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Forty Years Ago, Deep Throat Took Milwaukee All The Way

Dec. 30, 2012
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When the words Deep Throat first appeared on the old iron marquee of the Parkway Theatre at 34th and Lisbon on Dec. 26, 1972, almost no one knew what it meant. It was just another dirty movie playing at one of the city’s growing population of adult theaters. But soon enough, Milwaukee learned what Deep Throat was. The backlash that followed would make the film one of the most controversial—and one of the most lucrative—to ever unspool in the Cream City.

For two weeks, Deep Throat ran seven times daily at the Parkway to solid but unremarkable crowds. This changed by mid-January as the film began to creep into the public’s consciousness. Certainly, its success in New York City (where it had been running for six months) and elsewhere was due in large part to the incredible whisper campaign from those who had seen it. The film’s titular act of extreme oral sex was so obscure in 1972 that many viewers assumed star Linda Lovelace had invented it herself. The gimmick got people talking. Many who heard headed for the box office.

But it was not just the sexually curious who heard such chatter. Politicians, police chiefs and district attorneys heard it, too. In several localities, obscenity charges swept theater operators into court. The most widely covered case was in New York. The 10-day trial was replete with testimony on everything from the preferred sex position for married couples to the chemistry of the female orgasm.

As the sticky courtroom drama played out, news agencies began to pay attention. The New York papers and the movie trade publications covered the trial breathlessly. Even Time magazine took notice, comparing Lovelace to Wonder Woman. The publicity from official attempts to stop the film shoved it into the spotlight. Almost overnight, the Parkway became a destination for couples, young people, the curious and the desperately hip. By the end of the month, it was selling out multiple times daily. Long lines for tickets stretched down Lisbon Avenue and around the corner. Suddenly, no one was ashamed to be seen out at a dirty movie.

But not everyone was thrilled with the happenings at the Parkway. The theatre had been tolerated by its Northwest Side neighborhood since it took up the adult format in 1970. While they had previously aired little complaint about the theatre, Throat had many up in arms. Chief among concerns was the parking. Thousands of people were now coming to the theatre every day. Between each of the seven daily shows, the area neared gridlock. Others claimed the invaders were often drunk or on drugs and some used the opportunity to slash at the filthy movies they had for so long loathed, framing all their attacks in a defense of the neighborhood’s children.

By the end of January, these forces had organized and held the first of many pickets of the Parkway. On Jan. 30, about 40 demonstrators marched the length of the building, carrying signs and chanting, “Up, up away with the Parkway!” Some of the protesters turned saboteurs, infiltrating the ticket lines and so badly delaying the start of one show that the theatre’s manager waved the entire line into the house for free. One protest leader told the papers he estimated the stunt to have cost the theatre as much as $2,000. “The Parkway is beginning to suffer,” he declared.

The protesters kept up their offensive. Continuing to pose as customers, they delayed the long lines at the box office and tied up the phone line with constant nuisance calls. Adults snuck teenagers into the house and called the police, claiming the theatre was admitting minors. Theatergoers were pelted with eggs thrown from passing cars. It got so bad that cops began patrolling the neighborhood during peak theatre hours to keep order.

But by March, the Parkway had much bigger problems. A judge had finally ruled in the New York case, finding the film obscene (“This is one throat that deserves to be cut,” he wrote). With that decree, the FBI began investigating the engagement of Throat at the Parkway and worked towards charging those involved with the transport of obscene material across state lines. On March 6, a Parkway lawyer was tipped off that an FBI raid of the theatre was imminent. Before the feds could get to it, the print of the film was hustled secretly from the theatre and Deep Throat’s fantastic 10-week run at the Parkway Theatre was done.

The fury and allure over Deep Throat represented both the high point for the popularity of, and opposition to, pornographic movies in Milwaukee. The Parkway would operate as an adult theater until 1986, but never again would its crowds be so eager and its detractors so fierce.

Matthew J. Prigge is a freelance writer and historian in Milwaukee. He can be contacted at mjprigge@uwm.edu.


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