Busted in Bethlehem

The Colonial Theatre in Bethlehem - now the North Country's major arts and culture center - was once embroiled in a legal fight that helped define what constitutes pornography.

Illustration by Benjamin Hjelm

For 101 years, in good times and bad, The Colonial Theatre has defined Bethlehem’s wide and idyllic Main Street. During the Gilded Age, when there were dozens of grand hotels that served as summer retreats to the East Coast’s elite, the theater was a test venue for major studios. Later, when the hotels closed down and Bethlehem fell on sorry times, the theater stayed open by showing illicit films.

With only three owners in its history, it confidently lays claim to being one of the oldest, continuously operated movie theaters in the country. It flourishes today as the North Country’s major non-profit art and culture center, bringing big-name entertainment and independent films.

The building offers little shelter from the cold on this winter day. Actually, it’s a few degrees colder inside the theater than out as the Colonial’s executive director, Stephen Dignazio, digs through a storage closet looking for a piece of evidence that was central to one of the state’s most celebrated pornography cases. Once found, he struggles to lift a large lunch box-like metal canister sealed with tape and tags that read “Evidence NH State Police.”

Inside are three original film reels of “The Devil in Miss Jones (1973),” the classic X-rated film that made millions and became a huge crossover hit. Along the way, it ripped a hole through the country’s fragile obscenity laws.

The story begins in summer of 1974, when 15 members of the State Police and a snarling dog raided the Colonial Theatre where a double feature, including “The Devil in Miss Jones” and another big hit from the same producer, “Deep Throat (1972)” were playing. Some 250 people poured out on to the street, while the large, steel film reels were seized as evidence in the obscenity case against the theater’s owners, one of whom happened to be the county’s top law enforcement officer. News spread like wildfire across the nation.

“Deep Throat” was a cultural and commercial phenomenon. Unlike previous adult films, it had a story line, humor and music. It would earn hundreds of millions, making it one of the most lucrative films ever made. “The Devil in Miss Jones” did even better. The repeated, high-profile efforts to legally stifle these films was a marketing coup for the upstart producer.

Up to then, old-fashioned decency and public scorn proved to be more effective than laws at keeping “pornographic” materials under wraps, as the federal and state courts grappled with a precise definition. New Hampshire’s law (RSA 650) was so unclear that one state senator, while trying to fix it, said the law is “batting zero” because of several unsuccessful prosecutions.

Grafton County Attorney John Eames, his brother Jeremiah Eames and his 62-year-old mother Blanche Eames were charged with two misdemeanors for exhibiting two allegedly obscene movies. A defiant Mrs. Eames secured another copy of the films and played them again, and three days later was again raided and additional charges were filed. Two weeks later, the Eames trio was found guilty in Bethlehem Municipal Court on all four counts. But the fight was far from over.

“I’m standing up for a principle I believe in,” John Eames said. “Consenting adults should have the right to choose what to see, hear and read.”

He also outlined his defense, one that was being used around the country as cinemas were being challenged in the two years after “Deep Throat” took the nation by storm: “I don’t think the question has been answered as to what obscenity is in the first place.”

What New Hampshire leaders — Governor Meldrim Thomson and Attorney General Warren Rudman — were lacking in legal substance, they made up in bare-knuckled bravado. Thomson unloaded on John Eames, calling him a “dirty movie entrepreneur.” Rudman recommended that he decide whether to be a “county attorney or an exhibitor of marginal films.”

 Jeremiah Eames believes Thomson and Rudman “were fueled by great ambitions,” competition and political showmanship. He added that the charges were without merit and the prosecution was “certainly brazen, self-serving and unprofessional.”

 Six years later, Rudman was running successfully for US Senate and Thomson was running unsuccessfully for president.

Rudman immediately removed John Eames from office while charges were pending. Since Eames was popularly elected (and was running for re-election at the time) and Rudman was appointed by the governor, the propriety of Rudman’s action was challenged by Eames and ultimately decided in Rudman’s favor at the state Supreme Court much later.

 The case was appealed to Grafton County Superior Court, but not before the Republican voters of Grafton County re-nominated Eames by nearly a two-to-one margin. In late October 1974, two weeks before the general election, the Eames family members were acquitted of all but two charges, in which the jury was deadlocked. Rudman re-prosecuted and another trial occurred in March 1975. But the prosecution had a ridiculousness to it — the state had to arrange a private viewing of the films in question, ironically at another of the Eameses’ theaters, and then try to determine whether it was, in fact, obscene.

The state amended their charges to focus on the county attorney’s 62-year-old mother and questioned her about her opinion of the explicit contents. Mrs. Eames, who had been in the cinema business for decades and regularly showed X-rated films, responded, “It was just another film as far as I was concerned.”

Once again, the Eameses were acquitted, but now Thomson and the Union Leader turned their attention to the Grafton County Superior Court judge, whom the newspaper called “a professional, liberal, leftist.” It is time, they both said, to limit the terms of judges.

Rudman reluctantly reinstated Eames as Grafton County Attorney and admitted that state’s obscenity statute was a poor law because the obscenity standard, among other things, required that material be “utterly without socially redeeming value” — an impossible burden, according to the US Supreme Court. 

A few years later federal courts came up with the so-called “Miller test,” a three-pronged standard for defining obscenity as something being patently offensive in any location in US and lacking in artistic, literary, scientific or political value. In addition, does it cause the average person with contemporary community standards to have a morbid or degrading interest in sex?

The Miller test replaced the entirely candid, famous expression made in 1964 by US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart about the challenge of defining what is obscene: “I know it when I see it.” 

Well, on the night of the State Police raid of the Colonial Theatre, Stewart, who had a summer home in Sugar Hill, NH, may well have been testing his theory. Local folklore puts him at the theater and so does Jeremiah Eames: “When his [Stewart’s] office was asked if he was there, they said ‘no comment,’ but he was there.”  


Categories: NH Law