Law-enforcement officials weren’t too concerned when Jupiter aligned with Mars. They had major problems, though, when the moon was in the Civic house.
The Broadway show Hair created a giant frizzy tangle when the Akron Civic Theatre proposed staging “The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical” for the 1970-71 season.
With lyrics by James Rado, story by Gerome Ragni and music by Galt MacDermot, the flower-child musical enjoyed a 1,750-performance run in New York and sold out auditoriums in several major U.S. cities during the Vietnam era. Its popular songs, including Good Morning Starshine, Aquarius, Let the Sunshine In, Easy to Be Hard and Hair, frequently blared from transistor radios, hi-fi speakers and car stereos.
Gliddy glub gloopy
Nibby nabby noopy
La la la lo lo.
Sabba sibby sabba
Nooby abba nabba
Le le lo lo.
Besides being confused by the lyrics, many older adults were not hip to the counterculture celebration of Hair and all its tie-dyed glory. The show had an antiwar stance, crude language, drug references, racial overtones and sexual themes.
Most infamously, it had a 20-second nude scene.
Young actors, male and female, romped onstage and gleefully let the sun shine in to places where the sun normally didn’t shine.
Needless to say, it was a little more flash than normally glimpsed beneath the twinkling stars of the Civic Theatre’s ceiling.
Still, when a national tour of Hair was organized, Akron’s arts community showed an immediate interest. The Civic’s executive committee voted 12-2 (with one abstention) to bring the show to town after receiving a strong recommendation from the theater’s booking committee.
There were certain limits, however. A minimum age would be required for theatergoers. The musical would not be included in the regular subscription series. The Summit County prosecutor and other law-enforcement groups would be invited to New York to see the Broadway production before the touring company arrived.
Dissenting Civic board members went behind the scenes to prevent the curtain from rising, contacting Summit County Prosecutor James V. Barbuto for a legal opinion on the hot-button issue.
“From a legalistic point of view, you are on weak grounds,” Barbuto warned the panel. “On moral grounds, you would have problems trying to justify the play. We have enough problems with films and movies without encouraging more problems.”
If someone signed an affidavit against Hair, Barbuto said, he would have no choice but to prosecute a case against the Civic for staging an immoral musical.
“This isn’t the greatest play in the world and lends nothing to the theater,” Barbuto added.
Wishing to avoid public controversy and potential litigation, the Civic Theatre’s trustees decided to veto the executive board’s decision to schedule Hair.
“It’s one of the things I’d like to forget,” Dr. James Mercer, trustees president, told the Beacon Journal in 1970. “I’m just as glad it isn’t coming. It would have caused some problems.”
College students picketed outside the theater, but the Civic’s decision was final — at least until the following year.
Hair performed before sold-out crowds in March 1971 at Cleveland’s Hanna Theater, drawing complaints from religious groups, but the show ran for seven weeks, and society somehow survived.
That’s not to say that there weren’t tense moments. One day, a theater employee discovered three sticks of dynamite in a bag beneath the marquee. The explosives were removed, and no one was injured. That evening, someone called in a bomb threat, forcing more than 1,500 patrons to evacuate the theater. On the final night of the Cleveland run, someone hurled a small bomb at the marquee, causing moderate damage, but fortunately, no one was in the auditorium and no one was hurt.
In October 1971, the Hair controversy returned to Akron after the Civic Theatre executive board took advantage of a legal loophole. Instead of formally sponsoring the musical, the board rented the auditorium to American Theatre Productions of New York, which was solely responsible for the production’s content.
Critics cried foul. Typical of the responses was this letter to the editor from a Catholic priest: “Must the city of Akron host immorality? What profit or gain can be had? Would any sane person sit down at a table and eat garbage? Those who are trying to serve us ‘garbage for our minds’ are insulting us to our face.”
About 10,000 tickets, ranging in price from $4 to $7, were printed for the three Akron showings Nov. 2-4.
On opening night, a protester stood outside the Civic with a sign reading “Get your rot here.” Meanwhile, a few blocks away, no one bothered to picket the Strand Theater where the X-rated movie Hotter Than Hades was screening.
Standing out in the Civic Theatre crowd that evening was Beacon Journal columnist Dick Shippy, who crafted a delightful, curmudgeonly review, describing Hair as sacrilegious, anarchistic, nihilistic, scatological, biological, ideological, heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual and asexual.
“It depicts denunciation, aberration, hallucination, copulation, flagellation. … If you’ll accept Hair as such, it can provide an evening of loud, lusty and agreeably harmless fun,” he wrote.
The Akron premiere of Hair coincided with Election Day. Summit County Prosecutor Robert Mohler probably would have preferred to spend the evening at election parties, but instead he felt an obligation to visit the Civic. Mohler, who became prosecutor after Barbuto was elected Summit County common pleas judge, attended Hair with assistant prosecutors and members of the Akron vice squad.
He detested the “four-letter Anglo-Saxon gutter words” and the “numerous scenes simulating sex acts,” but felt it was his duty to watch the entire show.
“The music at times was so loud it almost burst my eardrums,” he said afterward. “The lyrics couldn’t be understood. I was shocked at first, but there are three hours of this. It got to the point that I got terribly bored.”
The show was disgusting, Mohler said, but constitutionally protected.
“Legally, there’s nothing wrong with the play,” Mohler said. “Personally, I found it to be loud, boring, degrading and offensive.”
The Age of Aquarius officially dawned in Akron, and Hair, like it or not, became an iconic musical that is staged to this day in regional theaters.
Gliddy glub gloopy
Nibby nabby noopy
La la la lo lo.
Mark J. Price is a Beacon Journal copy editor. He can be reached at 330-996-3850 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.