Mary Avara did her best to shield us from porn

The gravesite of Mary Avara in Baltimore's New Cathedral Cemetery

The gravesite of Mary Avara in Baltimore's New Cathedral Cemetery

Just about every work day from 1960 to 1981 Mary Avara, senior member of the Maryland Board of Censors, strode into the office’s darkened movie review room, settled in a chair and picked up her current knitting project. “Miss Mary,” as most people called her, then watched every single new movie that was slated to open in Maryland, whether destined for a neighborhood theater or a seedy peep show venue. 

As a governor-appointee, her job was to protect Marylanders from sexually explicit film content. She was a fervent Catholic and took her job seriously. Each year at budget time, she went before the Maryland State legislature passionate testimony about the objectionable things she had seen on film in the previous year. 

Mary Avara famously clashed with Baltimore’s avant-garde filmmaker John Waters. Waters once said that Mary Avara was the greatest press agent he could have had.

Miss Mary bristled at suggestions that she was prudish, reminding those who challenged her that she had 17 brothers and sisters and four children of her own. According to her grandson, Larry Avara, she simply believed that what went on behind closed doors didn’t belong in the movie theater.  

Miss Mary was brash and minced few words. “I’ve probably looked at more naked bodies than 50,000 doctors,” she often boasted, with a toughness that was at odds with her Italian grandmother-like appearance. 

As a vocal member of one of the nation’s last state censor boards, she fiercely defended government-sanctioned censor boards during nationally televised appearances with more liberal-minded show business personalities such as Merv Griffin, Dick Cavett, Mike Douglas and Johnny Carson. 

What movie audiences and talk show viewers didn’t see, said grandson Larry, was her generosity. “Her house was a staging area, full of boxes and food that was meant for neighbors in need,” recalled Larry. “There wasn’t much space left over for her to live in.”    

Though she had both supporters and detractors, most everyone agreed that Miss Mary was true to herself.

“My grandmother was loud and always spoke her mind,” adds Larry. 

She was born Mary Serio in 1910 in West Baltimore and left St. Peter the Apostle Church school in 7th grade to work in the family’s Hollins Street Market produce stand. At 19, she married Cy, also a barber like her father. By 27, Mary was a widow with four young children when Cy was killed in a traffic accident. 

To support her family, she opened a bail bond business, a profitable endeavor in a west Baltimore city neighborhood. At the encouragement of friends such as "Chicken" Carrick, a local poultry merchant and ward leader, she entered politics in the 19thWard.  

In return for her loyalty to the Democratic party, Gov. J. Millard Tawes appointed her to the sate Censor Board in 1960. In the next two decades, as other state censor boards closed under pressure from free-speech advocates, Maryland's endured as the last of its kind in the country.  The state legislature finally ended its run by refusing to fund it for another year.

On June 27, 1981, the three-member board reviewed its last movie: The Great Muppet Caper. They deemed it suitable for Maryland’s movie audiences, closed the private screening room had a quiet celebration of coffee and cookies. 

Miss Mary continued to work at the Avara Barber School as a cashier until she retired to Florida. She died on August 9, 2000 and is buried in New Cathedral Cemetery.


Bibliography and read more: 

Mary Avara, a Censor Who's Been Censored, Rates the New Freedom in Films Pg—'pure Garbage', By Karen Peterson, People Magazine. May 18, 1981, Vo. 15, No. 19

Interview with Larry Avara, March 29, 2016 by Richard Berglund and Kathi Santora

Last State board of censors fades away after 65 years, By Ben A. Franklin, Special to the New York Times, June 29, 1981

Film censor Mary Avara, 90, dies, by Jacques Kelly and Frederick N. Rasmussen, The Baltimore Sun, August 10, 2000

The Grandmother Who Fought Porn: Mary Avara, Maryland Historical Society newsletter: Underbelly, April 24, 2014