This article was last modified on August 24, 2015.

Stuart Gordon in Madison, and the Obscenity Incident

Young Gordons

Born in Chicago, Stuart Gordon attended Lane Tech High School in hopes of becoming a commercial artist, a dream that was dashed when he landed an apprenticeship in a commercial art studio “and hated it,” he says. “So I decided I’d go to college and try to figure something else out.”

He’d heard that UW was a good school and, besides, one of his best friends — Dennis Paoli, Gordon’s writing partner to this day — was going there. The pair roomed together in Ogg Hall. “When I got (to Madison), I felt like I was in paradise,” Gordon says. “I had been going to an all-boys technical high school that was very strict and repressive. And Madison felt like just the opposite: Very welcoming and fun. And beautiful girls.” Madison was where he met Janesville native Carolyn Ann Purdy, a nursing student.

Gordon had always been interested in film, but at the university, “there was only one film class in those days, and it was full. So I took an acting class instead. One of the requirements was that you had to be in a play. And the play that was being done that semester was called ‘Marat/Sade.’ “It was a ground-breaking, revolutionary piece that takes place in a madhouse, a play-within-a-play being put on by the inmate,” he says. “There’s the sense that at any moment, the inmates may go berserk and jump into the audience and start killing everybody.”

“That play really changed my attitude about theater,” says Gordon. “I always thought theater was just sort of bad movies. But the idea that there was interaction between the audience and the actors is something that was a completely new idea to me.”

Inspired, Gordon wrote his own theater piece, which won a playwriting contest and the chance to direct it in the Memorial Union’s Play Circle. Called “The Game Show,” the play “was set up sort of like one of those TV game shows like ‘Truth or Consequences,'” he says. “The audience were given different colored tickets when they walked in and a wheel was spun, and whatever color came up, they were the contestants. It was rigged, of course, so we had plants in the audience playing some of these contestants. They were brought on stage and humiliated, and sometimes beaten.”

“One woman was about to be raped. And what ended up happening was that at every performance, the audience would rise up and stop the play,” he says. “They would attack the actors. It was insane.” As a result of “The Game Show,” Gordon was invited by a faculty member to produce a summer’s worth of experimental theater.

“This was in 1968, the same year as the Democratic convention in Chicago,” says Gordon. He and Carolyn joined protesters at the convention “and we ended up getting tear-gassed and attacked by the police. I was arrested. “It was a huge political awakening for both of us,” he says. “We came back to Madison in the fall, and I had this idea that maybe you could do sort of a satire on what was happening, and frame it within the play ‘Peter Pan.'”

Gordon didn’t change the script, “but we made Peter Pan and his Lost Boys into hippies, sort of revolutionaries,” he says. “Wendy and her brothers were sort of the straight kids who got pulled into the whole thing, as Carolyn and I had that summer. Captain Hook was Mayor Daley of Chicago.” The “trouble” arose, however, when instead of flying off to Neverland in stage harnesses, the characters took a trip via LSD under a psychedelic light show, which was projected onto several naked dancers, including Gordon’s girlfriend.

“When word got out that that’s what was happening, the district attorney stepped in said the show was obscene, and that if we continued we would be arrested,” he says. “We thought that was a violation of free speech.” The show went on, and “my wife and I both got arrested on obscenity (charges).”

Carolyn Purdy was arraigned on October 11, was accused of being one of two nude dancers, and was released on $500 signature bond. The other nude dancer’s name was unknown to police and had not yet been found.

The Wisconsin State Journal went to Janesville on October 12 to speak with those who knew Purdy. What they found was that she was held in high regard there. Kenneth F. Bick, principal of Cair high School, said she was “a lovely girl” who was “popular and well respected by her classmates.” An unidentified mother of a classmate agreed, saying, “She’s a lovely girl, a quiet thing.” Her father Dr. Marshall F. Purdy, a well-known physician, said, “This is something she wanted to do. I have no comment on it and I doubt if she will either.” When approached by the Janesville Gazette, Dr. Purdy said, “I’m no different from any other parent. I want to be protective. I want my daughter to have her just deserts. I don’t think she should get special treatment.”

