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1921: Never on Sunday
By JON BLACKWELL / The Trentonian
For most of New Jersey history, it was forbidden to engage in "dancing, singing, fiddling, or other music for the sake of merriment" on a Sunday. It said so right in the centuries-old criminal code, along with the part making it a capital crime to practice witchcraft.

By 1921, the law to ward off witches was off the books, but the blue laws were very much in effect, a fact that troubled the owners of Trenton's bustling movie theaters and vaudeville halls.

If no business could be transacted on Sunday -- the only day of leisure that many working-class families had at the time -- most of the potential audience couldn't buy tickets, either. It just didn't seem fair. Or good for business.

So, on Sunday, Aug. 28, 1921, all of Trenton's movie theaters opened for business, in outright defiance of the law.

The stage was set for Trenton's blue-law battle: a struggle that pitted the upstart entertainers, peddling those racy new motion pictures from a place called Hollywood, against the city's moral establishment.

As the '20s began, Trenton was a city dominated by that moral establishment, an elite supported by money, tradition and the main line Protestant churches.

A new mix of foreigners, however, had flooded into town at the turn of the century: Italians, Eastern Europeans and Jews. They provided cheap labor for Trenton industry. They also liked to have a drink now and then, and weren't always that faithful about keeping the Sabbath as a day of religious devotion.

Mistrust between the working immigrant class and their employers was a constant theme in early-20th century politics. That mistrust fed into'20s Prohibition and into an increased alertness for enforcing the blue laws.

"There was a very conservative attitude coming to the fore in Trenton," said Charles Webster, city historian. "If you were a working man, you got off work just one day a week - Sunday - and your bosses wanted to know exactly where you were on that day off. Preferably in church, or at home, and not out picking up subversive

The enforcement arm of middle-class morality was Trenton's Inter-Church League. When the minor-league Tigers tried to play the city's first Sunday baseball game around 1910, the league had every player arrested and fined $1. But momentum was gathering to relax the blue laws.

The first state "Act to Suppress Vice and Immorality," enacted in 1704, proscribed just about every form of commercial activity or fun on the Sabbath day. But selling "necessities" was excepted. It was OK for instance, to sell heating oil, or to operate trains and utilities on Sunday.

Nowhere did the law say anything about moving pictures on Sunday -- for the simple reason that movies hadn't yet been invented when the law was last revised in 1877. In Newark, Hoboken and many Shore towns, authorities figured they were free to let movies open on Sundays.

And by 1921, movies were a huge business. Motion pictures were silent -- which made the picture show a universal experience that could be enjoyed by a foreign immigrant as much as a native-born American. Charlie Chaplin as the little tramp, Rudolph Valentino as "The Sheik," and swashbuckler Douglas Fairbanks all had faces that were better-known than presidents.

Hollywood's dream machine provided an opening for a hustling promoter named Walter Reade. Reade already owned Reade's Trent Theatre  on North Warren Street, part of his grand chain of movie emporiums up and down the East Coast. In the summer of '21, he was in the process of converting the old Taylor Opera House at 14-16 S. Broad St. into the Capitol Theatre.

With 1,200 seats, the Capitol was to be the most palatial cinema in the city, featuring plush  carpets and a wall painting of Washington crossing the Delaware. It was on a level far above the old nickelodeons with their peep-shows and floors stained with tobacco juice.

But high class came with a high operating cost, and Reade needed to bring in an audience to pay his own bills.

Therefore, Reade and other Trenton theatrical men -- among them the owners of the State, the Strand, the Gaiety, the Rialto, the Princess and the Bijou -- petitioned the City Commission for permission to open on Sunday.

They were met with a storm of protest.

A totalb of 16,745 signatures were gathered in opposition to Sunday movies. Hundreds and hundreds of these signatures were obviously in the same handwriting, but their sheer volume was enough to show that someone had taken a lot of time to defend the blue laws.

State Quartermaster General C. Edward Murray led the protest movement. Protestant churchmen preached the Fourth Commandment with special emphasis that summer: "Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy."

