the film as "obscene content offensive to public decency" and succeeded in banning it for two months, burning a negative of the film, revoking Bertolucci's civil rights for five years and giving him a suspended prison sentence.

Critic Pauline Kael wrote in her gushing New Yorker review: "This must be the most powerfully erotic movie ever made."

Last Tango in Paris opened on a Wednesday in October 1972 exclusively at The Studio Cinemas and closed four days later before its Saturday evening shows.

"I got a phone call from someone in Hamilton County Prosecutor Si Leis' office telling me that Leis wanted to meet with me about Last Tango," says White, speaking recently from his home in Naples, Fla. "I remember sitting in front of his large desk. He was surrounded by a group of people. I remember recognizing them as well-known businessmen and politicians of the day. Leis told me that he heard about Last Tango and was convinced that the people of Cincinnati shouldn't be subjected to it. He asked me to be a hero for the community and to pull the film.

"I told him that I couldn't do that because the booking was essentially United Artists renting the theater. I told them I would pass the information to United Artists and get back to him."

White bowed to the pressure from Leis and shut down Last Tango. The film didn't play another Cincinnati theater.

United Artists later filed a federal lawsuit against Leis and Hamilton County for preventing the film from being shown and won their case. A few months later, White brought Last Tango back to his Studio Cinemas for a successful run.

'The show was never closed'
The history of film censorship and regulation frequently involves outside groups, including Ohio's own notorious State Motion Picture Censorship Board, which banned The Bride of Frankenstein from theaters in 1935.

Leis' actions to prevent the showing of films he found beneath Cincinnati moral standards were repeated in other cities by numerous religious and community standards groups. What's unique about Cincinnati is the number of times film censorship occurred from inside the theaters.

"Joe Alexander was the manager of The Albee and other RKO theaters in Cincinnati like The Palace and The Kenwood," says Tom McElfresh, Cincinnati Enquirer movie critic from 1971 to 1982 and currently a CityBeat theater critic. "The Albee was no longer the downtown cinema of choice, and Joe would book X-rated movies there to attract attention. Now there's a big difference between X-rated and Triple X movies. What received an X back then could play on cable TV today — studio movies like Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice."

McElfresh says Alexander blatantly edited out scenes he found objectionable.

"If there was anything salacious in the movie, Joe would cut it," he says. "You could see the paint going through the projector. He wanted to be able to advertise the salacious movies for the business but didn't want to show anything salacious."

For many years, fear of prosecution has forced local creative people and organizations to reconsider what they present to Cincinnati audiences so as not to upset a group's notion of morality.

Charles Keating, leader of Citizens for Decent Literature Group and brother of then-Enquirer Publisher William Keating, was a major "values" proponent along with Leis. He joined Leis, who was at the height of his political clout as county presecutor, in successfully closing the opening night of the touring musical Oh, Calcutta! at the Shubert Theatre in 1970.

But their courtroom defeat over Last Tango foreshadowed later failures in attempting to shut down Hustler boss Larry Flynt or the 1990 Contemporary Arts Center exhibition of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.

The court decision in favor of United Artists and Last Tango was little noticed in the media, but the protracted battles against Flynt and the CAC made international news and earned Cincinnati the reputation as an ultra-conservative city.

"There were films that avoided Cincinnati, and the city had a reputation for being problematic," McElfresh says. "But my suspicion is once Mapplethorpe happened Leis' control was over. I have a feeling some city fathers got together and rapped Leis' knuckles really good over the reputation the city got from his pursuing of the Mapplethorpe show.

"There are fewer attempts to stop the presentation of material now than there was before. There was extended nudity in Poor Superman at Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati (in 1994). There was some chatter, but the show was never closed."

Saving the Esquire
Mid-States was the theatrical powerhouse in Cincinnati when White sold the cinema chain in 1984. The Studio Cinemas had closed by that time, along with The Guild in Walnut Hills, The Alpha in Northside and Hyde Park Cinema on Hyde Park Square.

The sole art-house theater was The Movies, located in the former Mid-States downtown location known as The Place.

The Guild had shown edgier films, like some of the Andy Warhol titles. The Alpha briefly showed XXX films, although the majority of its programs were re-releases of foreign language classics.

Some art-house films briefly played the Esquire on Ludlow Avenue in Clifton, but it mostly operated as a second-run neighborhood theater catering to the college crowd from nearby UC.

The Movies and its popular calendar format of showing different films daily on its single screen was beginning to experience a downturn in business when the Esquire Theater reopened in April 1990 after a long campaign to prevent the spot from becoming a fast-food restaurant.

Clifton residents and supporters had formed the nonprofit Clifton Theatre Corporation to save the Esquire Theatre and reopen it as a first-run art-house cinema. James A. Morrison MD led the group responsible for raising $300,000, and then-Cincinnati City Councilman and Clifton resident David Mann helped the project by spearheading a forgivable city loan for $100,000.

