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President Obama has been known to reference pop culture in speeches and statements, so it’s clear he keeps up with movies. But did you ever wonder how he sees them? Taking POTUS to the closest cinema in DC would be a logistical security nightmare, but Barack and the rest of the First Family don’t have to leave the White House to see the latest movies. Instead, they can just head to the Family Theater located in the East Wing of the White House to get a cinema experience at home.

Jimmy Carter once famously said, “Do you know I can get any movie I want?”, and Donald Trump enjoyed his surprising first movie in the White House Family Theater amidst great social controversy.  Do you know what that movie was?

The Early Days of Movies in the White House

Movies screenings in the White House got off to a controversial start in 1915 when Woodrow Wilson held a screening of the racist movie “The Birth of a Nation,” which glorifies the KKK. That screening likely took place in the Central Hall as there was no established screening room in the White House in those days.

It wasn’t until 1942 when the East Wing of the White House was built that a cloakroom was converted into what is now The Family Theater. Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was president from 1953 to 1961 seems to be the first POTUS to have used the room often. He loved westerns and reportedly watched more than 200 during his time in office.

The Family Theater Over the Years

Every President has reportedly used the Family Theater for various purposes over the years. JFK and his family watched films from a rocking chair because he suffered from back pain. Lyndon B. Johnson rarely used the room but did hold 12 back-to-back screenings of a 10-minute film about himself. Richard Nixon and his best friend watched more than 150 movies together in the theater. According to historians, the film “Patton” and musicals were their favorites.

Jimmy Carter was only in office for four years but held 480 screenings in The Family Theater. He is known for being the first President to watch an X-rated movie in the theater, as he and his family watched the movie “Midnight Cowboy” together in the room.

Although he was an actor himself, Ronald Reagan did not use the theater often. He and Nancy preferred to watch movies at Camp David. One favorite film of his was “High Noon”, and the Reagan’s had a fondness for Jimmy Stewart classics.

Under the Clinton Presidency, the screening room was used often. Bill and his family watched a variety of movies ranging from dramas like “Schindler’s List” to comedies like “The Naked Gun.”

George W. Bush also liked comedies; the “Austin Powers” movies were one of his favorites. After 9/11, George became more interested in war movies and screened many that were made during the 1990s and early 2000s. He also liked to rehearse major speeches in the screening room.

What the Family Theater Looks Like

While the Family Theater has had a variety of facelifts over the years, its basic layout has remained much the same. Since Eisenhower’s presidency, there have always been four plush chairs in the front for the President, his family and honored guests. Today, the front row seats are red tone-on-tone floral print upholstered chairs with rolled arms, skirted bases and loose kidney-shaped cushions. Behind the front row seats are 40 simple hinged theater seats arranged in ten rows of four. The slim profile seats feature nailhead trim that coordinates with the ottomans.

In the old days, free-standing ashtrays were placed between the front row seats, but those were replaced by side tables by the Clintons. When the room was redone during George W. Bush’s presidency in 2004, matching upholstered square ottomans with nailhead trim were placed in front of each front row seat. The ottomans are commonly used as foot stools, but they also serve as makeshift tables for snacks and drinks.

white house theater room

Through its early years, the Family Theater had gold curtains covering the walls and electric candelabra wall sconces for illumination. During the Clinton Presidency, the sconces were removed and floral curtains in tones of cream and red replaced the old fabrics. The checkerboard tile floor was also replaced with red carpet.

During the Bush renovation, the curtains were removed completely from the wall. Red paint was applied and gold molding was added to the wall panels, and dark wood trim was added. Red carpeting still remains in place on the floor. One of the first groups of guests to enjoy the new theater was a group of school children that Laura Bush invited for a screening complete with popcorn in 2005.

The Obama’s in the Family Theater

Barack and Michelle Obama have a weekly movie night tradition. On Fridays if the two of them are both at home, they head to the Family Theater to watch a film together. The movies are almost always first-run films. The Obama’s are able to select the movies that they want to see, and then the Motion Picture Association of America delivers them right to the White House. Although they’re still inside the White House, the Obama’s get to enjoy a true theater experience; the POTUS once showed David Letterman a photo of he and Michelle watching “Up” at home wearing 3D glasses.

The Family Theater isn’t just used by the first family. Up until November 2013, the Obama’s hosted film screenings for invited guests in the theater on a regular basis. Since then, the Family Theater has hosted a few get-togethers. In February 2015, the POTUS and French President François Hollande retired to the room after a state dinner to watch “The Monuments Men” along with George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray and Grant Heslov. Later that year, the White House held a transgender film night, inviting nine LGBT activists and artists to watch the movie “The Danish Girl” and the Amazon TV series “Transparent.”

Donald Trump’s Surprising First Screening

Donald J. Trump enjoyed his first presidential screening on the official White House calendar watching the Disney Pixar movie Finding Dory on a Sunday afternoon at 3 pm ET.  The sequel to Finding Nemo scored the largest domestic opening of all time for an animated movie when it was released.  It also famously cast a wide ranged political response on social media and the news, when Trump chose this specific movie about a separated family in search of reuniting because it was watched by the President on the same weekend of his infamous travel ban against certain Muslim nations.   This highly contested ban was instituted by the President because these nations were deemed to present a threat to the security of the United States.

The First Lady Melania Trump announced on May 12, 2017, that the White House would include, for the first time ever, the White House family theater in guided tours of the property.   “I believe everyone who takes the time to visit and tour the White House should have as much access to its rich history and wonderful traditions as possible.  It is my hope that our visitors truly enjoy the newest piece of the tour.”

Presidents and Their Movie Habits Over The Years

  • The Family Theater was created in 1942 out of what was a cloakroom under Franklin D Roosevelt.
  • Dwight Eisenhower would not watch a Robert Mitchum movie because the actor was once arrested for marijuana possession.
  • Eisenhower liked silent tough-guy films.
  • John F Kennedy suffered from severe back pain and rarely used the theater.
  • Kennedy watched ‘From Russia with Love’ the night before he was killed.
  • Lyndon Johnson did not seem to have much interest in films and often fell asleep during screenings.
  • Johnson’s favorite movie was the ‘President’s Country’, a documentary about himself, which he watched 12 times.
  • Nixon watched more than 150 movies.
  • Nixon’s favorite film was Patton which he watched several times, including the night after he sent troops into Cambodia.
  • Nixon was watching a movie called ‘Skin Game’ in the Bahamas the night of the Watergate break-in.
  • Nixon’s last movie watched there was ‘Around the World in Eighty Days’.
  • Jimmy Carter watched more movies than any other President – 480 in total.
  • That’s an average of one movie every 3 nights.
  • Carter watched the first X-rated movie ever in the White House – ‘Midnight Cowboy’.
  • Ronald Reagan saw much fewer movies than Carter despite being an actor.
  • Reagan preferred the classics as opposed to new releases.
  • Reagan’s favorite movie was ‘The Sound of Music’.
  • George W. Bush enjoyed Austin Powers and he personally called to request ‘The Hunt for Red October’.
  • President Clinton was a movie buff and often held discussions after screenings ended.
  • Clinton is known to have enjoyed ‘Fight Club’ and ‘American Beauty’.

Conclusion

Presidential movie tastes and their history are largely credited to the White House projectionist Paul Fischer.  He occupied that role for over 33 years and 7 Presidents from 1953 to 1986.  Throughout his long tenure, he kept detailed notes of all the movies watched and the tastes of the various Commander In Chiefs’. Both the White House and also Camp David continue to be the favored locations for where many movies were, and still are, enjoyed by current Presidents.

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