Charles Teitel dies at 93; theater operator fought censors as he brought foreign art films to Chicago
By By Trevor Jensen
Apr 16, 2009 | 12:00 AM
Charles Teitel, who operated one of the first foreign art houses in Chicago, screening such seminal films as "The Bicycle Thief" and "Z" as well as movies that city censors tried to ban for racy content, died of congestive heart failure April 4 at his home in Laguna Woods, his daughter Roberta Teitel Zweig said. He was 93.
Teitel followed his father, Abraham, into the film distribution and theater business. Abe Teitel opened the World Playhouse Theater in the Fine Arts Building on Michigan Avenue in 1933, and in the years after the war exposed film buffs to works by directors Vittorio De Sica, Ingmar Bergman, Jean-Luc Godard and Akira Kurosawa.
But the films distributed by Teitel were often seen as less than artful by the city censorship board, which held final approval on what movies could be seen in Chicago through the 1960s.
During the Red Scare era of the 1950s, the board sometimes thought the foreign-language fare was transmitting communist ideas, Zweig said. Later, Europe's more progressive attitudes toward sex and nudity led to struggles over the right to run titles such as "Lady Chatterley's Lover" and "I, a Woman."
"His theater was one of the first to show foreign films in Chicago, and those films generally attracted a lot of trouble, and he fought it," said Barbara Selznick, author (as Barbara Wilinsky) of "Sure Seaters: The Emergence of Art House Cinema."
In 1968, Teitel, represented by famed civil rights attorney Elmer Gertz, took his fight to the U.S. Supreme Court. The court ruled that the way the censorship ordinance was enforced violated the company's rights, a win that stripped the board of much of its power.
About the same time, the popularity of foreign films waned. Teitel broke the World Playhouse into a multiplex and booked adult movies before closing the theater in 1971.
Born in New York on Sept. 23, 1915, Teitel served in the Army during World War II. He started the Golden Gate Guardian newspaper at his base in San Francisco before departing for the Philippines.
After closing the World Playhouse, Teitel continued to work as a film distributor, raising the ire of critics if not censors by handling films such as "Ilsa, She Wolf of the S.S." and "Snuff."
In 1976, he wrote and produced "Deep Jaws," about a bankrupt film company that makes a pornographic film combining elements of "Deep Throat" and "Jaws." The movie received zero stars from then-Tribune critic Gene Siskel.
Teitel moved to California in the 1970s and did freelance writing for several publications, in addition to teaching a writing class for seniors.
In addition to his daughter, Teitel is survived by his wife, Esther; another daughter, Diane Teitel Rubins; a sister, Beatrice Heilpern; and two grandchildren.