The Maryland Board of Film Censors, a bastion of decency to some and an authoritarian relic to others, played its last reel yesterday to a friendly audience made up largely of former and present members and staff.
At its final meeting in Baltimore, the last state board of its kind in the country saw no films and took no actions. The historic occasion was marked in its compact office on an upper floor of an aging office building by remembrances of a controversial 65-year history, during which the board previewed more than 40,000 films whose distributors sought the board's mandatory seal of approval.
The three-member board regularly viewed each entry in a drab screening room from behind long tables where they scribbled notes on yellow pads as the films rolled on. Movies they rejected as obscene went to the Baltimore Circuit Court for a judicial interpretation.
Although the board's rejections dwindled to only six films last year, its supporters claimed credit for the nonshowing of almost 400 films in Maryland that were shown in Virginia and the District of Columbia. Among the no-shows in recent years -- either banned or not submitted for approval -- were such pornographic classics as "Debby Does Dallas," "Deep Throat" and "The Devil in Miss Jones."
More than anyone, 70-year-old Mara Avara, for 21 years the censor board's secretary, came to symbolize the panel and its mission. The self-styled "X-rated grandma" pledged yesterday to continue her personal crusade against pornography.
"I will continue . . . like Joan of Arc," she said. "I'm booked until September," said Avara, who, in addition to television and personal appearances, also plans to help run her son's Dundalk barber school.
Vice Chairman Martha Wright, a born-again Christian, also promised to carry on the fight. She has just taped an antipornography segment for a religious network show and plans to do more. "That's our biggest weapon, Mary and I speaking and informing," Wright aid. "Mary gets them outraged, then I try to explain the law. She's lots more fun than me."
As part of yesterday's fun, Avara was presented with a pair of big dark glasses ["because of the terrible pornography she has to see on the screen," Wright explained], two plaques depicting the Last Supper, and scrapbook of her press clippings. Wright was given a bottle of white-out, symbolizing all the letters to the editors she typed in a futile attempt to save the state board, the last of its kind in the nation.
The board on which the final curtain will fall Tuesday expires pursuant to the state's sunset law, under which agencies must justify their continued existence. In the opinion of the sunset evaluators, the board that cost the state $100,000 a year to run had bombed. And, despite heavy lobbying by Avara and others, the legislature refused to repeal the death sentence.
Wright blamed the panel's demise on well-intentioned people who misunderstood its role and on the powerful pornography industry. "When the powers that be found out this board was so lethal and deadly against pornography, they couldn't get rid ot it fast enough," said Wright.
"I have no malice towards nobody," Avara said. Among those attending yesterday's farewell party, which she supplied with macaroni, meatballs and sausage, were, she marveled, "even distributors I would give a hard time to. They had tears in their eyes. It was unreal. They were sad to see me go."
In the last few years, she and other board members, who came and went while she stayed on, received $4,500 annually. "But I would have worked free," she said.
At the final meeting, she received a citation from Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer that she said she would frame. She also received a note from Gov. Harry Hughes, who had promised to veto legislation reinstating the board and even yesterday at his weekly press conference, repeated his opposition to censorship and suggested the panel was a waste of funds.
"Dear Mrs. Avara," Hughes had written, "pursuant to the regulatory evaluation program, the Maryland censor board is hereby abolished. On behalf of the citizens, I want to thank you for your dedication and effort."
"He can't speak for the citizens," Mary Avara sniffed, sighing, "It doesn't matter; at least the people know I tried."