The Texas Theatre: A Look Inside Oswald’s World

This Friday marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Below, UT English professor Don Graham considers how Lee Harvey Oswald may have interpreted the media and culture of the 1960s.

The Texas Theatre: A Look Inside Oswald's World

After Lee Harvey Oswald allegedly killed President Kennedy (I believe he did it) and after he allegedly killed police officer J. D. Tippet (I believe he did it) we know for a stone-cold fact that the alleged assassin went to the movies. Oswald was a big movie fan, although he seldom saw movies in movie houses. He watched them on TV instead, where they were free. A child left alone much of the time by his hard-pressed and quite mad mother, Oswald developed a rich fantasy life watching shows like I Led Three Lives, which featured the FBI and Communists in a perpetual covert Cold War. As an adult, Oswald rarely had a dime to his name, and going to the movies was a luxury he couldn’t afford.

The night before that fatal Friday, he visited his estranged wife, Marina, who was staying at a friend’s home in nearby Irving. Three times he asked his wife to move back in with him in Dallas. He said he would find a larger place and would buy her a washing machine to ease the burden of dealing with two small children. Each time she refused him, and he went to bed without watching a movie, which was unusual since he often watched TV during those visits. On one such evening he and Marina had caught an old black-and-white film, Suddenly (1954), that starred Frank Sinatra as an angry World War II veteran who attempts to assassinate the President, firing from a window in a house overlooking a train station.

On the morning of the fatal day, Friday the 22nd, Lee left $170 on the chest of drawers for Marina, and he left his wedding ring. These seem to be signals that he wasn’t coming back; he was saying goodbye.

Following the rifle fire in Dealey Plaza, he made his way to Oak Cliff, where, as he explained to police interrogators later that afternoon, “I went over to my room on Beckley, changed my trousers, got my pistol, and went to the movies.” Asked to elaborate about that pistol, Oswald replied, “You know how boys are when they have a gun; they just carry it.” Oswald was 24 and hardly a boy. In fact, with his thinning hair he was beginning to look 10 years older. He used that snub-nosed .38—good for close-in work—on Officer Tippet, and then he went to the Texas Theatre to catch a double feature.

He sneaked past the ticket booth without paying—typical of Oswald’s general lawlessness. And there he was, when the police captured him, watching War is Hell, a war movie, one of his favorite genres. This holds an extra bit of interest because, in the opening of the film, the great Texas WWII hero Audie Murphy speaks a few words on behalf of war bonds to support U.S. military forces. We don’t know if Oswald caught the introduction or not, but he would have liked the story line. The war in question was the “police action” known as the Korean War.

Had Oswald lived a normal middle-class life, he could have gone with the rest of Dallas to see a new movie that opened that week at the Majestic, a plush venue as big as an opera house. But he was living under the false name of O.H. Lee in a rooming house barely larger than a closet. This film would have been pure fantasy for a Marxist like Oswald.

The Wheeler Dealers, starring James Garner and Lee Remick, features a Texas oilman who, down on his luck, goes to New York City to generate some investment deals. It turns out that Garner is a fake Texan and is actually an Ivy League graduate with a degree in romance languages, but he acts and talks Texan in order to do business with the Ray Jays, the R. Jays, and the J.R.s of the oil patch—local good old boys, true Texans all. The timing for this loveable comic portrait of Texas oilmen could not have been more ironic. In just a few short days after its opening, Texas oil tycoons were being blamed for the murder of the President. Conspiracies swirled around figures like H.L. Hunt, and Texas, especially Dallas, would undergo nearly 20 years of denunciation and obloquy—some of which is being revisited in 50th anniversary books about the assassination such as Dallas 1963.

The most famous movie of that era, however, was the one that Oswald played an invisible role in: The home movie shot by Abraham Zapruder that became the most famous bit of accidental cinema verité in American history. The film is actually an inverted modern Western. The High Sheriff is riding through the streets of a Western city when he is gunned down by a sniper firing from a tall building. JFK himself had imagined such a scenario: “It would not be a very difficult job to shoot the president of the United States. All you’d have to do is get up in a high building with a high-powdered rifle with a telescopic sight, and there’s nothing anybody could do.” (Quoted in Vincent Bugliosi’s Four Days in November: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy). He said this in Fort Worth on the morning of Nov. 22.

In a Hollywood Western something would have happened to prevent the killing. In any Western, the sheriff would have seen the glint of sunlight on the rifle, and whirled around, firing in one fluid motion from under his left arm and dropping the shooter from the window just in the nick of time. Or a faithful deputy, riding nearby, would have spotted the assassin and gunned him down. Either way, the sheriff lives, and even if he is hit, it’s just a flesh wound. Everybody in 1963 had seen enough Westerns to know what to expect, only this Western was very dark and very modern and one’s happy-outcome expectations were dashed in a splatter of blood and brains.

Oswald himself was killed two days later, on TV. Oswald and Kennedy both had grand visions of themselves as historical figures. Oswald was obsessed with being a world-changing Marxist hero, and Kennedy saw history as a high drama of great men’s actions. Kennedy, too, was fascinated with popular culture and home movies. On Saturday, Sept. 21, 1963, the President starred in a little home video in which he “dies” in a mock movie shot on a private pier in Newport, Va. Kennedy was a big James Bond fan, and the film was done in that spirit. Jackie got the Secret Service men to play supporting roles. “We’re making a film about the President’s murder,” she said.

The blurring of media and reality was never more apparent than what happened in Dallas two months later.

Artwork by Melissa Reese.

Collage sourced from photos from Library of Congress; Allen, William.

From left:

The alleged sniper’s perch window at the Texas School Book Depository, 1963.

Courtesy of The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza, Dallas, Texas. Retrieved from The

R.J. Barta with cowboy movie star Ray Carrigan, 1941. 

Courtesy the Fort Bend County Museum Association, Richmond, Texas.

Oil Rig, 1960.

Courtesy of the Hardin-Simmons University Library, Abilene, Texas.


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