In a 2001 episode of the TV series The West Wing, President Josiah Bartlet is bickering with his daughter, Ellie, while watching a movie in the White House theater. Ellie, annoyed with her father, tells him, “Dad, people are trying to watch the movie.” He responds: “You want to bet me your tuition no one in this room is going to shush me?”
In real life, Jimmy Carter expressed a similar sentiment when he told an aide early in his presidency, “Do you know I can get any movie I want?”
The White House “family theater” is indeed a place where the President of the United States can watch what he wants, say what he wants, and invite whomever he wants. And what goes on in the theater can provide insights into our nation’s leaders.
The first movie screened in the White House was D.W. Griffith’s 1915 The Birth of a Nation, which President Woodrow Wilson famously—perhaps apocryphally—described as “history written with lightning.” Not until decades later did a silver screen became a permanent fixture at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The White House family theater was created in 1942 in what had been a cloakroom for visitors.
Franklin D. Roosevelt was President at the time, and he used it to watch, among other films, Mrs. Miniver, an Academy Award–winning movie about wartime England recommended by Winston Churchill.
The room features red-velvet decor with 40 theater-style seats behind four larger armchairs installed by President Dwight Eisenhower: He saw more than 200 movies in the White House theater, many of them Westerns, his favorite genre. Historians have gone back and forth over whether Eisenhower’s regular-guy persona was the true Ike or not, but his movie preferences would seem to support the view that it was.
Westerns were a lot more common in the 1950s than they are today, but Ike clearly favored silent-type, tough-guy movies. He was also discriminating. He refused to watch films featuring Robert Mitchum because Mitchum had served time for marijuana possession. This was no small sacrifice: Mitchum was a star who appeared in more than 20 movies during Eisenhower’s two terms, including 1955’s classic The Night of the Hunter.
White House projectionist Paul Fischer occasionally would try to sneak a Mitchum film past the President, but Ike would get up and walk out of the theater upon seeing the actor’s face onscreen.
We know as much as we do about presidential cinematic tastes because of Fischer, who was White House projectionist for more than three decades under seven chief executives. From 1953 to 1986, he kept handwritten records of all the movies screened at both the White House and Camp David. His notes are at the heart of a 2003 Bravo special about the theater called All the Presidents’ Movies.