'The Full Monty' debut barely compares to 'Oh! Calcutta!' hoopla

There probably isn't a much better way to see how far a town has progressed — or slipped — in its collective morality than to take a peek at how it reacts to naked folks.

Especially ones on stage.

Thirty years ago, when the naughty-themed Broadway show "Oh! Calcutta!" pranced about in Mulberry Street's Grand Opera House, more than 900 good citizens forked over $8 for an eyeful.

On a Sunday, no less.

From the looks of the coverage then, there were some who couldn't cover their eyes fast enough.

Church lay leader and Macon City Councilman John Henry Pittman Sr. tried to halt the show and its nudie sing-song scenes about society's sexual attitudes and hang-ups. He deemed the musical "gutter stuff," "immoral," "demoralizing," and "degrading."

"One lady called me up and said she'd pull the switch and jerk the wires off the walls to stop it," Pittman told The Telegraph.

In what amounts to an unintentional birthday present of sorts — OK, a birthday-suit present — Theatre Macon's production of "The Full Monty," which promises at least brief nakedness, kicks off tonight in downtown.

"Who was ever killed by a little nudity?" Theatre Macon director Jim Crisp says. "People now, 30 years later, are far less shocked by nudity. I think maybe we're coming of age. Maybe we've grown up a bit. Maybe we're a little more adult about it."

Even so, Crisp admits, as a culture at least "we still get awfully giggly, which is OK. ... Of course, there are some people who still carry on like it's the onset of Sodom and Gomorrah."

Some of the ones who do no doubt did — or surely would have — back when "Oh! Calcutta!" disrobed at the sold-out Grand in 1978. After all, the show came complete with sketches bearing such titles as "Delicious Indignities" and "Was It Good for You, Too?"

One man, described in The Telegraph as "a churchgoer and Christian businessman, dignified ... in glasses," picketed the Grand and even broke down crying while show performers were doing their thing.

"I'm all torn up inside," the protester said, "to see this filth."

Thing was, he didn't see a thing.

"If he had," a reporter's account went on, "he would have seen things some Macon residents may never have heard and only fantasized seeing. Among them: simulated sex (real enough to be embarrassing), barnyard sex talk graphic enough for the pigsty, and some boy-girl scenes so tastefully done they were genuinely thought-provoking."

INDICT THE CAST? What was perhaps even more stimulating were the legal arguments to try to bar "Oh! Calcutta!."

Bibb County District Attorney W. Don Thompson tried to indict the cast.

In truth, the effort was probably little more than a political maneuver, a we're-doing-all-we-can-folks warning shot to, as Thompson told a reporter, make known "what the attitude of the community is."

"We do not have to try to determine prurient interest and try to apply standards that even the Supreme Court doesn't understand," Thompson said at the time. "The public indecency statute is fairly simple. I think an ordinary citizen can make that determination just by looking and seeing whether an act is occurring or not."

In the end, there were no indictments.

Even after a law enforcement panel that included Macon Police Chief Travis Lynch and Bibb County Sheriff Ray Wilkes, in hopes of spotting an indecency loophole, gathered for an "evidentiary" viewing of a videotaped "Oh! Calcutta!" performance.

Wilkes, since retired, doesn't recall such a viewing, but he does remember how mere talk of raunchy, "on the verge of pornography," movies stirred things up on occasion.

"A movie was sent in here to be shown, and Jack Herndon, who was manager of the theaters, told them that he would show the thing to some local people and see what their feelings were. We went in and saw that one and I told him, 'Jack, I think you better leave this one alone,’ ’’ Wilkes says.

So, three decades later, how far have we come?

"There's more tolerance here now," Wilkes says. "I think it probably reflects a majority of the community's feeling. ... There's a lot of strait-laced (people), but I don't think there are as many of those."

In 1992, "Oh! Calcutta!" returned to Macon.

There was some protesting.

Forty or so people against it showed up at a City Council meeting.

A renowned local preacher blamed its message for an increase in venereal diseases.

Still, the play's second coming didn't generate the public outcry or the innocence-shattering hoopla that its predecessor did.

The day before "Oh! Calcutta!" hit the stage at the Grand in February 1978, popular Telegraph columnist Bill Boyd, having seen the musical a week earlier in Columbus, wrote "Ouch! Calcutta!" a column that ran as an open letter to his mother.

Boyd detailed what he'd witnessed, some of the heat he'd taken from readers and the hub-bub the naked bodies he'd observed had brewed up in his circulation area.

What Boyd wrote survives as testament that Middle Georgia, circa 1978, was a wee less prudish than one might imagine:

"Mom? It's my job. ... Some naked bodies danced here and there. But it wasn't a strip show. I haven't seen one of those since the fair in Gray last October. ... I didn't say a word about how cute that lead dancer was without her clothes on. Honest, Mom. ... In Forsyth, a little white-haired lady ... wanted to know how many people performed naked in the show. I told her eight, and she said that, considering all the racket over the show, she figured it must be 100, at least."