The Legion of Decency: Running a Movie Theater in the 1950s -The Toast

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Mary's parents didn't own THIS theater. This is in Berlin.

In 1949, when I was five, my cautious Catholic parents bought a movie theatre in a Lutheran-Mennonite village in southern Ontario. My mother later told me they were trying to give my father a break from teaching high school—a rest from the long hours, the conscientious prep and marking, and the stress of dealing with unruly teenagers. What it doesn’t explain is why he of all people agreed to buy a theatre of all things that depended on movies from, of all places, Hollywood.

But I was much too young to ask any of those questions. All I knew was that The Regent Theatre was a wonderful place. I didn’t care that “our show,” as my parents called it, was a low, dark hall that had once been a hotel livery stable. I didn’t care that it was nothing like the grand movie palaces in Toronto that my mother took me to every summer. I didn’t care that the marquee lights didn’t flash, and the maroon curtains covering the screen were heavy with dust, and the plush seats were half-bald and prickled our bare legs in the summer. I didn’t care that we had no snack bar or velvet ropes or uniformed ushers. Instead of perfumed bathrooms, we had smelly outhouses out the back. Instead of soft carpets, we had concrete floors sticky with gum, candy wrappers, and cigarette butts. I didn’t care. I loved being there. I loved helping my father unfurl the loud, garish posters and tack them into the display boxes out front. I loved helping him sweep up on Saturday afternoons. I loved roller-skating fast down one aisle, across the front, and seeing how far I could coast up the other aisle, knowing all the while that the gunfights and runaway stagecoaches would be back in just a few hours.

All of us kids loved the movies, whether they were tales of cowboys or soldiers, pirates or sultans. We also understood them as they echoed the familiar justice of the playground and the Bible: the bad were always punished, and the good always inherited the earth. As soon as Mighty Mouse or Heckle & Jeckle ended and we heard the opening bars of the newsreel, most of us kids would run out past my mother yelling, “We’ll be back!” We’d race to the corner store where we’d cram little paper bags with gum, jaw breakers, banana marshmallows, red licorice sticks, and black liquorice pipes, and then tear back in time for the double bill. My parents never cared if someone without a quarter slipped in with the rest of us. Back in our seats we’d figure out who the good guys were, and then set about helping them by yelling things like, “Look out!” or “Run!” or “Behind the door!” We’d also clap and holler when help arrived, often the US Cavalry charging over the same hill the silent Indians had lined up on minutes before. The fun of it came back to me years later when I was watching Apollo 13 on TV. I cheered out loud when Tom Hanks’ voice came crackling through the clouds. The heat shields had held! That’s what it felt like at our show, week after week after week.

Those were easy years for me. I had free movies every Friday night, lots of nickels and dimes on the windowsill to spend on popsicles and comic books, and a father who was usually home in the afternoons, and usually willing to play with me. I also had friends to roam the town with on our roller skates and bicycles, except on Sundays when the kids from strict families had to stay in their Sunday clothes and weren’t allowed to use wheels. Our best place to play was the fairgrounds down near the river where in the middle of the parade ground stood a judges’ stand that was our fort, castle, school, mansion on the heath—whatever we needed for our games of Maple Leaf. I thought Maple Leaf was a stupid name for pretending to be cowboys or bank robbers or brides, but I figured it was just one more thing named after our national symbol. Several years later I saw it in print. Try saying Make Believe with the German accent most of the children had, and you’ve got . . . Maple Leaf!

Life, however, wasn’t as simple for my parents. The novelty of free access to low-budget comedies and Westerns soon wore thin, and running the business, though it wasn’t difficult, was hardly satisfying. My father’s tasks were to deal with the movie distributors, ferry the rolls of film back and forth from the bus, sweep the floors, keep the furnace running, and be the usher four nights a week. The ancient projectors were kept running by a former RCAF mechanic. My mother’s jobs were organizing the monthly programs, doing the books, and selling the tickets. There she’d be, a large woman in a small ticket booth, chatting with hangers-on as she rolled up coins in brown paper wrappers. Whenever I heard The king is in his counting-house counting out his money, I pictured my mother, even though I knew that kings had ermine-trimmed cloaks not an old space-heater to keep them warm.

Although my parents seemed happy enough, I realize now that my mother was lonely. Not only were we Catholic, we also ran the movie theatre, and those two things were enough to stop most people in that god-fearing village from seeking her out. Lucky for me, the disapproval of their parents didn’t stop the little girls in my class from inviting me to their birthday parties undoubtedly because they could count on getting a string of movie tickets for a present. My father would have liked a few people to play bridge with, but he was happy spending his spare time reading, whereas my mother longed for tea parties and card parties and women to visit with. It must have been especially hard as before she was married, she’d been a bit of a star. She was a Music Supervisor for the Toronto Separate School Board, president of her teachers’ association, and leader of her own dance band where she was the pianist. All that was left of that life were some swish black ball gowns and velvet capes in a tattered dress box, and old sheet music in the piano bench. I know she willingly left all of that to marry my father, but I doubt she ever dreamed she’d be living hours from Toronto in a village where the only long black dresses were worn by Old Order Mennonite women. I’m sure she never imagined she’d be selling tickets in a run-down movie theatre, and living in a little renovated garage covered in knobbly red shingle that no one could mistake for real brick.


