Curtains for ‘Rocky Horror’ in Carrollton, Ga.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

“Rocky Horror” has a home in the Library of Congress, but isn’t faring so well in Carrollton, Ga.

After viewing a brief video clip of a rehearsal of the “Rocky Horror Show” stage play, Wayne Garner, the mayor of Carrollton, banned the show from a city-owned arts center.

“I know this community well,” Garner said. “If that play was allowed to proceed … we’d be run out of town,” he added, according to 11Alive.com.

Does a mayor have the right to prevent the performance of a play on public property because he’s concerned that residents might find it offensive?

Absolutely not.

Under the First Amendment, a government is not allowed to use its power to limit free expression. Carrollton’s city government booked and announced the show, and cannot now withdraw that approval because it found the content to be risqué or unconventional.

The only exception would be if a show is obscene, as defined in the U.S. Supreme Court case Miller v. California. The 1973 case set up basic guidelines for determining obscenity, including: “Whether the work, taken as whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.”

Granted, a horror musical about a cross-dressing scientist and his Transylvanian associates is not to everyone’s taste, but there’s nothing sexually explicit about the show and its artistic appeal and mainstream acceptance are well-documented. Consider its history:

  • The stage show began as a British musical in 1973 and was staged on Broadway in 1975, and more successfully in 2000, with a cast that included Dick Cavett. Over time, the show garnered five Tony nominations.
  • The film based on the stage musical has gone from being a 1975 cult film shown at midnight in movie theaters across the country to being one of the longest-running films in history. It runs constantly somewhere.
  • Last year, “Glee,” one of America’s top-rated television shows, devoted an entire episode to “Rocky Horror.”
  • In 2005, the Library of Congress honored “Rocky Horror Picture Show” by selecting it as one of 25 films to be added to the National Film Registry. Librarian of Congress James H. Billington said, “By preserving American films, we safeguard a significant element of American creativity and our cultural history for the enjoyment and education of future generations. The films we choose are not necessarily the ‘best’ American films ever made or the most famous, but they are films that continue to have cultural, historical or aesthetic significance.”

The show’s best-known song is “Time Warp,” which is a bit ironic because the question of censoring plays for sexual content was largely resolved in courtrooms decades ago.

“Hair,” which debuted on Broadway April 29, 1968, at the height of the war in Vietnam, included nudity, a rarity for stage performances, particularly at that time. It faced numerous legal challenges as its touring company traveled across America.

In one battle in Boston, the cast was threatened with prosecution for “lewd and lascivious” performances. In 1971, the conflict ended up before the U.S. Supreme Court, which reaffirmed that the First Amendment protects theatrical plays and cleared the way for “Hair” to open.

The Carrollton County Community Theatre group that wanted to present “Rocky Horror” has announced a fund drive in hopes of staging the musical at another venue. The group apparently is not going to pursue legal options.

“The show must go on” is more than a showbiz cliché. In this case, it’s also a constitutional right.

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