The Forgotten Legacy of the Milwaukee Motion Picture Commission

Sep. 23, 2016
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In June 1969, Milwaukee Motion Picture Commission (MMPC) executive secretary Valentine Wells appeared before the Common Council to make a personal appeal for passage of an ordinance to give the MMPC the legal power to enforce their rulings, who had – for the previous 55 years – been enforced with the cooperation of the theater exhibitors and the always-looming threat of operating license revocation. Through the first five months of the year, the commission had passed at least two films containing non-sexual nudity. As they had in years before the body was retreating in the face of an unfriendly legal climate. Non-prurient nakedness – kept out of Milwaukee 15 years after it appeared almost everywhere else in the nation – was now permissible. But Wells would not let allow his commission to creep back any further. At least not without a fight.

As Wells took his case before the Common Council, the MMPC was facing creeping threats on several fronts. The most pressing came from Hollywood. The MPAA ratings system was threatening to give producers carte blanche towards sex, nudity, and violence so long as they tagged their pictures with the appropriate rating. Wells predicted a flood of troublesome and well-funded pictures was due for the city. As for the MPAA ratings themselves – which many theaters were now giving precedence over the MMPC ratings – Wells was unimpressed. He called the system a “cover-up foisted upon the American public,” and derided the concept of Hollywood self-applying such ratings as “like letting the fox guard the chicken coop.”

Valentine J. Wells, who ruled the MMPC for over 20 years.

The state of Wisconsin was also threatening to usurp the power of the MMPC with a state assembly proposal to create a state movie board with the legal authority to rate films, order deletions, and spearhead prosecutions against non-compliant theaters. The proposal had been floated at least twice in the past three years, but had never gained any real momentum. Its reintroduction in 1969, and its similarity to what Wells wanted locally, was enough for the Common Council to decline action until the state had their say on the matter. They told Wells to come back in three months.

Wells used the time to rally support for his ordinance. A petition drive from various women’s groups and church organization gathered more than six thousand names demanding an end to unnecessary movie nudity and violence. Wells spoke to the newspapers and radio, lectured before civic groups, and strategized with the local Legion of Decency and Better Films Council. “They are up in arms, they want something done,” he told the hosts of Public Conference, a morning talk program on WITI-TV. He urged the commission’s supporters to make clear their voices, to write their Common Council representatives and demand the city do something to stomp out “smut pictures.”

Wells spent his summer competing for ink with the moon landing and Woodstock; the Miracle Mets’ race to the pennant and Senator Edward Kennedy’s disastrous drive home in Chappaquiddick, MA; the continued campus unrest over the Vietnam War and the grisly slaughter of actress Sharon Tate and four others in her Hollywood home. It had been five years since Bob Dylan first recorded The Times They Are A-Changin’, but it was as true that summer as any before it. Wells had dismissed Dylan in 1967 in summarizing the documentary Don't Look Back as the “Life of Bob Dylan (poet) kook.” But as he set to rally the public to his side, Wells needed neither poet nor kook to tell him that the tide of change was high, and that his side was the one that was in trouble.

As the summer dragged on, the commission was ordering scenes cut from an average of one film every week. Most of these pictures were bound for the Princess or Tower, but a rising number were headed elsewhere. The Cinemas – the two houses carved out of the old WisconsinTheater by the Gran chain in 1963 – was now under the control of the UnitedArtists (UA) theater chain. By the summer of 1969, UA was booking a steady stream of adult pictures like Teenage Mother and Naked Angels into Cinema 2, the Wisconsin’s old balcony. Other downtown houses like the Esquire, Palace, and Riverside ran X-rated pictures, ceding to the commission on sex and nudity, but promoting the films as sensationally as ever.

When he was not out campaigning for his ordinance or sitting through a screening, the 68-year-old Wells was in his little Northwest side apartment, pounding out letters on cheap MMPC letterhead to local theaters, detailing the various objectionable scenes in whatever picture they had just booked. His commission was as active as it had ever been, one of the stingiest in the country. But if its power was a mile-wide, it was an inch deep. Holed up in the commission “office,” chain-smoking his unfiltered Camels and suffering through the soupy heat of yet another long summer of change and rebellion, Valentine Wells was all too aware of what was coming.

The Strand Theater’s mysterious September 5th listing.

On September 5, the downtown Strand Theater ran a mysterious entry in the newspaper movie listings: “Please Call 271-4244 for the Name of the Picture NOW PLAYING – Rated X – Adults Only.” The ad was an inspired bit of showmanship by Jerry Grueneberg, long-time commission nemesis. Grueneberg and his brother had taken over the Strand lease from the Prudential chain in 1963 and initially preserved the theater’s family-friendly reputation. The Strand even served as the exclusive Milwaukee home to the colossal hit The Sound of Music, running it for nearly two solid years between 1965 and 1967. But as their profits dipped, Grueneberg showed that he was still not shy about aggravating the MMPC. The mystery film he debuted in late 1969 was the excessively titled Can Heironymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness? The picture was a bizarre and explicit English romp, telling the story of a satanic folk singer and his dalliances with a string of starry-eyed groupies. The commission had banned the picture because of its excessive nudity – both male and female – and strong sexual content. After discovering that the Strand’s mystery picture was Heironymus, Wellsdispatched vice officers to the theater. After viewing the film, they went to the DA with a request to have the film declared obscene and the Strand’s operators arrested. The DA declined the request.

In itself, the three-week run of Heironymus at the Strand was not all that damaging to the commission. Grueneberg’s gag of refusing the allow the film’s title to appear in print helped to keep the incident quiet and save face for the MMPC. The refusal of the DA to act on the picture was disappointing for the commission, but not entirely surprising. Heironymus might have contained explicit scenes, but it was hardly a sex film and had a hard time meeting any legal definitions of obscenity of the time. Furthermore, its engagement at the Strand could be dismissed as another Jerry Grueneberg stunt. The picture’s engagement at the Strand did not indicate a change in programming at the theater. After the film left town, it was replaced by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and, once again, all city theaters were in compliance with the MMPC.

But by the time Heironymus closed, Wells already knew what was coming to Milwaukee that October. Ben Marcus, owner of the largest chain of theaters in the city, had booked De Sadeinto his Timesand Esquiretheaters despite a commission ruling that it was too sexually explicit to play for the public. Marcus had previously shown cautious support for the commission, even backing Wells’ early attempts at an increase in pay. But he could no longer afford to pass over potential moneymaking pictures because of the “recommendations” of the commission. The move was the one Wells had feared. While the likes of Jerry Grueneberg, the Princess, and the Tower Art operated in a realm of their own, Ben Marcus was as mainstream as it got in the Milwaukee movie business. When the picture opened on October 3 at least a half-dozen other movies playing in the city were doing so with commission-ordered deletions. If these other theater operators saw Marcus go rogue without consequence, they would be quick to follow.

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