Then, in 1953, things changed. One night as my father was getting me ready for bed, I started raving on about how, when I grew up, I was going to be either a real cowgirl or a cowgirl in the movies where I’d get paid to play Maple Leaf with great costumes and real horses. He turned to me, his face dark and sober. “I don’t want to hear about Hollywood. It’s a heathen, godless place where everyone is divorced and has far too much money for their own good!” I was stunned. It was the very first time he’d ever scolded me. Then he went on to say I needed to start adding Three Hail Marys for Purity to my nightly prayers. “Remember,” he said, “God knows your every thought, word, and deed. With Almighty God we have no secrets.” I had no idea what he was talking about except that I had better keep my thoughts about the movies to myself.

Later that same year, life in the village changed too when the rich and the daring started buying televisions. I remember the first time I ever watched TV. I was with a gang of kids crowded onto a friend’s front porch as we watched a fuzzy I Love Lucy through their front window. Soon, prices dropped, reception improved, and more and more TV sets arrived. Within a few months everyone was staying home to watch Hockey Night in Canada and Ed Sullivan in the comfort of their own living rooms. Almost overnight, our theatre and thousands of others in small towns across North America were deserted. In 1954, my father locked the doors of The Regent Theatre for the last time.

The wisdom of the day didn’t recommend that parents talk to children about important things like near-bankruptcy, so no one explained what was going on. All I knew was that the show had closed; the nickels and dimes had disappeared from the windowsill, and my parents didn’t seem to have much to smile about. Then they announced that they each had new jobs: my mother as a secretary in the local knitting factory, and my father as a high school physics and chemistry teacher again. His new schools were in a series of small towns all hours away, leaving me forever lonely. He was lonely too, and often in his letters he would say he was “lonesome,” a word you never hear any more. He did come home during the holidays, but those visits only made me aware that soon he’d be leaving again. My carefree childhood was over.

Finally my parents bought a house in the town where he was already teaching, and we were able to be together again. With this move, my mother demanded that I never mention our movie theatre to anyone. This was yet another version of her secrecy rule, the one that prevented me from divulging ordinary innocent things about our family such as where my father had come from (answer: the Ottawa Valley). Even though she was a talkative person, secret-keeping seemed to come easily for her. Clearly, she believed that all you had to do to outsmart people was to tell them next to nothing. And so our theatre became another verboten topic. Like those games of Maple Leaf, it was an exciting but childish thing I had to leave behind.


I’m sure my mother thought we’d meet a better class of people if we didn’t broadcast our association with a decrepit, bankrupt movie theatre; however, that was only part of it. There was also a bigger reason for their far-reaching secrecy policy, and it was years before I discovered what it was. I now know that the story starts and ends with my father’s faith, the one he was born into in 1903.

My father’s religion was an old, unwavering, rural Catholicism brought by his great-grandparents from County Clare in 1842, a faith based on charity and obedience, faith and guilt—and a deep and steadfast distrust of the English. It was a faith with a calendar of saints for every ill, rosary beads, holy cards, blessed candles, novenas, and a passionate devotion to the Blessed Virgin. Central to this faith was the belief that the pleasures of the body were to be feared and, for the most part, denied.

I have said that my father was a very ‘devout’ Catholic, but ‘devout’ only begins to convey what his religion meant to him. He was not someone who drew attention to his piety, however—and I don’t say this lightly—I believe that, had it been asked of him, he would have had the strength to die for his Church. His wife and his daughter and his Church: nothing else mattered. When I learned about the attributes of Jesus, I used to think He was just like my father: gentle and serious and handsome, someone who loved little children, who spoke well of others, and who would sacrifice Himself for those He loved. Even Jesus’ quiet sadness reminded me of my father.

He and I spent a great deal of time together, and although I asked him a million questions about his childhood and his family, I never learned much. I knew the names of his sisters and brothers and some of his cousins, and I knew I resembled his beloved dead sister. One of his brothers did visit us once, though very briefly. I never met any of my first cousins. Then, years later, long after both my parents had died, I realized I still had a gnawing interest in his family, so I decided to visit some of his elderly cousins who lived near the family farm. I hadn’t yet grasped that I wasn’t just looking for his roots; I was looking for my own. These cousins made me very welcome, and someone suggested I might like to see some photographs. “Look,” she said as she pointed to a man in a long black robe. I looked and the man certainly did look like my father. “That’s Leonard,” she went on, “when he was a Christian Brother.”