Agreement came from the Rev. John H. Fox at St. Mary's Cathedral.

"There is enough religious indifference now without taking from Sunday a large part of its holiness and significance," he said. "The observance of that one day in seven has been a redeeming feature of the present day of laxity."

But the city's public safety commissioner, George LaBarre, saw nothing wrong with Sunday movies and instructed the police chief not to arrest any theater owners for doing business that day.

LaBarre explained that he was simply obeying the letter of the antiquated law, which forbade "dancing" and "fiddling."

Therefore, LaBarre told the chief, "If no dancing or fiddling for. the sake of merriment occurs, then the officers have no right to stop the performance."

Well, there was to be no fiddling or dancing at Reade's Capitol Theatre -- just movies and a vaudeville performance. Reade felt safe to go ahead with his Sunday debut on Aug. 28.

As if to shield Reade from the inevitable outcry, the first feature presentation was to be a tame family movie, "The Old Nest," starring the forgotten Mary Alden, and billed as "a picture that presents the most beautiful and the most sacred of all things -- a mother's love." Seats were 50 cents, orchestra, or 75 cents, balcony.

In line with Reade, 10 other city theaters opened for business that Sunday, too. State Theater showed "Partners of the Tide." Reade's Trent advertised the comedy "Crazy to Marry" with Fatty Arbuckle, a slapstick star whose career would shortly be ruined in a sensational sex-and-manslaughter scandal.

A total audience of 18,000 poured into Trenton's theaters that Sunday. The Inter-Church Federation League took it as a declaration of war on religion.

LaBarre's interpretation of the blue law -- that it didn't apply to movies -- was nonsense, the churchmen said. Movies were paid amusements; paid amusements were, illegal on Sundays; therefore, Sunday movies were illegal.

Gen. Murray, speaking out on Aug. 29, fumed:

"While the movie promoters, who are frankly engaged in desecrating Sunday for their own personal profit, doubtless feel they put over a smart trick on Trenton yesterday, I have faith in the police and feel they can be relied upon to do their full duty."

The police Murray had in mind, however, were not city officers but his own Inter-Church colleagues. Sheriff Walter Firth gave deputy's badges to 65 members of the federation, among them Carl F. Adams, the founder of Adams Electric and the man who built New Jersey's electric chair; Joseph Lenox of Lenox China; and Albert Bratton, a former pro basketball star with the old 1900 Trentons who was now secretary of the YMCA.

Then the sheriff sent his deputies on a special mission: to patrol every Trenton movie house on Sunday, Sept. 4, and prevent improper business from being conducted therein.

Undaunted by the show of force, 500 ticket-buyers filed past the serious-faced deputies and packed the Capitol Theater. Nervously, they edged into their seats.

Organ music sounded, pictures from a newsreel flickered onto the screen and the crowd broke into cheers, thinking they would get their movies after all.

But the deputies then sprang into action. They rounded up the manager, cashier, receptionist and Reade himself, placing them under arrest. The audience was told to go home.

Every other picture show in town was similarly busted.

For a while there was bold talk of suing the city and challenging the blue law's constitutionality. But in the end, all the offenders simply paid their $1 fines and agreed to stay closed on Sunday.

The triumph of the anti-movies crowd was short-lived. Mayor Frederick Donnelly let it be known he supported cheap amusements for the people of Trenton from whom he would need support in the next election.

"Especially in a city like Trenton, which embraces a cosmopolitan makeup, a certain degree of tolerance must be sanctioned if our people are to live in tranquility and contentment," Donnelly said.

In the sheriff's election of 1924, the voters overwhelmingly chose a candidate pledged to "liberal enforcement" of the blue laws. In 1933, Trenton made it official by opting out of the state's blue laws.

Today, in all of New Jersey, only Bergen County still observes the ban on commercial activity on Sunday, and it is more for the convenience of suburbanites than the
worship of God. Voters have chosen to keep the blue laws for one real reason -- so the highways won't be clogged with mall shoppers.

There are, however, exceptions to the rule. Food and gas are still sold on Sundays. So are movie tickets.