Thirty-five people, couples or trusts bought quarter-, half- or full partnerships, with full partnerships costing $20,000.

Cinema Paradiso, an Italian-language film about, of all things, a small town cinema whose projectionist is forced to cut any scene deemed too sexy by the local priest, was the film that helped put the Esquire on the map as a successful venue for art-house movies. It wasn't long before The Movies, which had turned hands twice since the Esquire's reopening, shut down.

The Esquire expanded to six screens in 1996, shortly after members of the organization acquired the Mariemont Theatre to program it as an art house. Meanwhile, Clifton Theater Corporation, an LTD, changed to an LLC and along the way hired Goldman's Theater Management Corporation to run day-to-day operations. Its days as a nonprofit were over.

Among the organization's members or shareholders, Morrison remains the leading player. Other prominent trustees are Frank Miller, Joan Strader, Gerald Weinstein and Paul Muller, all of whom had helped fund the movement to save the Esquire.

Goldman is president of Theater Management Corporation. He signs the employee's checks but reports to the LLC members.

Members are said to frequently call Goldman about the theaters' operations. Some of the calls involve upcoming films or the popcorn's quality. Other calls regard more serious matters.

In the cut
Goldman promotes the Esquire Theatre as the city's leading art-house cinema. He's correct, of course, in that the Esquire and the Mariemont are the area's sole art houses.

Multiplexes might play breakout hits like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Fahrenheit 9/11. But the Esquire and the Mariemont theaters are frequently the exclusive programmers of specialty films.

Goldman could have refused to book The Center of the World in 2001, but he thought the film would make money, much like the previous erotic adult film he played, Requiem for a Dream. Instead, Esquire audiences who bought tickets for the film were never told they were watching a censored movie.

The people who found the film offensive enough to censor it are likely people who hadn't watched it.

Cleveland Cinemas President Jonathan Foreman, who worked as the booker of the Esquire in its first year of operations, sums up the situation like this: "I would hope the trustees would have fired the manager the moment they learned he cut a film."

After all the news hit the public, Artisan Entertainment ordered the Esquire to return The Center of the World on June 4 without splicing the sex scene back into the print. But Artisan placed their next film, Startup.com, at the Esquire the very next week.

Artisan didn't take Goldman or Theater Management Corporation to court, although they did charge the theater for the cost of the damaged print of The Center of the World.

Perhaps the concept of a censored film is much ado about nothing. Business continues as usual at the Esquire.

Asked why Clifton Theater Corporation members did not fire Goldman once they learned of the cut, Miller — semi-retired partner at the prestigious law firm Dinsmore & Shohl and a longstanding member of theater organization, was adamant in his support of the cut.

"We have a successful operation and a good deal of confidence in the way the manager operates," he says. "It would have been foolish to fire the manager, be without a manager and have to look for a new manager. He (Goldman) must have thought the film was a problem, and he had good reason for it.

"Gary did not want to risk difficulty with the sheriff or prosecutor. He did not want to risk getting into legal trouble. Probably the film was not one in good taste. In the big picture, this is trivial."

For the handful of locals who refuse to patronize the Esquire or Mariemont theaters out of protest, there are many more people who patronize the theaters without question. They can't go without watching the specialty films playing there, and there's no other place in town to see them. Maybe they don't know about the secret editing. Maybe they don't mind the censorship.

The circumstances behind the edit of The Center of the World remain mostly hidden from view. Phone calls to Goldman and Morrison for comment weren't returned. Knowing that this story was being prepared, Goldman's assistant informed CityBeat last week that she was instructed to stop providing the paper with Esquire and Mariemont booking information.

There was no pressure from an outside community values group to cut The Center of the World, since no one had seen it yet. The decision was made by those who run the Esquire Theatre.

The one person who stood up for the film — the person who understood not only that it was a breach of contract to cut the film but more importantly that it was wrong — was a young staffer paid close to minimum wage to run the projection booth. The Esquire's owners and operators — the people with clout, money and the power to hire and fire staff — decided that cutting The Center of the World was the right thing to do at the time.

The source of Cincinnati's conservative, almost parochial, reputation comes from its decision-makers, the powerful people who call the shots on the dividing line between art and pornography, on whether a movie is censored or not.

The people who fight against censorship, likely many of the same people who supported the efforts to restore the Esquire and who continue to patronize it today, would never stand for censorship. But in the case of Clifton's art-house theater, the decisions are out of their hands.

"I don't think we would want to have a film cut again," Miller says. "It created a lot of ill will at the time." ©

Scroll to read more News Feature articles
Join the CityBeat Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state.
Help us keep this coverage going with a one-time donation or an ongoing membership pledge.

Newsletters

Join CityBeat Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.