The 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy promised to be a major event of global media interest. Since that dark day in Dallas on November 22, 1963, interest in the assassination and President Kennedy in particular has only intensified. I, along with our Access Hollywood News department, felt we should have a presence on the ground in Dallas for the 50th. I have been a student and admirer of President Kennedy since I was a young child so naturally I was eager to travel to Dallas and see the locations and the people who played a role in this world changing event.
I arrived in Dallas on Tuesday night November 19th. My hotel was blocks away from Dealey Plaza the site of the assassination that, even though it was evening, I had to see it right away. The 10 minute walk brought me to the place that I have seen only in clips on TV and in photos in countless books. There it was virtually unchanged from how it looked 50 years ago. Media platforms and satellite trucks were already in place for the commemoration scheduled for Friday the 22nd. Incidentally, the anniversary fell on the same day of the week in which the assassination occurred, a Friday.
My first impression of Dealey Plaza and the former Texas School Book Depository, from which Lee Harvey Oswald fired from the 6th floor window, was the same as everyone else I had spoken to who had visited before me, it was much smaller than I had imagined it to be.
The next morning I opened my hotel room drapes and was astonished to find that my view was of Dealey Plaza itself. Again I took a short walk but, this time, to see the place in the morning light. I stood next to the stone pedestal from which Abraham Zapruder filmed the assassination. Naturally, like countless before me, I took my own video following the same tracking shot that Zapruder had 50 years earlier. After a few minutes there I met up with my camera crew and we went to our first shoot, The Texas Theater. It was there where Oswald was apprehended after killing the President and Dallas Police Officer J.D. Tippit who had stopped Oswald on the street for questioning. The theater is still functioning. It was remodeled two years after the assassination in 1965. Gone were the ornate designs that decorated the walls. Instead the theater has a Spanish modern look of Gaudi. The seats have been replaced as well but the Manager gave us a guided tour and pointed out the location of the seat in which Oswald was sitting when he was arrested. The walls of the theater are adorned with photos of President Kennedy as well as movie posters. One in particular is of the movie “War Is Hell” which was what was playing on the screen when Oswald was arrested. It’s star, Baynes Barron, signed the poster and it reads: “To the Texas Theater, my first film, Oswald’s last”. Outside, the theater looks much the same as it did in 1963 and that’s thanks to Director Oliver Stone who restored the original facade when he shot his film “JFK” there in 1991.
Our next stop was at the home of retired Dallas Detective James Leavelle. The famous photo of Oswald being shot by Jack Ruby features a man in a light colored suit and hat to Oswald’s right. That man is James Leavelle. Today, at 93 years old, he still remembers that moment vividly. Two days after the assassination, Leavelle was given the task of escorting Oswald from the City Jail to an awaiting car to be transported to the more secure County Jail. Leavelle revealed to me that he was handcuffed to Oswald and joked to him that if anyone takes a shot at you Lee, “I hope they are as good a shot as you are.” Leavelle meant that if anyone tries to shoot you I hope I don’t get shot as well. Oswald laughed at Leavelle’s dark joke which Leavelle found interesting. For two days Oswald had denied that he shot anybody and now he was laughing at Leavelle’s joke as if to say that he agrees with the truth behind it. Leavelle felt that Oswald was in a way admitting guilt. This had never occurred to me and for a brief moment it almost felt as if I had cracked the case. Further questioning of Oswald was never to be when, moments later, Jack Ruby emerged from the gathering of Reporters and Policeman and fired a fatal shot into Oswald’s stomach. Leavelle rode with Oswald to Parkland Hospital, the same hospital President Kennedy was brought to less than 48 hours before. It was there at Parkland where Oswald died. As for Jack Ruby, Leavelle recalled that Ruby told him that he wanted to avenge the President’s murder and thought he would be looked upon as a Hero. It amazed me how much Leavelle remembered and also how willing he was to share his story which he has told countless times before.
My next day in Dallas brought our correspondent Shaun Robinson. Our first stop was the former Texas School Book Depository. The 6th floor has now been transformed into “The 6th Floor Museum”. The museum is not only dedicated to the assassination but also to the legacy of the Kennedy Presidency. Inside visitors will find mementos from the assassination including James Leavelle’s light colored suit and hat, Jack Ruby’s hat and the place setting that the President would of had before him had he made it to the luncheon at the Texas Trade Mart. The main attraction is Oswald’s sniper’s nest. A glass wall surrounds the area which is made to look as it did when Oswald committed the crime of the century. Cartons of books gave Oswald a fortress of sorts. Two smaller boxes in front of the window gave him a perch upon which he rested his rifle. A few feet away from Oswald’s window is another window that you can look out of and see Elm street below, giving you roughly the same vantage point as Oswald. Once again I was struck at how close the Kennedy’s convertible was to Oswald, less than 100 yards away. Oswald was not the greatest of shooters but, through his training with the Marine Corp., he was efficient enough to fire off the shots and hit his desired target.
That afternoon, my entire team paid a visit to Dr. Ronald Jones who is one of the last surviving doctors that attended to President Kennedy at Parkland Hospital. In our interview Jones told Shaun of the chaos that occurred at Parkland and the valiant efforts he and the others did to save the President’s life. However, they knew it was a hopeless cause given the wounds the President suffered. He remembered First Lady Jackie Kennedy being cool and collected, almost resigned to the fact that this horrible tragedy had happened. Coincidentally, two days after treating the President, Jones was a part of the medical team who tried to save the life of the wounded Oswald.
The weather during my trip to Dallas was warm and in the mid 70’s. That all changed overnight for the 22nd when temps dropped down to the 30’s and brought with it rain for the 50th anniversary commemoration. 50 years before it had also been raining in Dallas but, by the time the President arrived, the rain stopped and the sun shined bright. The glass top that would have covered the President’s limo was removed. The glass top wasn’t bullet proof but, if kept in place, it would have deflected the bullets thus making it difficult for Oswald to accomplish his task. As for the commemoration, for security reasons we were not allowed to bring umbrellas which made for a very wet experience. 5,000 people were estimated to attend but less than that showed up for the speeches, choir performances and prayers that were delivered. One prayer in particular stood out for me. The Minister prayed that this terrible tragedy would be lifted from Dallas and that city could finally heal. The Mayor also stuck a cord with me and the crowd when he read the last lines of the speech President Kennedy would have given at the Texas Trade Mart.
At 12:30pm, marking the moment the shots were fired, a moment of silence was observed followed by the ringing of bells. The streets around Dealey Plaza had been closed off allowing those in attendance to stand in the middle of the streets. As the bells rang it was then that I realized that 50 years from the moment the President was fatally shot, I was standing just feet away from the exact spot where the fatal head wound occurred. As the bells rang I stared down at this spot as the rain fell upon the road. If only it had rained 50 years ago.
-- Michael Soares