If you ask a bunch of eighth-grade boys to make a best-to-worst list of every dirty joke they know and then delete all but the lame jokes at the bottom, you’ve created something close to the script for Oh! Calcutta! The show’s international fame rests on its adult sketches and nude cast, but only rarely does anyone admit that this thing is not remotely “adult.” It’s just a mashup of childish sketches for middle-school locker rooms. The only good joke is this: All that onstage nudity and humor are perfect for eighth-grade boys, but eighth-grade boys aren’t allowed to see it.
Maybe you’ve never heard of this once-notorious show. Oh! Calcutta! was last seen in Cincinnati in 1992, and by then it was a mildewed curiosity from the 1970s—an artifact recalling the wilderness years of Broadway, the troubled period just before Andrew Lloyd Webber swooped in and
made things worse revived the form. Nude performers on a Cincinnati stage? In 1992 it barely raised an eyebrow. Time was, raising anything more than an eyebrow in this town could send you to jail.
Take the year 1970, for instance. That was the first time Oh! Calcutta! dared show its face (among other things) in Cincinnati. On the night of September 28, a live Broadway performance was transmitted nationwide to theaters; the closed-circuit broadcast was booked in more than 250 cities, but local prosecutors rattled their handcuffs and many venues chickened out. Surprisingly, Cincinnati wasn’t among them. The Shubert Theater downtown went ahead with the show despite decency groups filing lawsuits and city officials threatening arrests. Depending on which newspaper you picked up the next day, either 1,200 or 2,000 Cincinnatians witnessed history, paying inflated ticket prices to see a low-def analog TV image of a not very good show beamed onto a movie screen.
No casualties were reported. A time bomb, however, had been quietly planted that night. Stand by for the explosion.
Welcome now to 1977. You’d think that after seven years an Oh! Calcutta! rerun in Cincinnati would cause less turmoil, but no—what happened was, in contrast, volcanic. Why? To explain, I must walk you through the many months leading up to the show’s arrival.
A lot of crap had piled up during 1977. The year saw several conjoined incidents that only helped to further entrench Cincinnati’s already-hardened reputation as America’s capital of pulsating puritanism. I apologize for using salacious words like pulsating, hardened, and conjoined (perhaps also entrench), but 1977 had them all.
January began with the city’s OEOS (Obscenity Emergency Overreaction System) already set to Bright Red. A pair of high-profile controversies were underway, both involving Larry Flynt, indecency’s favorite bad boy. He was being prosecuted for pandering obscenity with his magazine, Hustler. Free speech supporters spouted the usual stuff: Yes, the magazine was disgusting, but nobody was being forced to pick it up and look at it. Then, just as his trial began, Flynt inexplicably screwed those supporters. He chose a really disgusting Hustler article and mailed a reprint of it to 400,000 homes all over Hamilton County. In other words, he forced everyone to pick up his magazine and look at it.
The article, titled “War: The Real Obscenity,” showed appallingly graphic bloody photos of mangled corpses from the Vietnam War—page after page of stomach-churning images. If Flynt thought his stunt would attract more supporters than it would repel, he miscalculated. The mass mailing outraged everyone, even his own lawyers. On February 8, Flynt was pronounced guilty and sentenced up to 25 years.
The Flynt Follies made Cincinnati queasy about the Oh! Calcutta! revival tour, set for April. Both Music Hall and the Taft Theater rejected bookings. Blurry naked people on a screen the first time around had been controversial enough, but now the performers were going to be live, doffing their digs and doing their deeds right there on the stage!
Plus, there was the ticking time bomb: After the Shubert Theater telecast in 1970, a local judge had been given a videotape from that night. He decided it was “pure obscenity” and issued a permanent injunction, banning the show from being seen in Cincinnati ever again. Oh! Calcutta! was now officially a crime.
Producers of the 1977 tour knew about the time bomb and set out to defuse it. They filed suit, claiming that because their sketches had recently been revised, the injunction was outdated and void. They also accused Hamilton County Prosecutor Simon Leis Jr.—bet you were wondering when I was going bring him up—of using his famed anti-smut reputation to bully and threaten a perfectly legal activity. The producers demanded that Leis take no action against a rescheduled Oh! Calcutta! booked for October.
The lawsuit failed. Afterward, though, Leis seemed to imply that, hey, he was a reasonable guy. In late September he went to see a New Jersey performance of the revised show and, upon returning, expressed no intention to shut it down when it came here. Music Hall committed to hosting Oh! Calcutta! for two nights, starting October 12.
At noon on October 12, Leis shut down the show. He’d exploded the bomb, getting the injunction upheld and canceling opening night hours before showtime.
Lawyers raced to a federal judge the next morning. Instead of arguing about the show’s content, they went after Leis. He’d waited two weeks after seeing the New Jersey performance, they said, and by pouncing at the last minute had given them no time to defend themselves. That’s called prior restraint, and it’s illegal. The federal judge agreed, kicking Leis to the curb and allowing the second night of Oh! Calcutta! to go on as scheduled, skin and everything.
Just before the curtain rose, the crowd heard this: “If there is anyone in the audience who feels tonight’s production should not go on, speak now or forever hold your peace. But don’t hold it too tightly; you will be arrested.” Applause, applause.
The entire hot mess described above was all crammed into 1977. What a stark contrast to 1992, when Oh! Calcutta! came to Cincinnati for the last time. Our world and our town were now very different; no injunctions were declared, nobody sued, nothing was stopped.
I lied, however, about no raised eyebrows. Thanks to the Robert Mapplethorpe hysteria from 1990 (look it up, kids), the city’s Obscenity Emergency Overreaction System had lowered only to Yellow. Some local decency groups grumbled, but times had clearly changed. Nothing happened at the 1992 show.
I was there. I can confirm that the most offensive thing about Oh! Calcutta! is how disappointing it is for anyone expecting good eroticism or good writing. And I confess another lie—something did happen that night. It was nothing big, just a guy from the morning show at my then-employer, WEBN radio, agreeing to join the cast onstage for their final group nude scene. Everyone wondered if he would go through with it. The scene came, and out he walked. Here’s looking at you, Bob the Producer!
Describing the moment as “nothing big” is perhaps unkind to Bob, but come on… that type of humor will be around as long as there is an eighth grade.