And there it was—the key piece of a puzzle I hadn’t even known I needed to solve. I was stunned. I knew it had to be true as it explained so much. It answered questions I hadn’t even known to ask. I also knew it opened up a wealth of questions that would never be answered.

I learned a few, but only a few, more facts from the Christian Brothers Archives. I’d already known that my father had attended a high school in Toronto run by the Brothers, but not that he had an uncle who was prominent in the Order, nor that when the uncle died young, my father was expected to fill his shoes. Giving a child to God was expected of every good Catholic family, and later that year, 1918, at age fifteen, my father took his first vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience with the Order. I expect he didn’t have much choice.

And so I came to understand why he entered the Order. I find it much more surprising that he was able to leave knowing he would have to face the shame and disappointment of his family. The only explanation his cousins gave me was, “I think he met your mother.” I knew that my parents had met in 1922 at Toronto Normal School, and that they’d continued to be friends, although they taught at different schools. What I hadn’t known was that he was in the Order during all of this time. In 1928, just before he would have taken his final vows, he left, perhaps, as my cousin suggested, because of my mother. He certainly did love her. Or, he may have left because he discovered that he didn’t have a religious vocation. Or perhaps the pressure to replace his uncle was too great. Or perhaps something much darker happened. They gave me a photo of him taken when he was seventeen, and I can barely look at it: this beautiful young man has the saddest eyes I have ever seen.

My parents waited another ten years to marry. During this time, she continued to teach, and my father worked and saved in order to put himself through university. He probably also needed time to adjust to life “on the outside.” I have a few notes sent between my parents during that time, and it’s clear they both felt their marriage was worth every minute of the wait. The photos I have from that time show a much happier person: a young man smiling with his friends, and as well as two gorgeous graduation photos. My mother said the photographer was so proud of the results that he pleaded for the chance to photograph this handsome, serious young man again.


Although he had left the Order, my father remained deeply religious, bringing much of his religious life with him to his married life. He attended Mass every morning before school, and as soon as I was old enough, he expected me to do so as well. If no altar boy showed up, it was my father who saved the day, quietly taking the boy’s place and able to recite the responses by heart as clearly and easily as if Latin were his mother tongue. At home, we prayed often: grace before and after all meals, the Angelus twice a day, and the Rosary and several other prayers together every single evening. We also observed strict fasting and abstinence on Fridays and during Lent. I thought all Catholic families did the same.

The religious instruction my father gave me started early and focussed on three things: charity, sacrifice, and purity. The charity part he demonstrated effortlessly, although he would never have presented himself as a model. He was the kindest person I knew. The sacrifice part, I was told, was something I should welcome since moments of suffering could be “offered up” to atone both for my own sins and to help release the souls of relatives still languishing in Purgatory. And if I didn’t have enough accidental pain, I should look for opportunities to suffer—perhaps by kneeling on the hard floor a little longer or doing without certain treats. The concern about purity, however, was never explained. He would just repeat that purity was the most important virtue to pray for, since, after all, Almighty God knew the secret motions of our hearts.


Now that I know that he was determined to keep his time with the Christian Brothers an absolute secret, I understand why he kept his family away from me, knowing they might reveal his past—which of course is what they eventually did. The story of his previous life also explains things like the curious story my mother told me about how he had been approached by a Major League Baseball scout but, despite what a good athlete he was, he’d turned the offer down. It also explained why he was so utterly out-of-touch with things like dating and teenage crushes since he’d gone through his teens and early adulthood in this old-world Order. It helped me understand why even the most innocent reference to sex when I was growing up—such as someone’s failed marriage, or an “illegitimate” baby, or the very mention of Elvis Presley—brought expressions of his deep disgust.

And this is the man who bought a movie theatre, a man wholly committed to his Church and willing to listen to its guidance in all matters. And his Church had a lot to say about Hollywood movies. In the early 1930s, church leaders were so alarmed by the excessive violence, sexuality, and immorality of popular movies that they established the National Legion of Decency. The Legion’s task was to create a blacklist of objectionable movies—vile and unwholesome moving pictures, in their words, that were a grave menace to youth, to home life, to country and to public morals and promoting a sex mania in our land. I heard of the Legion of Decency as a child, but my parents said very little about it because, I presume, it might invite questions about what exactly made certain movies so “objectionable.” All I knew was that each week, the Legion of Decency posted a list of bad movies in church vestibules and Catholic schools. Estimates say that as many as nine million Catholics across North America (including my father) stood in church and pledged not to attend those movies the Legion had condemned. For some people, these blacklists must have been ‘must-see’ lists, but not for him.

