Posted by Jeff Stafford on March 7, 2009
For most true cinephiles, the movie theatre used to be a sacred place, a chapel where you could dream collectively in the dark, undisturbed. It was rarely thought of as a place that harbored killers, psychopaths and assassins – except IN the movies. Yet, every once in a while, the spell was broken and reality intruded via the news media reporting some disruptive incident in a cinema somewhere. When it did, it always made an impression on me but probably none so powerfully as the day Lee Harvey Oswald ran into the Texas Theatre in Dallas to hide after shooting police officer J.D. Tippit.
The Texas Theatre was showing a double feature that day (November 22, 1963) – WAR IS HELL (1963), a low-budget, Korean War drama directed by Burt Topper and narrated by Audie Murphy, and CRY OF BATTLE (1963), Irving Lerner’s small scale WWII/Pacific Campaign actioner with James MacArthur, Van Heflin and Rita Moreno.
Allegedly, WAR IS HELL was on the screen when Oswald entered the theatre around 1:40 pm though reports on his arrival time vary. He had been followed to the theatre – where he entered without paying – by a shoe store clerk next door who had noticed his suspicious behavior after hearing an all-points bulletin from the police. The shoe store clerk, alerted the ticket seller who made an emergency phone call and within minutes at least 30 police squad cars arrived on the scene. The theatre house lights were turned on and Officer Maurice N. McDonald was the first to confront Oswald, who was sitting at the back of the theatre in one of the last three rows. McDonald said he heard Oswald mutter, “Well, it’s all over now” before striking him with his fist. A shuffle ensued and Oswald was soon handcuffed and taken into police custody in what must have been one of the strangest interruptions to ever occur during a Texas Theatre screening.
Since Kennedy had been shot at approximately 12:30 pm that day, the patrons in the theatre (reportedly less than 15) were probably completely unaware of what was happening since they were already at the matinee. That’s the sort of terrible historic moment you never expect to be a part of but I doubt anyone present that day would ever forget it.
I also have to wonder what was flashing through Oswald’s mind as he stared at WAR IS HELL, the feature in progress. Conspiracy theorists surmise that The Texas Theatre was a pre-determined meeting place after the shooting for Oswald and another conspirator. One thing is fairly certain though; Oswald had no inkling that WAR IS HELL would be the last movie he would ever attend.
When I was working on Joe Bob Brigg’s Monstervision franchise for TNT in the ’90s, circa 1996-97, we would often fly out to Dallas for the production shoots. Although we rarely had extra time to explore Dallas, we did make it to the Sixth Floor Museum in the former Texas Book Depository and the Conspiracy Museum (now closed) in the Katy Building (just across the street from the Kennedy Memorial). We even drove past the Texas Theatre which was closed due to a fire that had gutted it in 1995. I wanted to go inside then but now, thanks to the miracle of the internet, I can - and see how it looked in the past and how it looks now, after being refurbished in 2003.
The art deco theatre first opened in 1931, amid a public ceremony presided over by billionaire Howard Hughes, and was touted as “the first air-conditioned theatre in Dallas.” The Texas eventually shut its doors in 1989 due to decreasing attendance and city residents’ flight to the suburbs where moviegoers preferred the multiplex experience to the single screen one.
The Texas Theatre Historical Society (TTHS) raised money to keep it from the wrecking ball and Oliver Stone was allowed to remodel the exterior for use in his 1990 film, JFK. Then, in 1992, a former usher at the theatre, Don Dubois, took over the lease from TTHS, only to see the Texas completely gutted by a fire in 1995. Yet, the structure was spared and The Oak Cliff Foundation stepped in to save it in 2001. It reopened after a major refurbishing in 2003 but still needs a lot more work to restore the original balcony and other upgrades. The seat where Oswald sat (the fifth from the aisle in the third to last row), however, has been immortalized as you can see here.
To get a more detailed history of the Texas, check out this link – http://www.oakclifffoundation.org/?q=node/3
In an appropriate twist of fate, the theatre was chosen in 2007 to host a screening of Robert Stone’s fascinating documentary about the lone gunman, OSWALD’S GHOST, which was originally broadcast on PBS.
For better or worse, the Texas Theatre will be forever linked with Oswald and the JFK assassination. And so will that immortal double feature of WAR IS HELL and CRY OF BATTLE.
I sometimes wonder what my last picture show will be.
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