In the late ’50s, I was working on the Baltimore docks as an ILA member in Locust Point, and occasionally, with the late Michael “Iron Mike” McHale (ex-Del. Brian McHale’s father). McHale also was a neighbor. He lived on Haubert St., while I resided around the corner on Hull Street. A popular City Councilman from South Baltimore, McHale served for three terms from 1951-1963.
One night, McHale took me to a political meeting in Southwest Baltimore near the Hollins Street Market. I was his designated driver during the campaign season. I also was his precinct captain for the 10th and 11th precincts of the 24th Ward on Fort Ave.
We had to climb up a steep flight of stairs to the meeting hall. When we got to the top, a half-inebriated character came up to McHale, put his ugly mug in front of his, and started bad-mouthing him in a very loud and hostile manner.
Before McHale could respond, this smallish woman, with coal-black hair, rushed out of the shadows. She grabbed the drunk by his coat lapels, shook him as hard as any stevedore could and yelled in his face: “Don’t you dare insult Mr. McHale! He’s my guest!”
The drunk wisely nodded his compliance and slid back into the crowd. McHale then turned to me – by then my jaw had nearly dropped to the floor – and said, “Billy, I want you to meet Mary Avara!”
I called her “Miss Mary.” She had her own “Ladies Democratic Club,” on South Carrollton Street in “Pigtown.” One of 18 children, Avara (nee Serio), a proud Italian, was widowed at age 36, with four young children to take care of. Her husband, a barber died in a tragic car crash in 1946.
To put bread on the table, Avara worked as bail bondswoman. If you were arrested and needed to make bail, you could turn to Miss Mary for help. She also knew who the best criminal lawyers were in the police district courts. It was simply unheard of for a woman back in that era to be in the bail bonds business. Avara did it, however, and she was darn good at it, too.
Politically, Avara was aligned with McHale and his political boss, Julian “Fats” Carrick aka “The Chicken Man.” He was my boss, too. When I knew Mr. Carrick, he was blind. The club’s meetings were held in the back of a darkened tavern on Cross Street, in South Baltimore, near Light St. This is long before the area became yuppified.
Sometimes, I would take down the minutes of the meeting. Carrick would call the group to order. Then, he would pull out his hand gun from his coat pocket and put it on the table. He would, without missing a beat, lead the assembly in saying the Pledge of Allegiance. I recall reading the minutes with a shaky voice.
Getting back to my relationship with Miss Mary. Carrick’s club backed J. Millard Tawes, a Democrat, for governor in 1959 election. He was an Eastern Shore politico. Tawes won that election and then served two terms in that post.
As a result of Tawes’ victory, I got appointed to a job as a deputy clerk in the Baltimore City Court. This was perfect for me, since I was then going to law school at night at the University of Baltimore.
Who do you think took me to work on that very first day and introduced me to the Clerk of the Court, John Rutherford? It was Miss Mary herself. This is in 1961. She knew everybody in the court house.
Miss Mary also got a very nice political perk from Governor Tawes. She was appointed as the chairwomen of the “Maryland State Board of Motion Pictures Censors.” And, censoring those “trashy, filthy films,” as she called them, Miss Mary did with a religious zeal. This upset a lot of the powerful merchants of smut in the biz.
Avara held that post until 1982, when a U.S. Supreme Court decision struck it down as unconstitutional. It was the last movie censor board in the country. It was this controversial role that made Avara into an endearing national celebrity. She came off as a feisty grandma fighting the good fight against the pushers of XXX-rated films.
The nightly TV talk show hosts loved Avara. She was a guest many times, while captivating the audience with her folky persona, on the Johnny Carson, Merv Griffin and Dick Cavett programs.
Avara once told the The Baltimore Sun that she had looked “at more nude bodies, than 80, 100 or 50,000 doctors.” If she could, she would have preferred to rate some of the movies she reviewed, as an “R” for rotten, or “G” for garbage. She particularly loathed “Deep Throat.”
In the early 70s, a young underground filmmaker in Baltimore, John Waters, regularly clashed with Avara. Although his films were far from the X-rated types, she routinely gave them “the scissors” and considered them as “trash.” Their rivalry, however, had the effect of making his movies, like “Pink Flamingos,” even more popular and transformed him into a famous name.
By way of full disclosure, back in the 90s, I was in four of Waters’ popular flicks, two of them cameo roles: “Pecker” and “A Dirty Shame.” Enter another talented filmmaker, Steve Yeager. He did a classic of a documentary, in 1998, on Waters, titled, “Divine Trash.” Somehow, Yeager got Avara to make an appearance in that film.
On or about Avara’s 75th birthday, I got a hand-written note from her penned on yellow-colored paper. She said she was keeping busy working as a “cashier” at her son “Cy’s” barber school down in Dundalk. On the bottom of her note was printed this phrase from Genesis 21:22, “God is with thee in all thou doest.”
Avara died August 9, 2000, at age 90. Her Requiem Funeral Mass was held at her long time parish, St. Peter the Apostle RC Church. It’s located just north of the B&R R/R Museum on Poppleton Street. The church was filled to capacity. This is the same parish, where the baseball immortal, George Herman “Babe” Ruth, was baptized. I’m grateful I got my chance to say good-bye to Miss Mary.
I note for the record, St. Peter’s was closed in 2012, by the big shots of the Archdiocese, despite 165 years of continuous service to the community. Trust me when I say this: if Avara were still alive then, there is no way those nervous nellies on North Charles Street would have ever gotten away with shutting down her beloved parish without one hell of a fight.
Finally, as for that All-American gal, Mary Avara, I don’t think we will see the likes of her again.
Bill Hughes is an attorney, author, actor and photographer. His latest book is “Byline Baltimore.” It can be found at: https://www.amazon.com/William-Hughes/e/B00N7MGPXO/ref=dp_byline_cont_book_1