UDH Hdr-Mirror Lake 1888

After decades of success, the neighborhood cinemas were done in by TV. Television offered people for free what they had to pay for at the cinema. Over the course of the 1950s, TV ownership went from fewer than 10,000 homes nationwide in 1947 to almost 90% of households by 1960. Nationwide, theater attendance dropped-off precipitously and never really recovered. From 1947-60, attendance dropped by a whopping 56% and box office take was halved. Even today, theater attendance is only about an eighth of the levels of the late 1940s.

Columbus boasted 39 neighborhood theaters in 1947 but saw more than half of them close during the 1950s. To survive, small theaters had to offer patrons something they couldn’t get on television.

On September 14, 1947, The Alhambra answered the challenge. It changed its name to The World. The new name represented the theater’s new format. In place of the Hollywood films that audiences were avoiding, The World offered a program of foreign films.

It was a timely change. As the American film industry stagnated in the 1950s, foreign cinema came into vogue. Italian Neo-Realism and the French New Wave were just getting under way, offering exciting new ideas and new visions. French actress Brigitte Bardot became an international celebrity with a huge following. Foreign films acquired a reputation for breaking ground and testing taboos. They offered something different from Hollywood’s endless Westerns, Bible epics, and teenage monster movies.

Theaters like the World found they could draw audiences by exhibiting European films. These films offered mature subject matter, sexual content, and occasional nudity that were unavailable in American movies and television.

This change in programming did not go unnoticed. As theaters experimented with more risqué films, cities enacted measures against films they deemed immoral. In Columbus, a review board was created in 1961 to screen films and recommend prosecution of those it found objectionable.

Throughout the 1960s, The World fought a running battle with censors.

In 1962, in its very first action, the Columbus Film Review Board filed a complaint and the vice squad raided The World, arrested the manager, and seized prints of Roger Vadim’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses.

The characters' libertine lifestyle was doubtlessly offensive to censors but scenes of implied nudity and actress Jean Valérie's bared backside were probably what brought the board's wrath down on the film. The censors branded the Gallic tale of seduction, serial adultery, smoking, and bebop jazz “impure."

ST. STEPHEN'S EPISCOPAL CHURCH- The World got churchy in the early 1950s.

St. Stephen's Episcopal Church began as a small congregation worshipping in a storefront theater (The Summit at Summit and Alden) back in 1917. In 1925, they moved into a new church at the corner of High and W. Woodruff in a busy residential neighborhood north of campus.

By 1950, the congregation had outgrown its building. The old structure was razed and the current church (shown at right) began to slowly rise on the spot. Shortages of men and materials due to the Korean War delayed construction. Not until summer 1952 was the building was complete.

For the two years that the new St. Stephen's was under construction, the congregation worshipped every Sunday morning in The World Theater.

 

THE TEN COMMANDMENTS- Oddly, the most successful movie at The World in the 1950s was not a risqué European import but a Hollywood Bible Epic. In 1957, Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments played The World for nearly six months.

In early March 1957, The Ten Commandments began a run at the Loew's Broad St. Theater downtown. Filmed on an epic scale with "a cast of thousands" in high resolution VistaVision, eye-popping Technicolor, and shown with seat-rumbling high fidelity sound, The Ten Commandments offered theater-goers something they'd never seen before. Audiences loved it. The Ten Commandments became the second-highest grossing film to that date. (It is still the 5th highest grossing film ever, adjusted for inflation.) Commandments played to sold-out houses for two months before other commitments forced the Broad to end its engagement.

Audiences were still clamoring for The Ten Commandments and that's where The World stepped in. Commandments closed at The Broad on Wednesday, May 8, 1957 and opened at The World on Thursday, May 9th. Audiences followed the picture. The World was sold out night after night after night. Twice daily showings proved insufficient and a third screening was added on Saturdays and Sundays. And still the fans came. Weeks turned into months and still audiences packed the house nightly. Spring turned into summer and still they came. Summer turned to autumn and still the audiences poured in.

When The Ten Commandments finally ended its run at The World on October 9th, it had been showing for 23 consecutive weeks.

As the 1960s wore on, times were changing. Back in 1952, in Burstyn v. Wilson, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized film as speech—not merely an amusement—and deserving of First Amendment protection. Subsequent Supreme Court decisions limited the definition of obscenity and restricted the powers of government censors.

Beliefs and values were changing too. What had been shocking in 1960 barely raised an eyebrow by the decade’s end.

