Saturday, January 17, 2015

Puppetry Week: #6 Surprise bonus! "Puppetry of the Penis"

     I know I said Puppetry Week ended yesterday. But someone reminded me of this column, which is about a sort of puppetry, and with the Saturday Fun Activity solved, I figured I would toss it up for your entertainment. It's only Saturday, the week isn't technically over. And this is one of my favorite columns—you can feel the shock of what I witnessed in the Georgian Room at the Drake Hotel. 

    Oh, Lenny, Lenny, we're so sorry. Come back. All is forgiven. 
     I keep thinking about Lenny Bruce. Arrested for obscenity at the Gate of Horn in December 1962. He held up a photo of a woman's breast, and the Chicago cops hauled him away.
     I'm thinking about him because of a show--I almost called it "a play" --called "Puppetry of the Penis," that opens next week at the Lakeshore Theater, on Broadway at Belmont. In case you missed the burst of publicity surrounding its sneak preview at the Drake Hotel (the Drake!), "PoP" consists of a pair of Australian gentlemen manipulating their privates into various shapes. They call it "genital origami," though, having witnessed the marvel with my own eyes in the Georgian Room of the Drake (the Drake!), I'd say it's closer to balloon twisting.
     And, as with balloon twisting, the performance is not particularly interesting (voila, a giraffe!) once the initial surprise of penises on parade in public wears off, which took all of three minutes in my case, though, to be charitable, I suppose a bachelorette party or group of Halsted Street boys out on the town might have fun. If they were drunk enough.
     What lingers is not the show, per se, but its reception by the city--a raised eyebrow, a shrug, and it's on to other things. Those with any sense of Chicago history, however, must shake our heads in awe. Look at where we are. Penises happily wangling every night at the Lakeshore.
     Should there not be a ceremony? A moment of silence? Something? Let's bow our heads for "Les Ballets Africain," a troupe of Guinean native dancers whom the Chicago police forced to cover their bare breasts with brassieres when they performed at the Blackstone in 1959. Let's light a candle for the 1948 production of "Mr. Roberts," whose producers had to have a long conversation with police censors over exactly what expression of approval a sailor would yip after spying an attractive woman through his telescope.
     Chicago was the bluenose capital of the nation. Why else do you think Nelson Algren was so bitter? We were censoring silent movies in 1906. "The James Boys" was banned as too violent in 1909. The heart breaks. Fifty years later, we were still at it. Otto Preminger's "Anatomy of a Murder" was banned here because one member of the police censor board, a Mrs. Honey Fischman, found it obscene.
     Lest we get too self-satisfied, we have to remember that "PoP" is anatomical, but not sexual. If those penises were put to their intended uses, this would be a different story. Nor is it political. If those elastic members were formed into mocking images of the Bush Cabinet, perhaps our dormant civic outrage would have stirred.
     Not like the old days. Besides a fixation on sex, Chicago was not averse to banning anything that simply cast the city in a bad light. In the early 1930s, we banned newsreels that showed labor riots here. We banned the original "Scarface" because it suggested there were gangs and crime in Chicago. (Reminds one of our current mayor, who raised a stink about a film that suggested inner-city youth swear a lot.)
     We extended a similar courtesy to our friends, the Nazis. In 1938, we banned a "March of Time" newsreel because it suggested that Jews were being persecuted in Germany. "It was rejected because this country is friendly with Germany," explained police censor Lt. Joseph Healy.
     What happened? How were we saved from the simple-minded bowdlerization of the censors? Thank the rest of the country, which dumped police boards years before we did. Thank all the pornographers who stood their ground, from Hugh Hefner to the anonymous managers of the old "adult" theaters. Thank the ACLU. Thank the courts. Thank Roger Ebert, who helped lead the chorus of mockery that finally--finally--killed off our police censorship board, around about 1969.
     There is, of course, a price to pay. "Puppetry of the Penis" opens next week, and anyone who wants to part with $38.50 for a ticket can see it. Cable TV is a smutfest, and obscenities are seeping into that second-to-the-last bastion of morality, broadcast TV (the last bastion, sadly, is newspapers).
     I feel true sympathy for those raised wearing white gloves and hiding copies of "Peyton Place." This must be hard to take. Feel comforted by the fact it can sometimes be hard to take if you're younger, too.
     But isn't our current state vastly preferable to the past? To 1949, when Mayor Martin Kennelly banned Jean Paul Sartre's one act play "The Respectful Prostitute" sight unseen. "The title alone would be enough to ban the show," Hizzoner said.
     Remember the coercion that world required. You needed lots of police censorship boards and cowed theater owners and revoked liquor licenses to keep it working. Remember the hypocrisy. When the police were slapping bras on "Les Ballets Africain," the ever-irreverent Sun-Times sent a reporter out to the various clip joints to note the strippers, including Miss Lila Turner and her flaming, tasseled brassiere.
     Remember that Chicago would not allow Disney's "Our Vanishing Prairie" until after the scene of the birth of a baby buffalo was cut.
     Half a lifetime later, we have "Puppetry of the Penis." Mourn or celebrate, as you will. But the irony is almost too delicious for words.
     Lenny Bruce would have loved it, loved where our prudery eventually led us. I'll bet, wherever he is, he's having a good hard laugh at our expense.

    —Originally published in the Chicago Sun-Times, Feb. 14, 2003


  1. Loved it. Didn't you mention Lenny Bruce in another column not so long ago?

    I always thought Lenny was too obsessive. He could have told all the dirty jokes he wanted as long as he didn't make a big deal about it. Then too, as you mention, there were plenty of "adult" venues available for the entertainment of dirty old men and sex-deprived young ones (such as myself) at the same time as bare-breasted dancers were banned.


  2. You haven't sold me on puppets (scary) but the effort was valiant! I know more than I did about them, and appreciate all attempts to diversify art and culture offerings.

  3. What is disgraceful is that some on the right believe Putin over Obama on matters of why Trump is getting backlash. And they'll agree with Putin on the Obama is behind it bull...


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