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R. Sinnott, 76; Censor's Work Led to Label 'Banned in Boston'

May 05, 2003|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Technically, he was chief of the Licensing Division for the city of Boston. But Richard J. Sinnott had a better-known title: city censor.

Sinnott, Boston's last official defender of public morality, died of apparent heart failure Wednesday at his home in the Boston neighborhood of Hyde Park. He was 76.

From 1960 to 1982, when the position of city censor was eliminated, Sinnott ensured that all of the movies, stage productions, burlesque acts and rock concerts that came to Boston met city standards.

If they did not, they would earn the infamous label: Banned in Boston.

A former Associated Press reporter who became newly elected Boston Mayor John Collins' press secretary, Sinnott served concurrently as the city's licensing chief -- a job he continued after Collins' eight years in office.

Every Monday during his early years as censor, he would leave his City Hall office and head to the old vaudeville district to watch the newly arrived burlesque acts at the Casino and the Old Howard Theater.

From his usual seat backstage, he'd then make sure that performers such as Lili St. Cyr and Angela the Upside Down Girl didn't lose their pasties.

Sinnott also kept busy monitoring Broadway-bound shows.

In 1963, he was thrust into the national spotlight when he threatened to ban Edward Albee's new play "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" after objecting to its "blatant blasphemy."

"After some gritty discussion between me, the playwright and the theater owner, Albee did change the wordings I had trouble with," he recalled in a 2002 interview with the Boston Globe. "In one instance, he deleted the blasphemous use of 'Jesus Christ' and used 'Mary Magdalene' in its place."

In 1970, when the musical "Hair" arrived in Boston, Sinnott found its use of the American flag offensive and said the use of rosary beads by actors dressed as nuns was vulgar. The producers made changes and the show went on.

The nudity in "Hair" apparently didn't bother Sinnott so much.

"The nude scene was pathetic; there wasn't a beautiful body in the whole bunch," he once recalled.

Sinnott told the Boston Globe in 2002 that he rarely preempted openings on his own.

"Cases were brought to me by the public, the police or the district attorney's office, and then I investigated or made a call."

For some producers, being "banned in Boston" was a badge of honor -- and a sure-fire way to boost box office receipts.

Once in the early 1960s, Sinnott recalled in a 1988 interview with Associated Press, a ballet came to the city's Wilbur Theater, "and in the first act they removed their breast covers and pranced around the stage."

But the ballet had an African theme and Sinnott didn't find the choreography objectionable. When the producer asked hopefully if he was going to ban the ballet, Sinnott replied, "They do that in Nigeria."

Two weeks later, the producer sent him a postcard from New York that said simply: "Thanks a lot. The show closed."

Sinnott didn't go out of his way to ban productions. In 22 years, he used the ban fewer than 10 times. Still, the city's prudish image remained intact.

"It made Boston, in some people's minds, very narrow-minded and very puritanical, that we were a collection of party poopers," he said.

With Sinnott's departure in 1982, the role of city censor became a thing of the past.

"We're in an age of permissiveness," Sinnott later told AP. "If the Supreme Court can't define obscenity, how can I?"

"He was a throwback to a bygone era," Sinnott's son Bill told The Times on Friday. "He took the job seriously to the extent he saw himself as the guardian of public morality.

"On the other hand, he didn't take it personally. He had a lot of fun doing the job. He met some real characters in the course of being city censor."

Bill Sinnott said his mother and other family members used to laugh because all the burlesque house strippers knew his father, a devout Catholic, by name.

"We had autographed photos of Ann Corio and some of the great strippers," he said. "They all knew him and respected him. They felt he was fair and treated them appropriately."

Sinnott said his father's Catholic faith "was a very important part of his life; I think his Catholic upbringing to some extent defined how he viewed his job as city censor. But on a family and personal level, he was not a real judgmental type person."

The Boston-born Sinnott graduated from Bryant and Stratton Business College and, after serving in the Navy during World War II, earned a bachelor's degree in journalism from Curry College in Milton, Mass. He then went to work in the Boston bureau of Associated Press.

In his job with the city of Boston, Sinnott also served as official city greeter, once prompting an arriving Jimmy Durante to ask him, "Are you here to greet me or ban me?"

In addition to his son Bill, he is survived by his wife, Una; three other sons, Richard and James, both of Boston, and Joseph, of Winthrop, Mass.; and six grandchildren.

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