No Charlie Chaplin on Sunday

No Charlie Chaplin on Sunday
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Movies starring such popular performers as Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd didn’t escape the wrath of the crusaders.

                        

Reprinted from The Chronicler, the newsletter of the Tuscarawas County Historical Society

Effective Oct. 28, 1919, alcohol consumption in the United States became illegal. To further infringe on citizens’ pursuit of happiness, the Ohio General Assembly and local municipalities outlawed one pleasurable activity after another by passage of so-called “Blue Laws,” restricting business activities on Sundays.

Dover and Dennison had already banned burlesque shows. In 1925 the City of Dover threatened to prosecute businessmen who kept their “nonessential” businesses open on Sundays.

The New Philadelphia Times listed some of those nonessential businesses as pool halls, newsstands, coffee houses, restaurants and cigar stores. In 1925 the General Assembly enacted the Aigler-Van Wye Act, authorizing probate judges and municipal councils to permit or forbid Sunday dancing.

Mayors in all municipalities in the county, except Zoar, opposed Sunday dancing. People in the Village of Zoar danced whenever they liked.

In 1924 the assembly passed legislation providing:

Whoever on Sunday participates in or exhibits to the public, with or without charge of admission, in a building, room, garden or other place, a theatrical or dramatic performance, shall be subject to a fine of not more than $100 or imprisonment of six months in jail, or both.

Municipalities passed their own ordinances which provided for fines and jail sentences which were often less onerous than the state statute.

Churches promoted the enactment and enforcement of the Sunday movie ban, primarily it was said, because the theaters would attract the kind of customers who ought to be in church on the Sabbath.

The content of the films shown in the local theaters on Sundays only inflamed the debate. “What Every Woman Wants” was showing at the Star Theater, and the Union Opera House was showing “The Man Haters” and “Lucretia Lombard, A Drama of Flaming Passion” at the time the state law was passed.

Movies starring such popular performers as Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd didn’t escape the wrath of the crusaders. (The Times repeated the comment from one theater manager that the ban also applied to religious movies shown by the local churches on Sunday evenings.)

Religious congregations were not the only opponents of Sunday movies. There was much secular support for Blue Laws. Unions supported such laws as preventing exploitation of workers whose required working hours were largely unregulated. A later United States Supreme Court decision upheld such laws as they promoted the public welfare and family life.

The Sunday movie ban was not popular with Tuscarawas County citizens. Dover seemed to be a hotbed of resistance. Upon passage of the ban, George Chrest, manager of the Ohio Theater, announced his intention to show the movie “The Pony Express” on a Sunday following passage of the law. Upon threat of prosecution, he backed off and told the mayor he would not show movies that Sunday or any other Sunday.

Despite those assurances, the next Sunday Chrest did run a movie. The mayor had him arrested. His defense that “they do it in Canton” got him nowhere; Canton was not a model of good civic deportment. He was found guilty, fined $20, and told to go and sin no more.

When Chrest’s case was disposed of so lightly, proprietors of the other two theaters in Dover announced their intent to run Sunday movies. The county prosecutor refused to prosecute the theater managers for habitual violation of the law, so the City of Dover hired an independent attorney to pursue prosecution. All three theater managers were charged, but after trials, all were found not guilty. The film reels spun again the next Sunday.

On Jan. 8, 1928, the secretary of the Ohio Lord’s Day Alliance spoke to a large audience, which, according to The Times, was comprised of “members of all of the New Philadelphia churches.”

From this assembly the call went out for the Tuscarawas County Grand Jury to indict on felony charges any county theater manager who repeatedly violated the Sunday movie ban. Habitual violation was punishable by one year in prison for each violation. The Grand Jury refused to indict.

Not giving up, the Dover mayor, without any apparent legal authority, ordered the theaters closed. When the mayor’s action was challenged, the city reverted to its prior tactic of charging the three theater managers following each Sunday showing. The managers considered the fines as nothing more than costs of doing business, and they became publicly referred to as the “Ten Dollar Men,” alluding to the typical fine. After the 14th prosecution, and a referendum in which Dover voters approved of Sunday movies by a vote of 2,401 to 811, the city gave up.

New Philadelphia, Uhrichsville and Dennison all prosecuted theater managers for Sunday movie showings, although with less enthusiasm than Dover and with the same results. The county prosecutor finally brought a prosecution of the three Dover theater managers in the County Probate Court, which had jurisdiction to hear any cases involving violation of Blue Laws. After the jury deadlocked 6-6 in the first trial, the prosecutor dropped all charges against the three. The newspaper published the names of the irresponsible jurors.

By 1931 the Sunday movie issue was dead. Government officials had had enough. The governor declared the Sunday movie ban law had been “nullified” by the attitude of the public and the record of failed prosecutions.

In Belmont County alone in a period of 12 months, the grand jury ignored 72 cases of Sunday movie law violations. On May 2, 1931, the governor signed a bill amending the law to prohibit only Sunday morning movie showings.

The Sunday afternoon and evening following the change in the law, the Union Opera House in New Philadelphia showed the movie, “The Secret Sex,” and Chrest showed “Misbehaving Ladies” at his State Theater. It was not recorded whether Sunday morning church attendance increased.


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