Filed Under Entertainment

Heights Art Theater

A dramatic police raid. A community up in arms. A man taking his fight for justice all the way to the Supreme Court. These events sound like the plot of a Hollywood movie, but they actually in Cleveland Heights. Cleveland Heights police raided a screening of the French film "Les Amants" ("The Lovers") at the Heights Art Theater. The net effect was an obscenity conviction for theater manager Nico Jacobellis and a five-year legal battle. The movie's offenses: a risqué theme and one two-second shot of a female breast!

Controversy over "Les Amants" (directed by the legendary Louis Malle) was not the first time the movie theater on Euclid Heights Boulevard was the center of a community-wide moral debate. Nor was it the first time the theater had been raided by police. In 1922, just three years after it opened, the (originally named) Heights Theater got into trouble for showing a movie on a Sunday afternoon. In the middle of the film, Cleveland Heights police arrested two managers and the theater's projectionist, clearing the theater of 500 patrons to a chorus of boos and catcalls. A month later, a jury convicted the three of breaking Ohio's "blue law" which prohibited "theatrical or dramatic performances," as well as all other forms of commercial entertainment, on the Sabbath. Cleveland Heights City Council voted to allow Sunday movies in 1931, on the same day that Ohio's statewide "blue law" was repealed. More than 9,000 Cleveland Heights residents signed a petition demanding the change.

In 1954, the Heights Theater became the Heights Art Theater, dedicated to showing "Only distinguished motion pictures of international prestige." From a publicity perspective "Les Amants" was the theater's peak. The movie, which tells the story of a married woman's love triangle, had been highly acclaimed in Europe, though the Cleveland Plain Dealer's review called it "shockingly nasty." On November 13, 1959, Chief of Cleveland Heights Police Edward Gaffney, upon hearing a report from the city's law director and the Cuyahoga County prosecutor, who had attended a showing of "Les Amants," ordered police to clear the theater, confiscate the film, and arrest Nico Jacobellis. After a lengthy trial that featured dueling film critics, clergymen, and university professors, Jacobellis was found guilty of possessing and exhibiting an obscene film and fined $2,500. Throughout the trial, Jacobellis, an Italian immigrant who studied and taught film at Western Reserve University, insisted that he was just following the orders of the theater's owners who had screened the film in other cities without incident.

Jacobellis' attorneys appealed the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In June 1964 the Supreme Court ruled on Jacobellis v. Ohio, reversing the conviction in a 6-2 decision. The ruling suggested that national standards of decency–and not those of individual local communities–mattered most, though this principle would come into question in later Supreme Court decisions. One of the Supreme Court's most famous quotes also emerged from the decision, when justice Potter Stewart noted that "I know [pornography] when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that."

In the 1970s and 1980s, the Heights Art Theater went on to show movies considerably racier than "Les Amants" and "Behind the Green Door." However, no further legal action was ever taken against the theater. In 1984, the Heights Art Theater changed its name to the Coventry Theater and later to the Centrum, neither of which showed X-rated films. Lacking proximate parking and unable to compete with large multiplexes, the theater screened its last film in 2003. Nearby parking, comfy seats, expensive projection systems, and dozens of screens accomplished what two police raids and a series of legal fights could not. Today, a church occupies the main floor, while an upstairs section includes a hookah parlor.

Audio

Blue Laws Stanley Adelstein talks about his memories of the "blue laws" that once prevented some businesses from opening on Sundays. Source: Courtesy of City of Cleveland Heights
The Lovers on Trial George Fitzpatrick, former manager of the Heights Art Theater, recounts the controversy that ensued following Nico Jacobellis's showing of "The Lovers" in 1959. Source: Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection
Rocky Horror Tommy Fello describes the midnight showings of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" at the Heights Art Theater during the 1970s and 1980s. Source: Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection

