One of the many fallouts of life in the age of COVID-19 is the inability for movie fans to watch new A-list releases on the big screen at their local brick-and-mortar theaters, but as Americans frequently do, we’ve acclimated.
The living room has become the new screening room.
While there are certainly home theaters in the U.S. that are more tricked out and luxurious, few can match the ambience, lore, and historical significance of the one located in a refurbished cloak room (formerly known as the "Hat Box") at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C.
Constructed in 1942 during the Franklin Roosevelt administration, the officially named "White House Family Movie Theater" has been redesigned or augmented to some to degree by almost every subsequent commander in chief. While barely used by Gerald Ford (he was a fan of "Home Alone"), his successor Jimmy Carter watched a whopping 480 titles during his single four-year term.
Carter’s tastes leaned towards contemporary titles while his two-term successor Ronald Reagan favored Golden Era Hollywood classics such as "It’s a Wonderful Life" (1947), "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" (1939) "The Sound of Music" (1965), and "High Noon," (1952).
In addition to "High Noon," Dwight Eisenhower was fond of westerns, yet, according to three-decade-long theater projectionist Paul Fischer, he staunchly avoided watching movies featuring Robert Mitchum.
Eisenhower’s decision to place four armchairs in the front row of the 42-seat-capacity venue (initially with raised-shelf ash trays in-between each chair) proved to be enormously popular with all subsequent presidential families. Always the most coveted seats in the house, they too have been replaced and redesigned throughout the years and are always bigger than the rest of seats.
The current design includes large ottomans and serves as a popular photo op for White House visitors.
As with Reagan, Richard Nixon was a fan of the classics — he watched "Yankee Doodle Dandy" (1942) on multiple occasions — but was most impressed with the military bio-flick "Patton" (1970). It should come as no surprise to Nixon scholars to hear that the bulk of his movie-watching while in office took place at his "Winter White House" in Key Biscayne, Florida with his close friend and confidant Bebe Rebozo.
Decorated Navy veteran George H.W. Bush understandably gravitated towards war films. His two favorite titles were "The Longest Day" (1962), and "Viva Zapata!" (1952).
It was also during Bush 41’s tenure that the design of the screening room was overhauled to a more commercially familiar "movie theater red" marking the venue’s last major cosmetic facelift.
Bush 43 shared his father’s love of war movies — "Black Hawk Down," (2002), "We Were Soldiers," (2002), "Saving Private Ryan" (1998 ) — but, as a former one-time owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team, he was particularly fond of "Field of Dreams" (1989) During his three plus years in the Oval Office, current president Donald Trump has screened "The Post," (2017) "Air Force One" (1997), "Citizen Kane" (1941) "GoodFellas" (1990) and "The Godfather" (1972) all movies dealing with politics and/or power struggles.
The theater has been scandal-free since its launch 78 years ago, yet the same cannot be said for what took place before it was even commissioned. Director D.W. Griffith’s controversial "The Birth of a Nation" was screened in the East Room in 1915 by Democratic President Woodrow Wilson.
Almost immediately after the event, Wilson was derided by religious and civic leaders, members of congress and even his own cabinet as well as public protests which were described by some to reach "near-riot" levels.
Wilson’s whiplash choice to back walk and marginalize the content of the movie which glorified the Ku Klux Klan was almost as much of a disaster as the screening itself.
Wilson’s claim of not being familiar with the content beforehand only inflamed the situation due mostly to the three fawning quotes the president provided Griffith which were used as intertitles (title cards) during the credits.
Wilson’s quotes as presented in the film, "Adventurers swarmed out of the North, as much the enemies of one race as of the other, to cozen, beguile and use the negroes. In the villages the negroes were the office holders, men who knew none of the uses of authority, except its insolences."
"The policy of the congressional leaders wrought a veritable overthrow of civilization in the South in their determination to 'put the white South under the heel of the black South.'"
"The white men were roused by a mere instinct of self-preservation until at last there had sprung into existence a great Ku Klux Klan, a veritable empire of the South, to protect the southern country."
The final damning piece of evidence was Wilson’s Johns Hopkins classmate and longtime friend Thomas Dixon, Jr. whose 1905 novel "The Clansman: A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan" was the source for Griffith’s screenplay. Both Dixon and Griffith were present at the White House screening.
Historians of every political persuasion have cited the White House screening of "The Birth of a Nation" (and its subsequent theatrical runs) as the premier catalyst for the resurgence of the KKK in 1920.
Originally from Washington, D.C., Michael Clark has written for over 30 local and national media outlets, is currently the only newspaper-based film critic providing original content in the Atlanta Top 10 media marketplace and co-founded the Atlanta Film Critics Circle in 2017. Over the last 25 years, Mr. Clark has written over 4,000 movie reviews and film related articles and is one of the scant few conservative-minded U.S. film critics. Read Michael Clark's Reports — More Here.
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