When I first stepped foot onto Dealey Plaza in Dallas years ago, I had an instant feeling of deja vu, similar to what most of us feel when we visit a place in person that we've previously seen only in photographs, on film or on television. It was a beautiful, sunny day; I walked around the plaza for a long, long time, picturing in my mind the motorcade that carried President John F. Kennedy on his fateful trip, checking out all the angles, tromping around the grassy knoll, staring up at the former Texas School Book Depository. That building has been converted into The Sixth Floor Museum, where you can gaze down through the window where Lee Harvey Oswald reportedly fired his assassin's rifle at 12:30 p.m. on November 22, 1963.
The Warren Commission concluded that Oswald escaped from the building, rode a city bus for two blocks, traveled several miles by taxi, stopped by the rooming house where he was staying, and then shot and killed a police officer about half a mile away. He slipped into the nearby Texas Theatre without paying, and briefly watched War is Hell (second billed to Van Heflin in Cry of Battle). He was apprehended by a flock of police officers at approximately 1:45 p.m.
I'd never thought of the Texas Theatre except as an anonymous footnote to a tragedy. I ended up attending the re-opening of the building last week as a result of my assignment to review Robert Stone's documentary Oswald's Ghost, which opens in New York on Friday, November 30, and discovered quite accidentally that the Texas Theatre has a fascinating history of its own.
The Texas Theatre opened for business on April 21, 1931. The auditorium could seat 2,000 people, featured the second largest organ in the city, and was not only the first theater in Dallas designed for sound movies, it was the first with air conditioning. According to a commenter at the Cinema Treasures site, it had silhouettes of Spanish village-style buildings and bridges decorating the walls, and an artifical sky was projected onto the roof, which darkened into twilight and then dark, when stars and clouds would appear to move across the sky.
More than three decades later, the events of November 22 shamed the city. The Oak Cliff Foundation says that public polls in early 1964 "revealed that more than 80% of Americans placed blame on 'the people of Dallas' for President John F. Kennedy's murder. More than 85% of local residents reported feeling ashamed that the event occurred in Dallas." As if the Texas Theatre's beautiful, extravagant interior design were somehow to blame, the walls and ceiling were sprayed with a coat of plaster.
The Oak Cliff area began to slide in the late 1960's. Many retail businesses closed or moved to other parts of the city. The population declined. A recent poster at the Cinema Treasures site remembers attending what he recalls as "a classic 70s double bill at the Texas: Joe Dante's Piranha and Tobe Hooper's Eaten Alive. It was a Saturday night, the place was packed, and we two were, shall we say, in a condition of 'ethnic minority.' Toward the finale of Eaten Alive, Neville Brand's ravenous pet alligator is developing a taste for his master, egged on, in no uncertain terms, by the Texas' audience. When a guy behind me stood up on his seat and started yelling 'Get that honkey!' [my friend] leaned over and suggested a propitious early exit, to which sound advice I immediately concurred."
The Texas Theatre closed in 1989 and changed ownership several times. Oliver Stone was granted permission to film JFK there. The building was nearly destroyed by fire in 1995; restoration and renovation plans were set after the Oak Cliff Foundation purchased the property in 2000. The decision was made to convert the property into a live-performance venue, with the aim to make it a community center as well.
The grand re-opening was held on Monday, November 19, with several local dignitaries in attendance. I arrived in time to have a look around the historic landmark, which appears clean and lovely, if not particularly distinctive just yet. The plan has been first to renovate the building so it can be used for live performances, and then restore it to what it looked like in 1963. The main auditorium floor gently slopes down to the newly-enlarged stage, where a screen and sound system were temporarily installed for the special screening. The chairs have been replaced; the row where Oswald was sitting in the back of the auditorium has been removed to facilitate compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Oswald's Ghost was an appropriate choice for the event. Robert Stone's documentary examines the "cultural impact and aftermath" of the JFK assassination, according to publicity material. I spoke with Stone briefly before the screening and asked him how his film had been received in other places it had screened. Did he feel that it would be viewed differently in Dallas? In general, he didn't think so. He feels that there is now a general consensus throughout the country about Kennedy -- he called it closer to "theology" -- and that's what he was interested in exploring. Why does the conspiracy still hold such powerful sway so many years later?
I also talked with a couple sitting behind me, who had been living in Dallas since before 1963. They talked about the shock and dislocation they felt at the time of the assassination, the helplessness, and the reluctance that local residents felt about identifying themselves as Texans afterwards. Perhaps they represent only a small minority of Dallas residents, but it's clear the residue of the events of November 22 remains firmly in their minds and hearts.
The highlight of the wave of introductions came when Stone asked a gentleman to stand, identifying him as one of the police officers who apprehended Oswald and whose ring cut Oswald's face in the scuffle. The man stood, displaying the ring on his finger, and I thought of the photographs and television footage I'd seen of Oswald, and that small cut on his forehead above his right eye.
After the screening and a spirited, divisive question and answer session -- which will be covered in my review of the film later this week -- I headed out into the cool evening. West Jefferson Boulevard, where the Texas Theatre is located, features angled parking spaces and a wide concrete divider down the middle, just like so many small towns in America. The shops were closed and the street was empty, except for a few stragglers on their way home. You'd never know that history was made just down the block.