The White House movie theater is not all that different from a theater at your neighborhood multiplex: A cool, dark room, though with just a few dozen seats gently sloping down toward the screen.
Of course, this is no ordinary theater. The seats are much nicer — soft, deep armchairs upholstered in red, and a deep, plush carpet. And ottomans in the front row? Comfy. Oh, and something else: The guy with his feet propped up on one of those ottomans just may be the president of the United States.
There's nothing more American than going to the movies, and there's nothing more exclusive than going to them in the intimate theater on the ground floor of the White House. Presidents and movies go all the way back to the beginning: The first film shown there was for Woodrow Wilson in 1915. Unfortunately, it was D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation, a celebratory look at the Ku Klux Klan. It was a surprising choice for Wilson, who later claimed that he didn't know what the movie was about until he saw it, but his reputation took a hit anyway. Perhaps he thought Birth of a Nation had something to do with the American Revolution.
There was no theater, per se, in Wilson's time. He showed movies in a second-floor hallway. The theater today, located on the first floor of the East Wing, was built from a converted cloakroom for Franklin Roosevelt in 1942. Movies were an escape for millions of Americans during the Great Depression and World War II, and they were for FDR as well: He was known to enjoy Mickey Mouse cartoons.
Presidents from the heartland often opted for westerns. Missouri's favorite son, Harry Truman, loved My Darling Clementine, starring Henry Fonda. Dwight Eisenhower was the first president to use the theater extensively, and the man from Abilene watched just about anything with a cowboy in it. The White House projectionist in the 1950s, Paul Fischer, kept a handwritten log of everything Ike watched — more than 200 movies over eight years — and said one of the president's all-time favorites was High Noon. Perhaps Eisenhower, the World War II general known for his righteousness and modesty, identified with the film's small-town marshal (played by Gary Cooper), who faces down a gang of killers by himself.
The dashing and young John F. Kennedy enjoyed thrillers. The first James Bond movie, Dr. No, was a particular favorite. JFK, a notorious womanizer, no doubt identified with how 007 always bedded a beautiful woman or two while saving the world from disaster. But Dr. No was the only Bond film Kennedy would see. The second 007 movie, From Russia With Love, was shown in the White House theater on November 21, 1963, when the president was in Fort Worth, Texas. The next day, in Dallas, Kennedy was assassinated.
Lyndon Johnson's favorite movie was The Searchers, starring John Wayne. But in general, LBJ wasn't a big movie buff — unless he was the star. And he was, literally. In the wake of Kennedy's murder, LBJ, in an effort to introduce himself to the American people, commissioned the U.S. Information Agency to produce a movie about himself. The ten-minute short, narrated by Gregory Peck, was a yawner — except in the White House theater, where Johnson was known to watch it over and over.
Richard Nixon went for flicks that featured larger-than-life characters. His favorite was Patton, the biopic about the bombastic World War II general. The president watched it at least half a dozen times, and the movie is believed to have partially inspired Nixon to order the U.S. invasion of Cambodia during the Vietnam War.
The theater saw little use during Gerald Ford's short presidency. "I'm not a moviegoer," he wrote, "never have been." Ford sometimes watched comedies and musicals "because they are relaxing," but didn't name any particular favorites. "I don't dislike them (movies), but if I have a choice I prefer other entertainment."
Which president was the biggest movie fan of all? Ronald Reagan, you say? No, the Gipper doesn't even come close. That distinction belongs to Jimmy Carter, who watched, according to White House records, 480 films during his four years in the White House — around 2.5 movies a week. The first one he watched: All the President's Men, about the Watergate scandal that sank Nixon. He also became the first president to watch an X-rated movie in the mansion: Midnight Cowboy, which today doesn't seem like much, but in 1969 shocked audiences with its sex scenes and drug use. (By the time Carter saw it, the rating had been changed to R.)
What about Reagan? Over the course of three decades in Hollywood, he starred in scores of movies and TV shows, sharing top billing with starlets and, in one famous instance, a chimp named Bonzo. But Ronald Reagan's "role of a lifetime," to use his own phrase, was the presidency itself. The president and his wife (also a former actor) watched few movies at the White House, but lots at Camp David. They enjoyed classics featuring their old friend Jimmy Stewart, like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Reagan, it's believed, also watched his own movies on special occasions like his birthday.
Reagan also took time from his official duties to watch movies, it seems. One morning, at an economic summit in Williamsburg, Va., White House Chief of Staff James Baker learned that Reagan hadn't studied his briefing books the night before. He asked the president why. "Well, Jim, The Sound of Music was on TV," Reagan replied.
George H.W. Bush clearly was influenced by the movies. The Texas oil company he helped launch in 1953, Zapata Oil, was named for a Marlon Brando film from the year before: Viva Zapata! Bush, a naval hero during World War II, also enjoyed The Longest Day, the 1962 classic about the Allied invasion of Normandy.
High Noon was tops with Bill Clinton. He watched it a reported 17 times. Clinton, a good friend of director Steven Spielberg, also watched the searing Holocaust film Schindler's List. But our 42nd president liked a good laugh too: Naked Gun was a favorite.
George W. Bush's movie viewing reflected the difficult, post-9/11 decade in which he served. As America fought wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Bush often watched movies like We Were Soldiers and Black Hawk Down. He also hosted a showing of United 93, about the September 11 attacks. But Bush, a former executive with the Texas Rangers, also enjoyed a baseball classic: Field of Dreams.
What about President Obama? "I'm a movie guy," he once told Katie Couric. "I can rattle off a bunch of movies." Among them: Lawrence of Arabia and The Godfather.
And there's at least one other movie that many presidents, including Obama, enjoyed: Casablanca. The timeless Bogart-Bergman classic is particularly appropriate, given that "casablanca" translates to "White House."
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- The mystery behind China's aggressive push into space
- Yes, Republicans can impeach President Obama
- What religious traditionalists can teach us about sex
- Here's the schedule very successful people follow every day
- The 5 best and worst states for a well-lived life
- Why all drugs should be legal. (Yes, even heroin.)
- Why Texas' abortion rates aren't falling as quickly as everyone expected
- The 6 best low-cost smartphones
- 7 ideas from ancient thinkers that will improve your modern life
- What would a U.S.-Russia war look like?
Subscribe to the Week