Images

Heights Theater, 1941 The marquee advertises "The Wagons Roll at Night," starring Humphrey Bogart. In the film, Bogart plays a circus promoter whose sister falls for the circus's lion trainer. Streetcar tracks running in the median of Euclid Heights Boulevard can be seen in the foreground. Source: Cleveland Heights Historical Society
Centrum Theater, 2012 The Heights Theater became the Centrum Theater in 1992 after lying vacant since 1988. After the Centrum closed in 1999, it briefly reopened as a movie theater from 2001 to 2003. Since then the space has housed a number of tenants, including a sports bar, a trendy restaurant, an improv comedy group, and even a church. Creator: CSU Center for Public History + Digital Humanities
Police Raid, 1922 Cleveland Heights Police raided the Heights Theater on the afternoon of Sunday April 21, 1922, during a screening of Taking Chances. The theater's two owners and its projectionist were later found guilty of breaking Ohio's law prohibiting "theatrical performances" and other forms of entertainment on the Sabbath. Cleveland Heights resident Rev. Joel B. Hayden told the Cleveland Plain Dealer that "Sunday movies may be justified in crowded industrial sections where people don't have the opportunity of obtaining much recreation during the week. But they are not justified in a residential community like Cleveland Heights." Source: Cleveland State University Library Special Collections
Sparrows, 1927 Before movies had sound, live music accompanied silent films in theaters. This 1927 newspaper ad touts the Heights Theater's "$30,000 Mighty Wurlitzer Organ" played by the "Little Irish Organist" Frank Gallagher during weekend showings of the film "Sparrows." In the movie, Mary Pickford (holding child) must save her fellow orphans from their caretaker, the evil Mr. Grimes. Source: Cleveland State University Library Special Collections
1959 Police Raid This composite image shows the headline from the front page of the Cleveland Plain Dealer on November 14, 1959, as well as the photograph that appeared on the front page next to an article about the Cleveland Heights Police's raid on the Heights Art Theater the prior evening. Source: Cleveland State University Library Special Collections
Nico Jacobellis Born in Italy, Nico Jacobellis came to Cleveland in 1948 after receiving a scholarship to Western Reserve University. Before becoming manager of the Heights Art Theater in 1958, he acted at the Cleveland Play House, hosted ethnic radio programs on WDOK and WHK, and edited a weekly Italian-language newspaper. Jacobellis stepped down as manager of the theater in 1967 and became an advertising executive for 20th Century Fox, moving to New York in 1969. He died in White Plains, New York in 2000. Source: Cleveland Memory Project, Cleveland State University Library Special Collections
The Lovers Is Not Obscene! This full page newspaper advertisement appeared in the Cleveland Plain Dealer several days after the United States Supreme Court issued its decision in Jacobellis v. Ohio, reversing Jacobellis's conviction and declaring The Lovers to not be obscene and thus protected under the First Amendment. In his concurring opinion, Justice Potter Stewart famously stated that he could not precisely define "hard-core pornography... But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that." The phrase "I know it when I see it" has since become a popular way to describe something observable, yet not clearly definable.  Source: Cleveland Memory Project, Cleveland State University Library Special Collections
X-Rated, 1975 The Heights Art Theater often showed pornography in the twenty years following the 1964 Supreme Court decision on Les Amants. Many of these films were in fact far more obscene than the relatively tame Lovers. In 1984, the theater's owners decided to no longer run pornographic films, changing the theater's name from Heights Art Theater to Coventry Theater to symbolize its new direction. After several restarts, the theater ceased permanently in 2003. In this photograph from the 1975 Coventry Street Fair, the marquee of the Heights Art Theater advertises an X-Rated movie titled The Clamdigger's Daughter. Creator: Joe Polevoi
Thanksgiving Party During his tenure as manager from the 1960s-1980s, George Fitzpatrick threw many parties at the Heights Art Theater. This photograph from the 1970s shows a Thanksgiving party being held in the theater's lobby. Fitzpatrick (in dark jacket and glasses) is seated in front of the standing woman. Source: George Fitzpatrick
Rocky Horror The Heights Art Theater first showed Rocky Horror Picture Show in 1977. During raucous midnight screenings, moviegoers would dress up as characters from the film and participate in a number of scenes. When the Heights Art Theater closed in 1988, the nearby Cedar-Lee Theater continued the tradition, and midnight screenings of Rocky Horror Picture Show are still held there every month. Tim Curry, one of the stars of the film, attended a midnight screening in 1978. To his left is George Fitzpatrick, the manager of the Heights Art Theater.  Source: George Fitzpatrick / Cleveland Heights Historical Society Creator: Tim Curry

Location

Metadata

Michael Rotman, “Heights Art Theater,” Cleveland Historical, accessed August 15, 2022, https://clevelandhistorical.org/index.php/items/show/436.