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Carlin's naughty words still ring in officer's ears

Posted: June 30, 2007


Jim Stingl
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What bothered Milwaukee Police Officer Elmer Lenz was not just that George Carlin was filling the air at Summerfest with shocking words that, in those days of relative innocence, you didn't hear on television.

It was that Lenz's wife and 9-year-old son were in the audience to see a musical performance on the same stage.

"I couldn't believe my ears," he remembers. "I couldn't see why nobody was doing anything about it."

Lenz was on duty that hot Friday night of July 21, 1972, and if it was up to him, he would have stormed the main stage, stopped the show and dragged Carlin off to jail. Instead, he went to the stage area and complained to a superior officer.

"He said, 'We'll get him when it's over,' " said Lenz, retired these past 27 years in northern Wisconsin, where he traded crime fighting for trout fishing.

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And get him they did, although Carlin claimed later it could have been much worse for him. He said in a newspaper interview in 1991 that his wife tipped him off that the cops were coming, which gave him time to get rid of the cocaine in his pockets.

One of the festival's most infamous moments has now slipped 35 years into the past. It's mostly told in shorthand now: Comedian George Carlin was arrested at Summerfest for uttering out loud and often the seven dirty words you can't say on TV, and the charges were later dismissed.

Lenz is named as the complainant on the citation charging Carlin with disorderly conduct. After the district attorney refused to file a state criminal charge in the matter, the police marched over to the city offices and got one there.

Carlin, who was freed on $150 bail, was unapologetic. In an on-camera interview at the time (and included in the excellent documentary "Summerfest Stories" that recently aired on Milwaukee Public TV), he said, "I wouldn't have changed anything I did if I had known there were children in the audience. I think children need to hear those words the most because as yet they don't have the hang-ups. It's adults who are locked into certain thought patterns."

"I find it kind of funny to be hassled for using them [the words that I can't repeat here in a family newspaper even in 2007] when my intention is to free us from hassling people for using them," said Carlin, who recently turned 70.

He began calling the words "the Milwaukee Seven." When Carlin appeared on "The Dick Cavett Show" shortly after his arrest, he walked out to the sounds of "On, Wisconsin!" He told a Milwaukee Journal reporter 15 years later that the incident was like being sent to the principal's office, and added, "I didn't knowingly try to exploit it, but it gave a lot of people a hook for who I was and a focus."

Yes, any publicity tends to be good publicity.

The case was adjourned several times until Dec. 14, 1972, when it came up for trial in Circuit Court in Milwaukee. Judge Raymond E. Gieringer from Adams County presided here.

"Interestingly, they brought in an out-of-town judge to do it. There was no local judge who was going to take that on," attorney Dennis Coffey said. Coffey's late brother, William, defended Carlin, who was not present in court.

The defense called two witnesses who were at the show. One was Tom Schneider, then a rookie assistant district attorney in Milwaukee who later became U.S. attorney here. Coincidentally, he was the DA on duty the next day, which was a Saturday, and was involved in the decision not to charge Carlin criminally.

Schneider was asked on the stand if he observed any disturbance as a result of Carlin's comedy routine, one of the elements necessary to prove disorderly conduct. No, he replied.

"What did you see happening?" came the follow-up question. "I saw people laughing," Schneider said.

The city called just one witness, a Catholic school teacher named Donald Bernacchi of Milwaukee who saw the show with four boys. He said he was shocked by what he heard, but noted no disruptions.

The highlight of the trial came when a version of the seven dirty words routine from the "Class Clown" album was played in court on a phonograph. Laughter rippled across the room.

"Jeepers, creepers, you can imagine. I tried to maintain as much dignity as I could under the circumstances," said Gieringer, now 81 and still serving as a reserve judge in Milwaukee.

Gieringer dismissed the case, saying the language was indecent but citing free speech and the lack of any disturbance. His wife was shocked a few days later to hear him referred to by Carlin as "the swinging judge from up north" on the Johnny Carson show.

When Carlin returned to perform in Milwaukee in 1973, he boldly did the seven words and even added three more, warning the audience, "These three haven't even been tested in Milwaukee courts."

Officer Lenz was so upset by the outcome that he sought out a Milwaukee Sentinel reporter to vent. He complained that Assistant City Attorney Theophilus Crockett never let him testify, and he called it a "railroad job." Crockett responded that Lenz had nothing new to offer.

Lenz long ago cooled off. Just a couple weeks ago, he noticed a George Carlin special was on HBO, so he watched it.

"I sat there and I laughed a few times," he admitted. "He was funny."

Call Jim Stingl at (414) 224-2017 or e-mail at jstingl@journalsentinel.com


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From the July 1, 2007 editions of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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