And then there was the Hollywood Production Code, something the movie industry agreed to in 1934 in response to public pressure to ‘clean up’ the movies. Coincidentally, the man they hired to enforce it was a zealous Irishman named Joseph Ignatius Breen. I don’t know if my father had ever heard of Joseph Breen by name, but he’d have approved of his mission, and been proud to be related to him. Joseph Breen didn’t mince words. He declared that Hollywood was a pest hole that infects the entire country with its obscene and lascivious moving pictures. Under his iron rule, gone were all references to sex—pregnancy, adultery, homosexuality, indecent clothing, nudity (even in silhouette), suggestive dancing, interracial marriages, sex crimes, sexually transmitted diseases, illegal drug use, abortion, foul language, and obscenities. Gone too were double beds. (This same off-limits list also applied in our home.)

Joseph Breen was determined that the movies show good models for proper womanhood—the more like the Blessed Virgin the better. Mae West and her kind were banished and replaced by sober, chaste women who lived in wait for sober, chaste men to love, honour, and obey in a world where women knew their place. It intrigues me that one of the few things my parents ever disagreed about in my presence was Mae West. My father thought she was appalling, whereas my mother, remembering her from her early movies, would laugh and say that Mae West was “a riot.” I expect what she liked about Mae West was that she was her own woman—tough, funny, independent, and far from thin—just like my mother herself. Why she didn’t object to Mae West’s one-liners is more baffling. My mother certainly didn’t approve of ‘off-colour’ remarks any more than my father did, so—hard as it is to believe—I can only think that she did not understand what Mae West meant when she said things like “A hard man is good to find.”

The Hollywood Production Code wasn’t only concerned with sex. After the upheavals caused by the Russian Revolution and the Depression, Joseph Breen demanded that movie directors not portray racial violence, labour unrest, or political corruption in their movies. As a result, the movies that came to The Regent Theatre were fantasies portraying an idealized America literally too good to be true, a place where the good always triumphed, and men and women, rich and poor, white and black were all happy to stay in the proper places society had reserved for them. A few people did have babies, but no one had sex. The meek inherited the earth, and God was always on our side.

And so, with the sex, violence, and seditious ideas removed from the movies that came to our theatre, they should not have made my father nervous. And yet, they did. He believed in God, and he also believed in the Devil who, with his powerful and cunning ways, was intent on making us forget the hereafter so we would enjoy the carnal pleasures of the present. And where was the Devil’s work most evident? In Hollywood, the Capital of Sin, a place whose work spoke for itself. It was also known to be a place largely run by Jews who, according to the blatant anti-Semitism of the Catholic Church at the time, were outright enemies of The One True Faith. So, despite the seeming harmlessness of the movies at our theatre, I suspect my father could never forget that Hollywood movies had the potential to teach depravity. Clearly he worried about the effects of bringing these movies into the lives of the children of the village and—most importantly—into mine. The last thing he wanted was any hint that his beloved, innocent little girl was being drawn into the shameless world of the Silver Screen, seduced by its glamour, and drawn away from God. He must have thought television arrived not a moment too soon.

And so, our movie theatre became one more secret, another skeleton in our already-crowded family closet alongside my father’s hometown, the names of schools where he’d taught over the years, and of course his time with the Christian Brothers. My mother, with her remarkable sense of power, seemed to think that she could magically make the past disappear, and that would be that. And, as far as I know, their secret never did get out while they were alive. She was wrong, however, in thinking that was the end of it. The secret motions of their hearts were far from silent.

I’m sure that my parents wanted to protect my father from unwanted scrutiny and curiosity; however, I’m also sure they were wrong in keeping this part of his life a secret from me. Of course they had no way of seeing the far-reaching implications of their decision. They couldn’t see that it would lead to a whole chain of secrets and lies that would cost him dearly in terms of his birth family and his daughter. They couldn’t see that in some real ways it kept him locked in 1918, exacerbating an already tangled attitude towards sex that he’d learned from his religion and his time in the Order. They couldn’t see that this secret would take root and grow like another member of the family planted squarely between my beloved father and me. They also couldn’t see that it would affect his ability to understand me, and me to understand him, and it would affect his ability to accept that I too was becoming a sexual being. It explains why he felt so torn between his Church and me, between his faith and his heart. If he had been able to revisit it, perhaps he might even have recognized that same capacity for putting one’s will ahead of God’s exactly as he had done forty years earlier.

My father continued to teach for the rest of his working life, always stressed, always exhausted, always referring to his job as a life sentence. He lived only three years after he retired. He never went to another movie.


This originally appeared as: The Legion of Decency. The Windsor Review. 48:1, Spring 2015

Mary J. Breen’s fiction and nonfiction have appeared in literary magazines, national newspapers, essay collections, and travel magazines. She lives in Peterborough, Canada where, among other things, she teaches memoir writing with seniors.

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