Mark J. Price
Hubba-hubba. Ooh la la. A promiscuous gathering of consenting adults made a lot of Akron residents feel all hot and bothered in the spring of 1984, although not in the way that organizers desired.
Thirty years ago, the city found itself in the middle of a national scandal after swingers scheduled a convention at the Cascade Holiday Inn.
The “Frontier Frolic,” a weekend gathering sponsored by the Ohio Connection adult magazine, promised to bring “hundreds of sexy swingers” downtown May 4-5, 1984, for a hedonistic conclave.
“A luxurious northeastern Ohio hotel, exclusively booked for our weekend of pleasure, will be transformed into a carnal corral where sexy marshals will beckon you to break all the laws and daring dance-hall girls will show you some brand new moves,” the event advertised.
All 292 rooms were set aside for mate-swapping activities, which included “orgy rooms,” “X-rated videos,” “a sexercise class” and “totally enclosed swing areas.” Guests paid $235 to $245 to reserve a two-night stay.
An official at the hotel’s management company sent a memo to remind the inn’s manager to be discreet: “By no means is this information to be volunteered to the media. We trust that your employees understand the gravity of this situation and the implications bad press could have on the reputation of the Cascade Holiday Inn.”
Uh-oh. Too late.
Unhappy with “the sex convention,” an anonymous worker tipped off the Beacon Journal. The ensuing front-page story created a public-relations nightmare.
“Holiday Inn Cascade on the Plaza neither sponsors, supports or endorses Connection magazine’s May 4-5 function, nor intends to stand in judgment of any activities taking place,” the hotel explained in a news release.
The inn initially defended the “Frontier Frolic” as a boost to the local economy, bringing $45,700 in sales and generating $3,700 in taxes.
Local church groups did not buy that argument.
The Akron Area Association of Churches, representing 80 congregations, issued a statement condemning the swingers’ weekend: “We are appalled at the immoral character of the convention. Such exploitation of personhood and degradation of sex to its lowest common denominator is to be abhorred.”
Bishop Gilbert Sheldon, spokesman for the Catholic diocese of Cleveland, told the Beacon Journal in 1984: “I can’t imagine a respectable hotel chain like Holiday Inn entertaining this kind of operation. It seems as if they’re prostituting themselves. I mean that in the generic sense of the verb, that they are allowing anything to happen in their hotel for money.”
The Rev. Charles Billington, pastor of Akron Baptist Temple, urged church members to call the hotel to voice their displeasure. “We’re appalled,” he said. “We live in Akron, not Rome of the first century or San Francisco.”
As director of the national board of the Baptist Bible Fellowship, Billington promised he would urge its 4,000 member churches and congregations to boycott Holiday Inns.
The Rev. John E. Fisk, pastor of the Church of Christ in Cuyahoga Falls, said he would organize 200 pickets outside the hotel and pass out leaflets to all who entered or exited.
Area politicians also voiced outrage over the matter.
“I’m offended,” Akron Mayor Tom Sawyer said when asked for comment. “I don’t think it’s good for our city. It’s largely in our best interests that our city remains viewed as the kind of place where we want to live and raise children.”
The City Council voted 11-1 to condemn the convention as “morally unacceptable.”
Democratic presidential candidate Gary Hart, who was campaigning in Akron, canceled a 50-room reservation at the hotel the week before the convention.
Summit County Prosecutor Lynn Slaby filed an injunction April 27 in Common Pleas Court against the hotel operators and convention sponsors, saying he would try to block the weekend event under Ohio’s obscenity laws.
“I believe it is necessary to make every effort possible and to take all steps necessary to keep our community from being known as the sex capital of the world,” he said.
Slaby threatened to subpoena the hotel records of convention attendees, saying they could be “potential witnesses” for the court case.
The swingers fought back. They trotted out an Ohio couple, married for 20 years and using the aliases of “Bob” and “Carol,” to speak to the Beacon Journal in favor of the Akron convention.
“We feel sex in an open, honest way can include more than one person,” Bob said. “Most of America believes in that, whether they’ll admit it or not.”
On any other weekend, Akron hotels probably welcomed guests cheating on their mates, Carol said. “That’s OK as far as the media is concerned,” she said. “You know why it bugs everyone? They can’t handle our honesty.”
Ultimately, Holiday Inn officials felt compelled to speak out on the growing controversy from corporate headquarters in Memphis.
“This convention appears to be in conflict with our principles and upsets us greatly,” the chain announced to the media. “Holiday Inns Inc. and the franchisee fully support the efforts of the Summit County prosecutor, Lynn Slaby, in attempting to get a court injunction preventing this function from happening. We have urged our franchisee to do everything within the law to prevent the convention from taking place.”
Slaby asked Summit County Common Pleas Judge Evan J. Reed to impose a temporary restraining order. Reed didn’t ban the convention, but he did issue an order prohibiting nudity and sexual activity in public areas of the hotel, a ruling he said was based “totally on the law.”
“I’d hate to take my blood pressure right now,” Reed told the Beacon Journal afterward. “I have a pile of letters on my desk from preachers … including one from my own.”
A national boycott
Two days before guests arrived, the hotel canceled the convention and issued refunds to more than 200 people who had reserved rooms.
Now it was the swingers’ turn to protest. The North American Swing Club Association vowed that its 3 million members would boycott all Holiday Inns as a result of the Akron cancellation.
“Apparently, they don’t want swingers,” spokesman Robert L. McGinley told reporters. “All right, they won’t get them. We want Holiday Inns to feel it and they are going to feel it. We’re dead serious about this boycott.”
More than 250 ministers and churchgoers flocked to the Cascade Holiday Inn that Saturday to hold a “victory rally” instead of a protest. The event turned into a church revival and prayer session with crowd members exclaiming “Praise Jesus!” and “Amen!”
If any “sexy swingers” failed to get the notice about the canceled convention, they surely were surprised when they got to the hotel.
Copy editor Mark J. Price is author of The Rest Is History: True Tales From Akron’s Vibrant Past, a book from the University of Akron Press. He can be reached at 330-996-3850 or firstname.lastname@example.org.