It was 70 years ago that a debate swirled in Newark – should the city allow movies to be shown on Sundays?
The issue came to a head in the spring of 1950, but the issue actually traces back even farther to 1941. Delaware had just repealed its blue laws – religiously-based restrictions that banned a wide range of business and recreation activities from taking place on Sundays –and the State Theatre on Main Street began showing movies on Sunday.
In response, more than 400 people (roughly 10 percent of the city’s population at the time) signed a petition urging city council to take action and put a stop to the travesty of movies on the Sabbath.
In early December, just days before the attack on Pearl Harbor, council agreed to put the issue to referendum. In April 1942, Newarkers headed to the polls and overwhelming voted to ban Sunday movies and other “commercialized entertainment.” The issue was never legally codified, but the theater management agreed to abide by public sentiment.
Fast-forward eight years, and the issue was back on the ballot. The debate was spirited on both sides, as evidenced by dueling op-eds published in the Newark Post.
The Joint Committee Opposed to Commercialized Moving Pictures on Sunday said it wanted to maintain the town’s “enviable reputation” and argued that Sunday movies were a gateway drug of sorts that would lead to dance halls, bowling alleys, pool rooms and other activities to also be allowed to open on Sundays.
“Anyone who has been in a wide open town on Sunday can appreciate the Sabbath peace and quiet of Newark. There is nothing to prevent those who prefer a noisy hilarious Sunday from going to nearby towns where Sunday is just another day,” the committee wrote. “We believe that the majority of the parents of Newark believe in the Sabbith [sic] and want their children to feel that Sunday is different from other days of the week, a day to catch up on inspiration and uplift after the week’s grind.”
Meanwhile, State Theatre manager Herman Handloff wrote that he frequently received questions from customers about why the theater was closed on Sundays and pointed out that he was losing business to theaters elsewhere in Delaware. He also framed the issue as one of fairness.
“For the family that can afford a television set, movies are in the home Sundays. For the man who can afford a country club, golf and other sport are available on Sundays. For the man who can afford the tariff of a ticket for football or baseball, those activities are available on Sundays,” Handloff wrote. “But, for the average, everyday working man who cannot afford the expensive luxuries but still has the same normal desires for relaxation and entertainment as afforded by moving pictures, the doors are closed on Sunday.”
He promised that if he was allowed to open on Sundays, he would stay closed during church hours and would only show family-friendly movies.
A record number of Newarkers went to the polls, and the moviegoers prevailed by a vote of 1,063 to 773.
The State Theatre started opening on Sundays the following week, but, alas, progress in the 1950s came slowly.
The “everyday working man” finally could enjoy movies without restrictions – but only if he was white. The month after the referendum, the local NAACP chapter asked Handloff to desegregate Newark’s only movie theater, but he declined, saying he would not allow black residents to enter “until a clear-cut swing in community sentiment developed,” the Newark Post reported.