Friday, April 17, 2009

John Waters Was Inspired By My Dad

Triple-X memories on York Road helped inspire 'A Dirty Shame'

John Waters mentioned my dad, Ronald Freedman, in a September 19, 2004 Baltimore Sun article by Chris Kaltenbach ("Waters' latest: sex by pseudonym") about his film A Dirty Shame. My dad used to manage the Rex Theater.
A Dirty Shame is a tale of marauding sex addicts who wage a pitched battle against the morally upright citizens of Harford Road. It's also a celebration of sexual rapaciousness, sexual perversity, sexual obsessions ... in fact, just about everything sexual, except the sex act itself (which, despite the film's NC-17 rating, is never actually shown).

To director John Waters, it's just like the old days on York Road, back at Baltimore's Rex Theatre, a longtime XXX stalwart of the local sexploitation scene .

"When I was growing up," Waters says, "I was going to the foreign art films, I was going to the independent movies, but I also went to the Rex. All these things were kind of a big influence on me."

Over the phone, Waters even pretends to get teary-eyed at the memories. "I used to sit down with Ronald Freedman, the owner of the Rex, and he'd pull out this old scrapbook of Rex memorabilia. It just made me so nostalgic!"

Ladies' Man

The ladies love me. They really do.

This photo was taken by my co-worker Tom Warner to document the glee the ladies of Enoch Pratt Free Library experienced upon my successful return from passing gallstones. I am alive and well-loved.

My Dad

The Baltimore City Paper published a profile of my father Ronald Freedman in 2000.

Porn Free
by Charles Cohen
Baltimore City Paper (October 11, 2000)

Ronald Freedman, a man with a thorough love of cinema, has found himself linked with the history of one particular kind of film: sexploitation, a genre that paved the way for skin flicks, X-rated movie houses, and eventually hard-core porn videos.

That's not the way he planned it.

When Freedman opened the Rex Theater in 1961, he wasn't looking to be a purveyor of porn; he was a cinematic preservationist aiming to show classic and repertory films, in what he claims was Baltimore's first art house. Within a few years, though, he faced down the Maryland State Board of Motion Picture Censors by showing nudist-camp footage and other explicit fare at the Rex, and found himself in a legal battle to abolish the censorship board that, in 1965, went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Today, the 67-year-old First Amendment crusader is living at the Jewish Convalescent and Nursing Home in Pikesville. Though confined to a wheelchair due to a stroke, he's still showing movies that outrage people.

"I have always been a liberal," he says. "I know that's a dirty word, but I have always been a liberal and I opposed prior censorship of motion pictures."

On a warm afternoon, Freedman is wheeled out onto the nursing home's patio and gives a discourse on his place in local film history, starting from his Baltimore childhood, spent mostly in the movie houses, to his current days, which he spends watching everything from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to Double Indemnity in his room.

"My parents would always yell at me, 'Why did you spend all day in the movies? Why don't you play in the sun with the other children?'" he recalls.

Freedman started out as an English teacher at Northwest Baltimore's Garrison Junior High School in 1955. He finally yielded to his love of movies, giving up teaching when he bought the Rex on York Road in Govans so he could share his favorite old flicks with the public. (The building that housed the Rex is now a church.) This was decades before cable channels began screening flicks 24/7 and even before old movies were shown regularly on late-night television.

In 1961, Freedman discovered that a racy movie called The Immoral Mr. Teas, the debut film of future sexploitation auteur Russ Meyer, had been packing a theater in Washington, D.C., for a year. (D.C. theater owners didn't have to worry about a local censor board.) Inspired, Freedman began gradually pushing the boundaries of local decency standards by showing such saucy-but-mild-by-today's -standards flicks as Eve and the Handyman. When the state's watchdogs snipped the naughty bits out of a film, Freedman would alter the print the Rex screened, inserting title cards that read THIS SCENE BANNED BY MARYLAND BOARD OF CENSORS.

Eventually, Freedman bypassed the censor board altogether and showed the film Revenge at Daybreak without its seal of approval; his action got him charged with violating the censor board code, convicted, and fined. Freedman sued the state and its censor board for violating his First Amendment rights.

While the Supreme Court justices who eventually heard Freedman vs. the State of Maryland agreed with Freedman that the board had no right to cut or ban films, they turned the decency question over to the state courts. The upshot of the 1965 decision was that state film-censor boards had to ask their state courts to approve any bans or cuts in exhibited movies.

The Supreme Court decision eventually brought the end of censor boards around the country except in Maryland, where the law was rewritten to preserve censorship in the state's sympathetic court system. "That was the fatal flaw of the U.S. Supreme Court decision," Freedman says. "They thought the lower courts understood the First Amendment and what freedom of speech meant."

For several more years, the Maryland censor board continued its work, led by its legendary chairperson, Mary Avara. Avara, a grandmother, bail bondsperson, and devout Catholic, talked to The Sun in 1968 about her work as a gatekeeper of cinematic decency. "I didn't learn about any of this filth when I was growing up, and I had 11 brothers and sisters," she said. "When one of my sisters asked where babies come from, my mother beat her unmercifully."

By the '70s, the Rex merged with a local chain of 30 movie houses. Late in the decade, Freedman left the movie biz to teach film history at University of Maryland. But in 1981, when Gov. Harry Hughes abolished the censor board, Freedman again started running movie houses, such as the Little X on Howard Street, showing all the good smut Marylanders missed during the board's reign. "I hated to see him to go from the University of Maryland back to that, but when the censor board [was] abolished he couldn't resist," says Freedman's son, Ross Freedman. Now 33, Ross says he got teased in school about his father's X-rated business.

After two years, the novelty wore off: The coming of adult video pretty much killed big-screen porn, and Freedman once again was left with a failing theater, the Carlton in Dundalk. At his lowest point, he worked as a doorman at the now defunct Westview Cinema in Catonsville.

He rebounded when he began managing the Rotunda for Loews Theaters in 1995 and helped the North Baltimore cinema develop its specialty in art and independent films. Finally, 34 years since he started the Rex, Freedman had found a venue that reflected the entire breadth of his love of film. "It was like I'd gone home," he says.

The stroke he suffered four years ago may have taken him out of the theater business, but with the help of his son's extensive video collection and history books, Freedman is still involved with the movies.

But he still catches grief for what he plays. While watching a video one day at the nursing home, Freedman suffers the consequences when the movie's curse-filled dialogue drifts down the hallway. An elderly woman stops by his room. "How can you?" she scolds him. "How can you show such a film like that?"

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

My Top 10 TV Shows of All Time

"This one goes to 11."

  1. All in the Family - The Citizen Kane of television shows

  2. The X-Files/Millenium

  3. SCTV

  4. Saturday Night Live

  5. King of the Hill

  6. The Simpsons (1990-2001 only)

  7. Buffy the Vampire Slayer/Angel

  8. The Honeymooners

  9. The Andy Griffith Show

  10. South Park
  11. Late Night with David Letterman (NBC 1982-1990)

Honorable Mentions:

  1. Larry Sanders Show
  2. The Sopranos

Guilty Pleasure:
The O'Reilly Factor

My Top 10 Films of All-Time

I may look at the world askew, but here's my all-time list.

  1. Magnificent Ambersons

  2. Vertigo

  3. The Searchers

  4. The Passion of Joan of Arc

  5. A Day in the Country - Brief but eloquent.

  6. Ugetsu

  7. The Earrings of Madame De...

  8. Barry Lyndon - Kubrick's best film.

  9. Man with a Movie Camera - Though I find Vertov exhausting...

  10. Sherlock Jr. - The film speaks eloquently for itself.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008