'Think of the Children' tells the history of censorship in Chicago through stories and songs

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Lenny Bruce was arrested at the Gate of Horn nightclub in 1962 for contributing to the delinquency of a minor.
  • Bob Rubel
  • Lenny Bruce was arrested at the Gate of Horn nightclub in 1962 for contributing to the delinquency of a minor.
This Sunday marks the start of Banned Books Week, an event usually confined to schools and libraries where celebrants curse the philistines who have had the temerity to ban Judy Blume and Harry Potter. This is important and entirely necessary, but what is often forgotten is that books for grown-ups get banned, too. And also songs and movies and comedians.

You can learn all about it on Sunday night at the Hideout at "Think of the Children," a celebration—if that's the right word—of books, songs, and films that have been banned in Chicago.

"We tend to think of censorship on a national level," says Paul Durica, the mastermind behind Pocket Guide to Hell (and Chicago's best popular historian) and one of the event's organizers, "but a lot of it is local. Chicago had the first film censorship board in 1907."

"Think of the Children" will feature, among others, historians Bill Savage and Steve Macek, comedian Sherra Lasley, and artist Amie Sell telling stories about key points in the city's censorship history, interspersed with performances of banned music by Morphtet. Durica and his coorganizers, Sarah Crawford of the Field Museum and That Belongs in a Museum! and Justin Amolsch of Mucca Pazza, hope this will be the beginning of a quarterly series on banned and suppressed art.

Not everything that was banned in Chicago was in the service of protecting the city's young people from influences that would encourage licentious behavior—although that was the Archdiocese's rationale for banning the Everly Brothers' hit "Wake Up Little Susie" in 1958, the Chicago Police Department's for arresting Lenny Bruce and George Carlin at the Gate of Horn nightclub in 1962, and the first Mayor Daley's for not-so-politely requesting that young Chicagoans not listen to the Rolling Stones' "Street Fighting Man" on the eve of the 1968 Democratic convention, and also the reason Emma Goldman could not find a space to lecture on anarchism in 1908. (She was speaking in support of Lazarus Averbuch, a Russian immigrant who was shot and killed by the Chicago chief of police, who suspected him of being an anarchist assassin.)

Instead, organizations like the film censorship board, which was comprised of the wives of police officers, were more interested in public relations. "They banned films that didn't portray Chicago in a positive light," Durica explains. That meant removing Chicago-specific lines from gangster movies and excising references to machine guns in relation to our fair city. Also, in true Chicago fashion, some of the banning was intended to appease various political constituencies.

"Between the two world wars, Chicago banned films that had negative depictions of the Nazi Party," Durica says. "There were lots of Germans in Chicago and they didn't want to offend them. It's so fascinating. They wanted to censor works of art to appeal to communities rather than protect people. It's a weird way of the city controlling its public image on a local level."

The Germans were not the only group that asked for work to be banned for PR purposes: the Polish community prevailed upon the Chicago Public Library to remove Nelson Algren's Never Come Morning from the shelves, which it did.

This sort of censorship is not a relic of the distant past. The film censorship board continued to operate beneath the notice of most Chicagoans until the mid-1980s. And Sell's installation Home Sweet Home, which criticized Logan Square landlord M. Fishman & Company, was removed from the Milwaukee Avenue Arts Fair by Fishman employees this past July.

3335 W. Diversey by Amie Sell
  • courtesy Amie Sell
  • "3335 W. Diversey" by Amie Sell

"The thing that will intrigue people most," Durica says, "is that what is considered offensive or charged is so history-specific. Works that are now considered innocuous and silly were once controversial. The program sheds light on these stories. You'll never listen to 'Wake Up Little Susie' the same way ever again."

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