Fifty years ago, Variety, in its own unique way, put a price tag on what the marathon television news coverage and abrupt shuttering of film, TV and legit productions cost showbiz in the wake of John F. Kennedy’s assassination: $40 million.
But bottom-line considerations were superfluous to the shock in Hollywood on Nov. 22, 1963, when the entire industry, like the rest of the nation, virtually ground to a halt. The headline on the Nov. 25, 1963, edition of Daily Variety (the first edition to follow the Friday assassination) said it all: “All Showbiz Mourns Kennedy.”
The industry was much more divided between Democrats and Republicans then, but Kennedy, more than any of his predecessors up to that point, seemed to recognize the dynamic between entertainment and politics, giving showbiz figures the presidential spotlight in a way carried on by his successors. (Next week, President Obama is scheduled to visit DreamWorks.) On the calendar for December 1963 was a luncheon some 45 entertainment industry figures were to attend at the White House — it would have been “unusual recognition,” as Variety put it at the time.
“The community of Hollywood and show business in general has lost a good friend,” Variety wrote in an editorial. “To fall back upon a trite, but nevertheless apt expression, John F. Kennedy, more than any other President, had a feeling for, and close ties with, people in the performing arts.”
The avalanche of JFK retrospectives has highlighted how TV news came into its own on that day and the four days afterward — earning immediate praise from the FCC and congressional leaders. On the entertainment side of the media business, theaters closed, sitcoms and dramas were pulled and some comedians, like Vaughn Meader, a popular comic known largely for his ability to impersonate Kennedy, found his career kaput. On Nov. 22, Verve Records was about to press 100,000 copies of Meader’s latest album, but it was halted after news of the assassination.
Production shoots were called off, including the first day for the pilot of “Bewitched.” On the set of “My Fair Lady,” cast members observed a moment of silence. Columbia called off a sneak preview of “Dr. Strangelove,” and CBS postponed the airing of an episode of the road series drama “Route 66” that centered on the assassination of a foreign monarch, and was titled “I’m Here to Kill a King.”
Variety columnist Army Archerd was visiting sets at MGM in Culver City when word came that Kennedy had been shot. He was going to deliver a photo of Kennedy and Carol Lawrence to her then-husband, Robert Goulet, made famous by “Camelot.” The news broke before he even got to the set, and studio soundstages “became soundproof temples of mourning,” Archerd wrote.
“In the studio commissary, actresses and office help alike took lace-like paper doilies from table settings to use as head coverings when they joined all denominations in prayer at St. Augustine’s Church across the street from the studio,” Archerd continued, in what would be several days worth of columns gathering reactions from stars. Before there was news of Lee Harvey Oswald’s arrest, Keenan Wynn whispered to the Variety scribe, “I hope it wasn’t done by an actor.” Debbie Reynolds pointed to mental health: “What can you expect with so many slutty books, dirty movies and pornographic material going through the mail? Teenage pregnancies are at an all-time high and parental discipline is at an all-time low. The country’s morals are at a new low.”
What stood out were moments of incongruity.
At the entrance to Desilu’s Culver City Studio, Archerd reported, a clown from the TV series version of “The Greatest Show on Earth” “sadly waited at the gate,” with “the mournful makeup grotesquely accurate for the day.”
Archerd mentioned that in the executive dining room at MGM, there was mention of the “impossibility of putting such a bizarre tale in a script,” but also a note that “Suddenly,” a 1954 movie starring Frank Sinatra about a plot to assassinate the president, had aired on TV a month earlier.
Sinatra that day was filming a burial scene in the Rat Pack pic “Robin and the 7 Hoods” at a real Los Angeles cemetary when he got the news during a production break. His son, Frank Jr., later said that his father was haunted by the experience: The day earlier, on Nov. 21, they were at the same location and, when Sinatra took a cigarette break, he sat near a tombstone. The name on it was “John F. Kennedy,” a person with the same name who had passed away many years earlier.
Irony can still be seen in reruns. In the opening credits of “Gilligan’s Island,” as the S.S. Minnow sails on its ill-fated three-hour tour, it sails past a U.S. flag flying at half staff. The pilot for the series was shooting in Hawaii.
Variety even covered the impact of the assassination on the Rowley United Theatres chain. They owned the Texas Theatre, the 1,500-seat venue, built in 1931, where Oswald was captured. The theater’s matinee was “War Is Hell” and “Cry of Battle,” but the manager “finished one showing of the double bill and closed all three Rowley houses here.”
Nevertheless, despite the business focus, the tone of Variety‘s coverage was largely rueful, as it noted that if only the outpouring of admiration were there when Kennedy were alive, the tragedy “might have been averted.” And it noted the “personal relationships that enabled the late President to enjoy moments of informal relaxation in Southern California.” “The community of Hollywood has suffered — despite often pronounced political differences — an acutely personal loss in the martyrdom of John Fitzgerald Kennedy.”
Across the country, there was a drive to honor Kennedy, in any way possible, whether it be an airport named after him (New York’s JFK) or cultural center (the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts). Some plans were put in place too quickly: The Santa Monica City Council met two days after the assassination in special session and adopted a resolution to change the name of its Civic Auditorium, then the site of the Oscars, to the John F. Kennedy Memorial Auditorium. As it turned out, the council did not follow proper procedure, and the plan was eventually aborted. And an idea that Archerd advanced — to name an award after JFK, in view of his “admiration for the motion picture arts” — never came to fruition.
Showbiz, however, inspired perhaps the most lingering Kennedy tribute — the word “Camelot” that is still routinely applied to the Kennedy years, even if it is the stuff of myth. It came from an interview that Jacqueline Kennedy gave to Life magazine’s Theodore H. White on Nov. 29, 1963, when she talked of her late husband’s love of listening to the Broadway cast recording of the King Arthur musical.