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How a movie censor at first succeeded, but ultimately failed, at keeping Milwaukee pornography-free.

Long before the Internet and home video, it was left to adults-only movie theaters to bring sex and nudity to the masses. These movie houses – commonplace in most large American cities by the early 1960s – screened low-budget “soft-core” pictures such as Not Tonite, Henry! (1960) and Mr. Peters’ Pets (1963), and by the late 1960s, daring sexploitation films such as The Filthy Five (1968) and Vixen! (1968), features that shocked audiences by edging ever closer to hard-core pornography. But moviegoers in Milwaukee almost missed out completely on this sinful unveiling, as a feared local censor, the Milwaukee Motion Picture Commission, effectively banned nudity from local screening until 1969, when Cream City became the last major American city to allow nakedness on its silver screens.

Created in 1914, the MMPC was a panel appointed by the mayor to review all movies booked in the city, delete offensive scenes and ban “immoral” films. Its rulings were merely “recommendations” to the Common Council’s Licenses Committee – which granted theaters their yearly operating permits – but examples of theater owners crossing the formidable MMPC were rare. It outlasted dozens of other censor boards around the country, forcing several Milwaukee theaters (mostly Downtown) to screen soft-core films so strictly edited that they could have been shown on television.

In September 1969, Milwaukee finally got its eyeful when the Downtown Strand Theatre called the MMPC’s bluff and ran an unedited print of Can Heironymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness? By Halloween, seven of Downtown’s eight theaters had run X-rated films, and some would do so until the 1980s. With the Licenses Committee refusing to revoke theaters’ permits, the MMPC was toothless and voted to dissolve itself in 1971. “Hard-core” films hit a year later as a decade of pent-up sexual frustration unleashed a flood of dirty pictures into the city.

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‘Hot for Heironymus’ appears in the August 2015 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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