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Lewd and Filthy: A Theatre Escapade with Morality Police, Audience Protests and PR Gold

The author of Tobacco Road and a cast of his play, Vancouver Police Museum Blog History

The author of Tobacco Road and a cast of his play. Photo Credit: Bill Cunningham/The Province.

Author: Jesse Donaldson

In January of 1953, the audience at the Avon Theatre on Hastings Street experienced something unusual: a police raid in the middle of a performance.

“Seven big city detectives joined the cast of ‘Tobacco Road’ at the Avon Theatre Friday night,” reported the Vancouver Province, “and five members of the regular cast were taken to jail, charged with taking part in an indecent performance.”

The arrests took place in the middle of the third act of Everyman Theatre Company’s performance of “Tobacco Road”, an adaptation of Erskine Caldwell’s book about life, love, and poverty in the American South. And while the play had received rave reviews during its 8-year run on Broadway (inspiring a film, and going on to become the second-longest-running nonmusical in Broadway history), the VPD had a somewhat different artistic interpretation. By the night of the raid, “Tobacco Road” had already been investigated by two teams of detectives, after being labelled “lewd and filthy” by City Prosecutor Gordon Scott – points of contention being a woman’s costume described by the Vancouver Province as “barely longer than a sweater” and a moment when an actor mimed urinating on the side of the stage. Police finally stormed the stage after a lengthy cat-and-mouse game that continued through the first and second acts, with stage management dimming the lights between scenes to allow the actors to escape out various exits. Suffice to say, the 850-person audience wasn’t thrilled; as the offending cast members were hauled off the stage, boos and cries of “Gestapo!” rang out through the auditorium. Incredibly, close to 500 people remained in their seats, chanting “We’ll wait!”, and taking part in an a capella singalong with the performers who remained (including a young Bruno Gerussi).

The Avon Theatre before it was demolished in 2011

The Avon Theatre before it was demolished in 2011. A Pantages Theatre, this was the oldest Vaudville and movie house in Vancouver. Photo Credit and Link: IAN SMITH, PNG / VANCOUVER SUN http://ow.ly/xDxE30j7TeX

Throughout the early and mid 20th Century, police and city officials took a much heavier hand in regulating public morality than they do today. Until the late 1950s, “obscenity” was only vaguely defined in the Canadian Criminal Code, and as such was left up to the discretion of individuals in power. As a result, any artist — be they literary, visual, or theatrical – whose work was labelled obscene could find themselves in all manner of trouble – legal, or otherwise. The VPD’s Morality Squad was initially formed in 1916, and in its early years, it employed mostly women. In fact, the city’s first morality-related arrest was made by Minnie Miller (also Canada’s first female police officer), who in August of 1912, booked one William Borden on charges of making himself “objectionable” to women on a public beach. Over the years, the Morality Squad’s influence waxed and waned – in 1920 alone, they made 4000 arrests, but by 1928, after the famously soft-on-crime L.D. Taylor had taken office, they were disbanded for corruption.

And it wasn’t just the VPD who weighed in on what constituted obscene entertainment; in February of 1914, music hall legend Marie Lloyd had her performance at The Orpheum cancelled minutes before she was to take the stage, after Mayor Truman Baxter accused her of “blue” material (including a number where she exposed her ankle to the audience).

“Mayor Baxter had heard rumours that she intended to say some spicy things about the city’s chief magistrate and some other Vancouver people on the last day of her engagement,” the Vancouver Province reported, “and his worship accordingly decided early in the day to call Miss Marie off the stage.”

This kind of censorship continued well into the 1960s. The RCMP’s Morality Squad even had a list of banned books — including titles such as Lady Chatterly’s Lover, Ulysses, and The Naked and the Dead – which could be seized without warrant or due process.

Tobacco Road Newspaper Clipping, from Harrisburg Telegraph, 31 Mar 1936, Tue, Page 16. The Vancouver Police Museum Blog History

Tobacco Road Newspaper Clipping from Harrisburg Telegraph, 31 Mar 1936, Tue, Page 16.

“Royal Canadian Mounted Police swooped down on bookstores and the Vancouver Public Library Friday in a hunt for copies of author Henry Miller’s sex-in-Paris novel, Tropic of Cancer,” reported the Vancouver Sun, in October of 1962. “Two plain-clothes officers seized one volume at Duthie Books, and learned three other volumes were in circulation from the public library.”

“Personally, I can’t see why the book can’t be allowed into Canada,” VPL assistant director Morton Jordan retorted, in the pages of the Sun. “Miller is pretty highly regarded, his book is well written and although a little spicy in places, is considered a good literary work.”

Author Erskine Caldwell, author of "Tobacco Road" reading his book. Photo Credit and Link: Bill Dennett/Vancouver Sun. Vancouver Police Museum Blog History

Erskine Caldwell, author of “Tobacco Road,” reading his book. Photo Credit and Link: Bill Dennett/Vancouver Sun. Link: http://ow.ly/ubDq30j7TJR

Luckily, in the case of Tobacco Road, the obscenity charge was anything but a death-sentence. In fact, after 90 minutes, the arrested cast members returned to an auditorium rocked with cheers, and picked up right where they left off. The following day, Everyman Theatre filed an injunction against the VPD. And while the incident left a bad taste in the audience’s mouths, as the Sun’s John Mackie uncovered back in 2015, the whole thing was, in fact, an inside job. As it turns out, Everyman’s publicist had personally complained to the VPD about the show in order to boost ticket sales. It was a gambit that ultimately worked; Tobacco Road played to capacity crowds for the rest of its two-week run.

The Pantages Theatre at 150 East Hastings in Vancouver. It was renamed the Avon Theatre many years later.

The Pantages Theatre at 150 East Hastings in Vancouver. It was renamed the Avon Theatre many years later. Photo Source: Wikipedia Link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pantages_Theatre_(Vancouver)

The last major instance of obscenity charges being laid against a Vancouver show was a production of “The Beard” in 1969. They were ultimately reversed in BC Supreme Court.

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