Mary Alvara thought the recently-released film "Pretty Baby" was "downright offensive, the beginning of child pornography."

She thought that the first time she saw it.

She felt that way the second time she saw it.

And she was certain of it the third time.

She watched the film all three times ("Or was it four" she pondered recently) to uphold her sworn duty as a member of the Maryland State Board of Censors, only state censorship board in the nation.

With reach showing of the film about a beautiful 12-year-old girl turned prostitute in 1917 New Orleans, screening from grew larger.

First Avara's two censor board collegaues, George Anderadakis and Robert Wallis, were added. Then their legal adviser. Assistant Attorney General Todd Taylor, appeared, and finally called for the escalation, insisting that the people of Maryland must not see the film, at least not on her side of the Maryland-District of Columbia border.

But the legal experts, according to Avara, disagreed, maintaining they could not obtain a finding of obscenity in court.

"I thought it was offensive with a 12-year-old girl playing a prostitute, but my opinion doesn't enter into it," Avara declared in an interview."

"We looked at the film three times to make sure. You knew something was going to happen, but you never actually saw anything," Avara said.

"The law (setting the board's functions) should have more teeth in it," she declared, despite the fact the statute already makes the board the toughest censorship in the nation. It is the only board that can ban a film because it finds that film obscene, according to legal experts.

Local boards are scattered around the country, in Chicago and Dallas, for instance, but these panels can only classify film; limiting them to adul-only viewing.

Maryland's board sees everything from Disney to "Deep Throat," and any film that does not get its seal cannot be shown in the state, unles a court overrules the board's decision.

Plenty of films do not pass muster.

"Love Games" did not make it until a Baltimore judge overturned the board's obscenity ruling. "Frustrated Wives" squeaked through only after the distributor agreed to cut 30 "obscene" feet from the film, according to the board's record-keeper.

Of the 455 films the board has viewed during the fiscal year that began last July, 16 wese rejected by the censors and withdrawn from distribution.

"My favorite films are the ones from India," Avara mused recently as she watched a Chinese offering, "Starlets for Sale," out of the corner of her eye.

"If two people are gonna kiss they have two doves coming together. They never show two people touching."

Every movie to be shown in Maryland is sent to the board's offices in 1 S. Calvert St. in Baltimore, where members view films from raised desks in a small screening room lit by the glow of tiny lamps.

Distributors pay a $3 fee for every 1,000 feet of film the board screens, about $27 for the average film. The board took in about $11,000 in fees last fiscal year - far less than enough to cover its $76,000 bodget, the bulk of which goes for salaries for board members (who receive $4,500 a year), for office help and for 13 inspectors who fan out statewide to keep Maryland safe from uncensored films.

On this score the board gets some help from a "phantom caller," who will speak to no one but Avara. He phones the tips on films being shown illegally, that is, without seals. Avara says his information "is aways accurate."

Once the board rejects a film, it must send the movie to the Baltimore Circuit Court for a judicial determination of whether it is, in fact, obscene. If the judge finds that it is, the distributor may appeal to the state's higher courts. However, distributors rarely appeal, mainly because it is not profitable to do so, according to David Friedman, chairman of the Adult Film Association of America.

"Certainly for one or two play dates in Maryland I'm not going to spend $25,000 in legal fees," said Friedman, who makes films in Los Angeles.

Friedman came to Maryland to battle the censor board nearly 20 years ago, and recalled tellong one board employe then: "It's only a matter of time before this board is a thing of the past. The U.S. Supreme Court will rule it unconstitutional."

Friedman said the employe told him: "You may know a lot about the Constitution, but you don't know anything about Maryland politics."

The fellow apparently knew that he was talking about.

As Friedman predicted, the U.S. Supreme Court in 1965 unanimously struck down Maryland's movie censorship law, ruling its procedures posed a serious threat to freedom of expression. The court made clear it was not ruling on the constitutionality of censorship itself, but based its ruling on the fact that Maryland's statue failed to guarantee prompt judicial review of the censor's actions.

The ruling knocked out censorship boards across the nation, according to Barbara Scott, vice president and general attorney for the Motion Picture Association America.

"Most states looked at their statutes and just gave up on them. Everybody but Maryland. Maryland amended its statue to conform with the ruling."

Despite perennial legislative attempts since to abolish the board or curtail its power, the Maryland censors still sit as arbiters of public taste in their state.

"Just who are they protecting and from what?" asks former Maryland American Civil Liberties Union President Thomas Asher.

"It's not as if someone were showing hard core movies and billing them as Saturday afternoon entertainment for children," Asher said. "Nobody goes to see an X-rated movie without knowing what he's getting into.

"The board is just one more effort at morality dictated by government."

Board member Wallis, a Harford County newspaper editor, said he tries "to divorce himself" from such issues as the need for the board's existence.

"The legislature said the board should exist, and I'm willing to serve," the editor said.

But Avara takes a stronger stance when anyone suggests the board might be encroaching on constitutional rights to freedom of expression.

"When the Bill of Rights was written did they have movies, could they have foreseen the future," she asked.

"No, they didn't have people like that what's-his-name, the man who played in 'Deep Throat,' that Harry Reems.

"If they could have foreseen, they wouldn't mean the Bill of Rights to protect anything like that."