Dakota Datebook

Sunday Movies

Monday, November 6, 2006

We can hardly imagine Sunday without watching a matinee movie, or during this time of year, getting the chips and dip ready for a full day of football. But, for those just over 70 years ago, such activities were strictly forbidden—and even punishable by law. Such Sunday restrictions became known as “Blue Laws.” The term originated in 1781 when New Haven, Connecticut printed their Sunday laws on blue paper. Even after the separation of church and state, such laws remained prominent in North Dakota’s constitution through the 1990s and even today.
From the territorial days of Dakota, Sunday has remained a day of rest, and labor, public sports, retail or wholesale selling, employment in trades, manufacturing and mechanical operations, and undue public traffic were forbidden on the Sabbath day. These laws did loosen some for essential services provided by institutions such as hospitals, broadcasting stations, hotels, and restaurants. Breaking any of the other Blue Laws was punishable by a one dollar fine, although the Norwegian Lutherans tried to have this increased to $25 or imprisonment of 2 to 5 days per conviction.

These laws loosened some in 1920, however, when professional or amateur baseball was allowed to be played on Sundays if “conducted in such a quiet and orderly manner so as not to interfere with the peace and repose of the community, and played between the hours of 1:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m. at least 500 feet from any church.” That same year, there was an attempt to legalize Sunday movies, but the measure was rejected that year, and in 1930 and 1933 when the measure was again proposed. The argument against Sunday movies was that “six days a week was enough time to pollute the minds of youth.”

Although the measure had failed to pass three times, today in 1934, movies were finally allowed to play on Sunday. For many, it was due time. The North Dakota Theatre Owner’s Association held a series of broadcasts over North Dakota’s major stations to support the measure in the weeks prior to election. The president, John Piler asserted that Sunday amusements were not a religious issue, and that there was a need for wholesome Sunday amusement for the youth. Dr. N. Ashby Jones, a respected Baptist Minister also supported the measure and was quoted saying there was a difference between a civic and religious Sabbath, which clearly defines the right of an individual to his religious and personal freedoms.

The measure was officially approved by the canvassing board on December 6, 1934, and many communities made plans to show afternoon and evening movies the following Sunday. The Paramount theatre in Bismarck advertised the premier of “It’s a Gift” starring W.C. Fields, and the Capitol advertised “Big Hearted Herbert” starring Guy Kibbee.

The repeal of the 1911 law forbidding the showing of Sunday movies was just one of many to come. By 1943, laws had relaxed a great deal, and each year, more activities were allowed on Sundays, including the opening of stores in recent years. Sundays were no longer reserved for the Sabbath, but became a day of movies, sports, and shopping in North Dakota.

By Tessa Sandstrom

“Canvassing board declares Sunday movies approved,” Bismarck Tribune. Dec. 6, 1934: 4.
“Theatre men believe public will support Sunday movie plan,” Bismarck Capital. Nov. 1, 1934: 12.
“Theatres plan first Sunday shows, marking end of movie blue laws,” Bismarck Tribune. Dec. 8, 1934: 1.
Ellefson, Joe. “North Dakota Blue Laws: Are They an Issue for the Past?” November 6, 1990.
Laws Passed at the 24th Session of the Legislative Assembly of the State of North Dakota: page 499.

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Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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