On October 17, defense attorneys filed motions for dismissal, saying the obscenity statute was “vague and broad” and that for “Peter Pan” to be obscene it would have to be something that “appealed to a prurient interest in sex, was patently offensive because it affronted contemporary community standards relating to the description of representations of sexual matters, and was utterly without redeeming social value.” (This objection was based on the 1957 Supreme Court decision in Roth v. United States.)

The case took a strange turn on November 7. Roger A. Mott, who had signed the complaint against the play, became upset that county officials did not record his six write-in votes for state senate. He claimed he was so upset that he was “leaving town” and doesn’t “care what happens to Peter Pan.” If Mott was not able to testify or had the charges dropped, the case would be over.

By November 21, Mott dropped his complaint, but immediately two new ones were taken out. Chief Wilbur H. Emery and Deputy Sheriff David Niemann signed complaints themselves. Purdy, who up to this point was backed financially by her parents, was declared indigent and Jack F. Olson was declared her attorney. Dr. Purdy said he did not think his daughter was indigent even without his support, but said there were “extenuating circumstances which I prefer not to go into.” Jack W. VanMetre of the Dane County Legal Services Center was assisting Gordon.

Towards the end of November, the Madison version of Peter Pan inspired a Milwaukee group, the Demilitarized Zone Mime Troupe, to put on their own interpretation. This heightened publicity caused Samuel French Inc to step in and put a stop to all future productions. The company claimed a copyright on Peter Pan’s theatrical presentation, and even these modified versions (some might say parodies) were unlawful in their opinion.

On November 25, Gordon and Purdy took out a marriage license. The Capital Times wondered if this meant the pair could now no longer be called to testify against each other. Apparently, this was not the motivation, as Gordon recalls, “We got married because we were living together at the time, and our defense attorney said that’s not going to look good when you go to trial.” (While dating, Gordon was living at 14 West Gilman Street and Purdy was at 408 North Henry Street. Which, if either, residence they shared is not known. Some sources say 15 West Gilman.)

December 1968

District Attorney James C. Boll withdrew the charges on December 3, saying he could no longer be sure of a victory. He was unable to find witnesses who could declare the play obscene, and it was unclear if the work itself was actually obscene or could be described as art, which would be protected under the First Amendment. Boll noted he was “withdrawing” the charges and not dropping them. If a witness came forward seeking charges, they could be re-filed.

A letter to the editor from Carolyn Purdy appeared in the Janesville Daily Gazettte on December 10, taking issue with the way the newspaper tried to involve her family in her personal choices. She wrote:

“I would never associate myself with anything I felt to be obscene. I feel that the play had artistic merit and a social message. Furthermore, the principle of artistic freedom was being challenged, and as a cast member I was in a position to defend it. If I had dropped out of the cast, it would have implied accordance with the Dane County district attorney’s decision that the play was obscene… The truth was distorted and embellished for the sake of sensationalism. This is unfortunate because it not only turns a newspaper into a gossip sheet, but also because it has caused me and my family a great deal of pain… i wish to point out that although my family does not necessarily condone my decision, I still love them, and they still love me. No one had any reason to assume that my father agreed with me, nor was there reason to condemn him for disagreeing. I acted independently.”

Stuart Gordon wed Carolyn Purdy on December 20 at the First Unitarian Society, with the Rev. Max Gaebler officiating. Carolyn designed and made her own wedding dress, which was of a Victorian theme. Mrs. George Bruckner was maid of honor for her sister and David Gordon was best man for his brother. Ushers were Dennis Paoli, Roger Purdy and Gary Mechanic. A reception was held in the Memorial Union of the University.

Stuart Gordon became a legitimate director on May 8, 1969, when his representative, Jack Olson, went before the Madison Common Council to request a permit. He was seeking, with his Broom Street Players, to start a new theater out of a building they had leased, and to present “Lysistrata”, a Greek anti-war play about a “sex strike”. The Council was more than happy to issue the permit, with Alderman Leo Cooper jokingly asking if Gordon “has purchased the costumes for his next show yet.”

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