Thursday, November 22, 2012

November 22: A Day to be Thankful and Mournful (Remembering JFK)

Today is Thanksgiving, a beloved American holiday. But for those of us who remember the Sixties, today is also the 49th anniversary of one of the worst days of our lives. On November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was gunned down in Dallas. A president who embodied youth and optimism -- the first president whose election we could remember -- was suddenly no more. Our feelings about the world would never be quite the same again.

My personal memories of John F. Kennedy are bound up with television. It’s often been said that Kennedy’s defeat of his opponent, Richard M. Nixon, owed much to his mastery of TV as a communications medium. When the two candidates appeared in a televised debate, a nation took the poised, dapper Kennedy to its heart. The public relations coups of Kennedy’s presidential years played well in front of the TV cameras. So did his photogenic young wife, who in 1962 led an hour-long tour of the White House that was simulcast on all three networks.

It’s appropriate, then, to remember back to where I first heard the news of Kennedy’s assassination. It was in the studios of KTLA, a local TV station. I had been chosen, along with three classmates, to participate in a televised discussion of the Bill of Rights. We were thrilled, of course, and we spent countless hours preparing, under the guidance of our civics teacher, Mr. Leonard Green. On November 22, 1963, we dressed in our best and carpooled to KTLA, where we were supposed to have a run-through, then break for lunch prior to the actual taping. After our run-through, Mr. Green was called away by a studio honcho. When he returned, he told us we had done so well that the broadcasters wanted to get us on tape immediately.

It was not until that taping was completed that Mr. Green broke the horrifying news. (How he got through the segment without betraying his own roiling emotions I‘ll never know.) My first reaction was that this was some sort of weird hypothetical, linked to our discussion of the Bill of Rights. Alas, it was all too true. We crowded into the station’s control booth and watched the mind-numbing footage coming out of Dallas.

That was a Friday. My family and I spent most of the weekend in front of the TV set, hoping against hope that it was all a bad dream. We did not, though, see the famous on-camera moment when Jack Ruby shot and killed suspected assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, thus ensuring there’d forever be the shadow of a doubt about Oswald’s guilt. Oliver Stone exploited that doubt in 1991 in his muckraking JFK. But this was hardly the only impact of Kennedy’s death on the film industry.

One of history’s ironies is that Stanley Kubrick’s macabre Dr. Strangelove was scheduled for a test screening on November 22, 1963. The film was slated to premiere soon thereafter, but its release was delayed, since studio execs felt the public was in no mood to see such a dark political satire. In the release print, a throwaway line about how a fellow could have “a pretty good weekend in Dallas” was changed (Dallas became Vegas). And General Turgidson’s exclamation -- “Gentlemen! Our gallant young president has been struck down in his prime!" --disappeared entirely.

Meanwhile, Stanley Kramer’s It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, which had opened just before the assassination, became a monster hit. It played at L.A.’s Cinerama Dome for two straight years, and Kramer’s widow Karen remains convinced that “it helped to heal the nation.”


  1. I think Mrs. Kramer may well be right - as I can only imagine needing something light and fun (and yes, long) to take your mind away from the terrible events of those days.

    In pop culture - the long running British sci-fi series Doctor Who premiered the next day - 11/23/63 - and due to news programs running late covering the JFK assassination and low ratings - the BBC actually re-ran the episode a half hour earlier the next Saturday before the second episode - so audiences could experience the beginning of the four part serial. Thankfully, this seemed to work as ratings improved enough to make the show a legend in British television.

    I wasn't around on 11/22/63, but after the Challenger disaster and 9/11 I certainly understand the monumental import of these dark days - and I fervently hope none of us ever have to experience another one.

  2. I couldn't agree more with your last point.