Family Theater

Michelle Obama hosts a screening in 2009 (White House - Pete Souza)

Another Western, Mr. President?

The family theater was converted from a long cloakroom in 1942 when the current East Wing building was constructed. It overlooks the sculpture garden that Hillary Clinton established. It has about 40 well-upholstered seats, set behind four big armchairs originally installed by Dwight Eisenhower. For many years, the decor was dominated by white curtains with a red floral design, but in 2004, it got a makeover in red.


LBJ filming a speech on Vietnam in 1968
(Tom Atkins)

The room is occasionally used to rehearse major speeches, like the State of the Union address each January, but much more often it is where the first family can indulge in one of the luxuries of the job—a movie of their choice screened at any time of day and night for themselves and their guests, often sent direct from Hollywood before its release.

When the first East Wing was built in 1902, this part of the gallery was used as a cloakroom for the many coats and hats of guests visiting the mansion. Guests would proceed into the ground floor of the Residence and assemble in what are today the Library (ladies' parlor) and Vermeil Room (gentlemen's parlor) before the event officially began.

(adapted from the Guardian Unlimited)

The first film to be shown inside the White House was The Birth of a Nation, a racist epic that celebrates the Ku Klux Klan as America's saviors. Woodrow Wilson screened it in 1915 (probably in the second floor Central Hall), in part to repay a political debt to southern supporters, and such choices have tainted his place in American history ever since.

Dwight Eisenhower was obsessed with westerns. White House projectionist Paul Fischer's handwritten log showed he watched more than 200 of them in the course of his two terms. One of his particular favorites was the Gary Cooper film High Noon, but he would watch almost anything about cowboys—except any film starring Robert Mitchum, after the actor was charged with marijuana possession. Fischer said that Ike liked Mitchum films until Mitchum got in trouble with drugs. After that Fischer would sometimes try to sneak Mitchum films in the lineup, but as soon as Ike saw Mitchum was in it, the president would get up and walk out.

Because of his chronic back pain, John Kennedy's aides installed his favorite rocking chair in the middle of the front row. Later on, he had an orthopedic bed set up in the cinema, so he could watch propped up on pillows.

Lyndon Johnson was not much of a film fan. He had one favorite movie and he watched it more than a dozen times, sometimes on consecutive nights. It was a 10-minute homage to himself, sonorously narrated by Gregory Peck and made on the orders of the White House staff to introduce the new president to a skeptical public after Kennedy's assassination.

Richard Nixon saw most of his movies with the same person, his golfing and drinking buddy, Charles "Bebe" Rebozo, who came to the White House theatre 150 times according to Fischer's logs. Their favorites, alongside Patton, were old-fashioned escapist musicals such as the ultra-patriotic Yankee Doodle Dandy, with James Cagney.

Starting with All the President's Men - about the Watergate scandal that ultimately brought him to office—Jimmy Carter held 480 screenings at the White House over four years, one every three nights on average, and more films than Reagan watched in his two terms. The devout Baptist started off insisting that only family films be shown, but eventually relented and became the first president to watch an X-rated film at the family theatre: Midnight Cowboy.


The Reagans enjoy a movie in the Family Theater in 1986
(Reagan Library)

Ronald Reagan watched very few films at the White House. He and Nancy watched most of their movies on their weekends at Camp David, preferring Jimmy Stewart movies, High Noon (the president's favorite), and, on special occasions such as the president's birthday, his own films.

Bill Clinton also loved High Noon, but his taste in movies mirrored the style of his presidency. It ranged from the earnest and complex—Schindler's List and American Beauty were among his favorites—to simple and earthy, like the Naked Gun movies.

George Bush is a fan of the Austin Powers series and has been known to raise his little finger to his lips in imitation of the characters Dr Evil and Mini-Me. Since the September 11 attacks, however, his viewing has become more somber. In early 2002, after the worst of the fighting was over in Afghanistan and plans were being hatched to invade Iraq, President Bush watched more war movies, like We Were Soldiers, about Vietnam, and Ridley Scott's soldier's-eye view of Mogadishu in 1993, Black Hawk Down. In 2006, he screened United 93, about the 9/11 attacks.

More Images

The president hosts Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks, and others in 2010 (White House - Pete Souza)

The first couple and guests try out 3D effects during the Super Bowl broadcast in 2009 (White House - Pete Souza)

The first lady hosts a movie viewing in 2009 (Time)

The theater seating in 2008 (Architectural Digest)

The theater in 2008 (Architectural Digest)

Visitors in the theater in 2008 (Daniel)

A guest visits the theater in 2006 (Ned Batchelder)

Visitors take the front row armchairs in the theater in 2006 (spificwoman13)

Laura Bush and her mother, Mrs. Jenna Welch, host Washington children in the remodeled theater in 2005 (White House - Shealah Craighead)

The president's armchair in 2005 (Sspin55)

George W. Bush rehearsing his State of the Union speech in the theater in 2005;
note the armchairs moved out of the way for more floor space(White House)

George W. Bush rehearsing his State of the Union speech in the theater in 2004 (White House - Eric Draper)

George W. Bush rehearsing his State of the Union speech in the theater in 2004 (Corbis | White House - Eric Draper)

George W. Bush rehearsing a speech in 2001 (Corbis - Ron Sachs)

The Family Theater in 2000 (Nick Valenziano)

The Family Theater, around 1998

Ron Howard (right) and other guests with the Clintons, circa 1995

Anne Richards and Mario Cuomo with the Clintons in 1993 (Corbis - Jeffrey Markowitz)

The Family Theater in 1992 (HABS)

Caroline Kennedy's kindergarten class, graciously allowed by the Johnsons to finish the school term in the White House,
having a singalong in the Family Theater in December 1963 (Kennedy Library)

Mrs. Eisenhower with the grandkids in the Family Theater in 1958 (Life)

Ike and guests in the theater in 1958 (Eisenhower Library)

The Family Theater during the Truman reconstruction in 1950 (Truman Library - Abbie Rowe)

The Family Theater in 1948 (Truman Library - Abbie Rowe)

The Family Theater in 1948 (Truman Library - Abbie Rowe)