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Sunday shows stirred debate after WWII

POSTED: December 7, 2008 1:00 a.m.

During World War II, Gainesville theaters were allowed to show movies on Sundays in deference to military personnel stationed in the immediate area.

What is now Lee Gilmer Memorial Airport served as an auxiliary naval air station during the war, and their officers, as well as local officials, believed those in service should be afforded some Sunday afternoon entertainment when they weren't on duty.

When the war was over, and the airport no longer was used as a military base, a previous ban on Sunday movies returned. While some local and nearby residents might have gotten used to the idea, the city council at that time thought most of their constituents were against theaters opening on the Sabbath.

As the years passed though, pressure built to allow movie houses to operate seven days a week. The theater operators, of course, wanted the extra business, but many film fans wanted something to do on Sunday afternoons. Television was becoming more popular and affordable.

Ministers of Gainesville's major churches led the charge against Sunday movies. First Methodist minister, the Rev. Bill Gardner, said in a public hearing, Sundays were designed for family and civic life and religious observance. Paul Plaginos, owner of Gainesville theaters, was a member of his church.

Citing the need for moral undergirding, Gardner said, "If there's not enough moral conviction in the city commission to withstand Sunday motion pictures, I'm sure there's enough in the electorate."

Chicopee Baptist pastor Ralph Crosby added, "Sunday is the day set aside for God. The nations through history that have forgotten God have perished. Do we listen to man or God?"

First Baptist minister Franklin Owen deplored the lowering of standards by which young people would grow up and the creeping desecration of Sunday.

"However," Owen said, "I am not worried about movies keeping people from church. God's House can stand the competition and win. The other things are not right —  riding to the mountains, playing golf, going to a show in Atlanta —  and this extra breach doesn't make them right."

Other ministers speaking against Sunday movies included the Rev. James McRay of Central Baptist Church and the Rev. A.B. Elizer, Methodist district superintendent. Members of the Women's Christian Temperance Union applauded as each minister finished his appeal to city commissioners.

The only ones speaking in favor were Plaginos and his attorney, James A. Dunlap. Dunlap argued that movies on Sunday were no different than a soda fountain open on that day or a person watching television at home.

"Attending the movies on Sunday," he said, "is a matter of a person's own conscience. There would be no conflict with religious services, and there would be at least one educational or religious picture per month."

Plaginos pointed out that many mill workers couldn't attend movies on week days, and Sunday would be their only opportunity. Charles Hardy, editor of the Gainesville News at the time, wrote that his parents allowed him and his siblings to fish, play golf or take a ride on Sundays only after they had been to church.

"But, if we were too tired, too sick or too lazy to attend to our religious duties Sunday morning, then no golf, no fishing, no riding around Sunday afternoon." Therefore, he supported Sunday movies for those who would abide by those rules, adding that they were a diversion that would prevent youngsters from getting into devilment.

"Keeping the Sabbath is a direct commandment of God," The Daily Times pointed out in an editorial. But it also noted that Sunday wasn't the Sabbath for all religious groups.

Another editorialist chimed in, "If there's been any increase in Sunday night attendance at church as a result (of banning Sunday movies), it hasn't been brought to the attention of the (newspaper)." The newspaper went on to suggest that churches make themselves more inviting so as to compete with the movies.

The city commission approved first reading of an ordinance allowing Sunday movies while the arguments continued back and forth. They became so heated that commissioners put off second and final approval.

However, eventually the ordinance passed in 1952 to allow movies from 1 to 6 p.m. Sundays Theaters put an announcement on their screens when the ban was officially lifted. Audiences applauded.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. His column appears Sundays and on gainesvilletimes.com.



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