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Monday, March 26, 2012

The Zapruder Film Premieres, March 6, 1975

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On March 6th, 1975, the Zapruder film was shown to the American public on television for the first time. It is the most complete visual record of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, which took place in Dallas, Texas, on November 22nd, 1963. The story of the film’s creation, subsequent ownership and virtual disappearance from public view for 12 years has become the stuff of legend and one of the many twisting, turning tales to emerge from that terrible day in Dallas nearly 50 years ago.

Abraham Zapruder was the very personification of the American Dream. Born in the Ukraine, he immigrated to the United States with his parents in 1920 during the turmoil of the Russian Civil War. Just 15, he studied English at night and spent his days learning about the garment industry in New York City. In 1954, he co-founded his own clothing company in Dallas, Texas; his office was located in the Dal-Tex Building just east of the Texas School Book Depository and diagonally across from Dealey Plaza. On the day of President Kennedy’s visit to Dallas, Zapruder announced his intention to watch the motorcade as it passed by. He had no intention of filming the proceedings, but went home earlier in the day to get his Bell + Howell Zoomatic movie camera at the insistence of an assistant. Zapruder’s life would never be the same.

The film that would one day form so much of our national memory of that day is 26.6 seconds long and without audio. Zapruder caught the President's motorcade as it turned onto Elm Street and passed Dealey Plaza. The fatal shot to the President's head occurred when the car in which he was riding passed almost directly in front of the camera.

Zapruder knew immediately that his camera and what it contained were of vital importance. As he walked back to his office, he encountered a local reporter who had contacts in the Secret Service. The reporter told Zapruder that he would send a Secret Service agent to the clothing manufacturer's office. Once he arrived back at work, Zapruder sent an assistant out to find a Secret Service agent in case the reporter failed in his mission. Once Agent Forrest Sorrels of Secret Service arrived at the Dal-Tex building, Zapruder agreed to hand the film over on the condition that it only be used to aid the investigation and not be broadcast or otherwise shared. The agent agreed and the men went to local TV station WFAA to have the film developed. While there, Zapruder was interviewed live about what he had seen. The station could not develop the film, so it was taken to Eastman Kodak's Dallas processing plant. Zapruder kept the original and a copy and gave the Secret Service two copies, which were flown to Washington for analysis.

Later that night, Zapruder received a call from a Life magazine editor. The next day, he agreed to sell the magazine the original film and print rights for $50,000. The agreement was amended two days later with Life agreeing to pay Zapruder six annual payments of $25,000 for the television and motion picture rights as well. He donated the first payment to the family of Officer J.D. Tippit, the policemen killed by Lee Harvey Oswald on the day of the assassination. He later added a condition to the sale: that frame 313 of the film be removed from any public showing. That is the frame that shows the fatal shot to the President's head and Zapruder did not want the public to see the horror of the event.

Abraham Zapruder went on to testify before the Warren Commission, the first body convened to investigate the Kennedy assassination. A big fan and supporter of Kennedy, Zapruder broke down while testifying before the panel. He was also called to testify at the trial of Clay Shaw in 1969. This was the case re-enacted in the film JFK. Zapruder died of stomach cancer in 1970.

Life magazine retained ownership of the film through 1975. On March 6th of that year, the ABC network late-night show 'Good Night America' hosted by Geraldo Rivera aired the Zapruder film for the first time. The public response to the event was sudden and intense and eventually resulted in several more government investigations.

Today, the original Zapruder film resides in Washington, DC as part of the National Archives. Abraham's family retained the film's copyright until 1999, when it was turned over to the Sixth Floor Museum, located in the School Book Depository Building in Dallas. That museum also owns one of the original copies of the film made during the afternoon and early evening of the day of the assassination. 

In the end, Zapruder and his family benefited a great deal financially from the film. An entire generation of conspiracy theorists have also done well for themselves by using the film as proof that there any number of alternate realities related to the assassination. As late as 2003, an ABC News poll showed that 7 out of 10 Americans believe the Kennedy assassination was part of a plot and not the act of a lone killer. Perhaps the Zapruder film raised more questions than it answered.

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