In 1967, the vice squad, at the behest of the Review Board, raided The World again. Officers seized prints of the Swedish film Jeg: en kvinna (I, A Woman). The film depicted the romantic misadventures of a young Swedish woman looking for carnal pleasure. The censors labeled it “a celluloid chronicle of sin and skin.” They wanted it banned and its exhibitors punished.

This time the outcome was quite different than five years earlier.

Critics noted that 30,000 people had seen the film during its three week run in Columbus but only 20 complaints had been registered (with four of those coming from board members).

The attempted prosecution created chaos. The long-time chairman of the review board, a lawyer, stepped down in protest of the rest of the board’s refusal to abide by recent court decisions. Police complained about having to enforce “a crazy law.” City officials tossed the matter back and forth like a hot potato.

In the end, the grand jury refused to indict.

The badly wounded review board limped on for a few more years, prosecuting mostly pornographic theaters, but its demise was just a matter of time.

I, A Woman

The World endured one more censorship fight, this one instigated by the mayor.

In 1970, a trifle of a play called Oh Calcutta! stormed the gates of popular culture. A leering, self-consciously dirty production consisting of dramatized sex jokes, numerous "erotic" interpretive dances, and nearly constant on-stage nudity, Oh Calcutta! was the embodiment of the Sleazy Seventies. Audiences loved it. The play went to Broadway and played to sold-out houses for months. It went on to become the 5th longest running show in Broadway history. Overwrought bluenoses and busybodies predictably proclaimed the end of civilization.

A canny entrepreneur hit on the idea to cash in on the revue's popularity via a special, one-night only videotape presentation at theaters across the country. The World was one of the participating theaters. Tickets were offered at $7.50 each ($40 in 2009 dollars) and the theater sold out both showings.

Anti-porn crusaders were outraged by this. They began agitating against the show and working political connections to shut it down. As a result, the program showed in only 50 of the 150 theaters it was scheduled to. In Columbus, the mayor raged against the the showing and tried to have it blocked. The courts would not cooperate. The night of the show, a vice officer was in attendance and, at the conclusion of the first show, arrested the theater manager for obscenity and seized the videotape. Pre-notified newspapermen and TV crews were on hand to record the victory of the forces of decency.

The prosecution fell apart for want of a videotape player able to play the evidence. It really fell apart for lack of interest. The arrest was for show, to satisfy the offended moralists. In the real world, it was 1970 and nobody cared. Times had changed and the law had changed.

The World’s battles against censorship had helped establish Columbus audiences’ freedom to see and hear what they chose without being dictated to by government. The World’s fight helped establish that one part of the community could not use the coercive power of the state to limit what the rest of the community could see or hear. In its humble way, the little theater on N. High St. was a battleground for the freedom we enjoy today.

Stewardesses 3-D

The Stewardesses 3-D showed at The World for an incredible 25 straight weeks from October 30, 1970 to April 22, 1971.

LOUIS K. SHER and THE ART THEATER GUILD- In the mid-1950s, The World was acquired by the Art Theater Guild chain. The World remained an ATG cinema until it closed in the late 1980s.

The Art Theater Guild was started by Columbus native and Ohio State alumnus Louis K. Sher. In 1954, Sher bought the Bexley Twin and, not long after, The World. Over the next two decades, Sher acquired theater after theater. By the late 1970s, he operated nearly 40 theaters in 11 states.

The ATG theaters followed the trail blazed by The World, attracting audiences by showing foreign, art, and independent films that featured content mainstream Hollywood films didn't dare touch. ATG spiced the mix with the occasional forgotten classic or the odd sexploitation title. The ATG theaters' patrons were artists, intellectuals, sophisticates, college students, adventurous adult film-goers, and dirty old men. The theaters served free coffee and had art displays in the front lobby.

The ATG's film fare brought many legal battles with censors. Most famously, Sher did battle over Louis Malle's The Lovers in the 1964 Supreme Court case Jacobellis vs. Ohio. At issue was a glimpse of Jeanne Moreau's nipple in a dark love scene. Sher won and the court narrowed the definition of obscenity.

In the late 1960s, as Hollywood began to deal with more adult themes and break down taboos, Sher moved further out of the mainstream. The ATG theaters increased their offering of soft-core sexploitation films.

One of the most successful of these was The Stewardesses 3-D which Sher produced and promoted through the ATG theaters. Stewardesses was made for about $100,000 but ultimately grossed $25 million.

In the 1970s, as business for small theaters grew worse, ATG converted most of its cinemas to grindhouses and porn theaters. This was successful for a time but by the late 1980s, home video had killed the porn theater.

Sher died in 1998 leaving behind a legacy of entertaining and titillating audiences, battling for free speech, and making lots of cash.