June 10, 2011

Interview: JFK assassination archivist David Von Pein

It is often said that television truly came of age with its coverage of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. I think that can be a bit overstated, but there's no question that, almost 50 years later, the "As It Happened" coverage, coming as it did like a lightning bolt out of the blue of an ordinary Friday afternoon in November, remains absolutely riveting.

Until the advent of YouTube, access to this video coverage, which tells you the story in a way totally unlike the history book or the newspaper, was relatively hard to come by, limited mostly to video traders and online dealers. Today, however, anyone can call up hours of footage, not only from the three networks but also from local television and radio.

Of the various sites devoted to the JFK assassination, few come with the video treasure that can be found on the sites run by David Von Pein. An outspoken believer (as am I) that Lee Harvey Oswald was the one and only assassin of Kennedy, Von Pein has amassed an incredible amount of video history on JFK - not just the assassination, but various tributes, documentaries and movies, not to mention rarely seen clips from Kennedy's 1960 presidential campaign. As someone who has spent more than a few hours with my own JFK collection, I thought David would be an outstanding choice for the inaugural It's About TV interview. 



Q: David, thanks first of all for your time. We're going to be talking about collecting old television shows on DVD, because you have an amazing collection, not just of the JFK assassination, but all kinds of TV series and movies. Do your friends and family think you’re kind of, uh, nuts for doing this? Because I know some of the looks I get, I have to go into this long academic discussion about how this is all historical research, in order to justify what is probably really a guilty pleasure.

A: No, I don't think my family thinks I'm TOTALLY crazy. Just a LITTLE bit. ~wink~ My brother, in fact, runs a fairly popular TV website himself. You can find it here. He was kind enough to link to some of my sites from his "Showcase" TV website (even a page for my JFK stuff).


So tell me - how did you first get interested in the Kennedy assassination? Was this a contemporary event for you, something you'd always been interested in, or is this a case of a young man looking back at a particular point in time?

I was born in 1961 (when JFK was in the White House, coincidentally), so I don't remember the assassination (or JFK as a President) at all. I just know that (for me) there's something about Mr. Kennedy, his Presidency, his family, and his assassination that are endlessly fascinating.

I first got deeply interested in President Kennedy's assassination in 1981, when I read David Lifton's book, Best Evidence [book review here].

Yeah, I remember reading that book as well.  Seemed plausible to me at the time. Maybe I just wanted to believe it was something exotic. 

Back at that time, I really wasn't a conspiracy theorist, nor can I remember really being a "lone assassin" believer either. I guess I must have been somewhere in-between, but, frankly, I just cannot remember having a strong opinion about the matter one way or the other back then--even after reading Lifton's book.

I'm just glad I didn't place too much faith in Mr. Lifton's nutty theories about casket-switching and body alteration. But even though I didn't really buy into any of Lifton's outlandish theories, I do recall that his book got me much more interested in the JFK murder case.

So here's the $64,000 question: who did it?

I think Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby acted on their own in November 1963, which is a position that places me in the distinct minority when it comes to that subject. As of late 2003, a Gallup Poll indicated that 75% of Americans believe that some kind of a conspiracy existed to murder the President in Dallas.

The hard physical evidence, however, just simply does not support conspiracy in the JFK case, and the majority of circumstantial evidence doesn't support the beliefs of that 75% of Americans either. And I think I provide a good deal of support to back up my "Lone Nut" opinions on my various JFK websites.

I've talked with many conspiracy theorists in the last several years, and it's quite remarkable to me that so many of these theorists--on the Internet anyway--are not just believers in a conspiracy (per se), but many of the online "CTers" (as conspiracists are often called on Internet forums and websites) also believe that Lee Oswald was completely innocent of BOTH President Kennedy's murder and the murder of Police Officer J.D. Tippit as well.

But given the evidence that conclusively proves for all time that Oswald was most certainly guilty of Tippit's slaying, such an "Oswald Is Innocent" stance is just flat-out nutty. Simple as that.

As your interest increased, did you ever think there would be such a treasure trove of video material to review?

No, I never did think I'd be able to collect such a vast amount of video and audio material associated with JFK's assassination. But over a period of time, I've been able to amass quite a library of videos, as well as many audio programs, connected to John F. Kennedy, his Presidency, and his untimely death, along with a large number of photographs as well.

I am grateful to many people for supplying me with a lot of these materials, some of which I have obtained from other private collectors like myself, while other material, such as the photos that I have put in my large Kennedy Photo Album, has been collected through the means of this great tool known as the Internet and the World Wide Web.

The number of pictures that were taken of JFK and his family is simply staggering. I will occasionally add photos to my above-linked Kennedy Album, and each time I search for more photos, I seem to find a dozen new ones that I had never seen before. It's amazing.

Your YouTube channel on the JFK assassination is just incredible. You have hours of continuous footage from all three of the broadcast networks, not just from November 22 itself, but from all of the four days. It’s much more comprehensive than the highlights you see on commemorative shows, and it really puts things in a proper context. How did you first start collecting the JFK videos? Was there something in particular that interested you, or that you were looking for? Or did one thing lead to another?

My interest in JFK and the assassination prompted my interest in the video-collecting thing. As you know, President Kennedy's murder was the first huge news story of the television age that was covered as it was happening. Oswald's murder on live TV is still a one-of-a-kind event (as far as I know). The footage from the Dallas police basement is still amazing--even 40+ years later.

Why are people still fascinated by this, after almost fifty years? I mean, besides your site there are hundreds of JFK assassination videos posted to YouTube - what's the attraction? Is it our fascination with the Kennedys, is it the "history as it happened" aspect of the coverage, is it the sense of horror and shock that still resonates when you watch the coverage unfold, a sense of nostalgia for an era since gone, or is there something else?

Well, I can't really know for sure what other people's thoughts are about this issue, but as far as I am concerned, there's just something about JFK and his era (the early 1960s) that is endlessly appealing and interesting. It's just "there". At least for me it is, and perhaps other people feel the same way.

And that feeling extends to President Kennedy's tragic murder too. It's just "there", something deep down that makes the case fascinating and intriguing (even though I, myself, firmly believe that nobody else was involved in the President's murder other than Oswald).

But the way things unfolded that weekend (even with Oswald guilty alone) is perpetually interesting .... including, of course, the unbelievable drama that was played out in the police basement two days later, with Jack Ruby killing Oswald on live TV and in front of 70 policemen.

Anyway, I can't know the answer to your last very good question, Mitchell, but for ME the JFK murder case will never go away, even though I do think it was "solved" virtually the day it occurred in November 1963.

So looking back on it after almost fifty years, what's your opinion of the television coverage, and which networks do you think did the best and the worst jobs?

That's a tough question. I think that it might be a tie for best network coverage of the assassination--between NBC and CBS, with ABC definitely ranking third, in my opinion, although I think the ABC News team did a good job too, but their facilities seemed to be a few notches below the other two major TV networks. (Have you seen the footage from the ABC studios in New York from 11/22/63? It literally looks like they were broadcasting from an unfinished basement. It's hilarious. But I think Mr. Cochran and company did the very best they could.)


The local coverage from Dallas was quite good, especially the ABC affiliate, on whose coverage the network relied heavily.


That would be WFAA-TV, with Jay Watson anchoring much of the coverage from November 22nd. And I completely agree with you about WFAA's excellent coverage. They did a very good job, even though they were a bit disorganized and rattled in the first hour or two, with Watson not being able to decide whether to broadcast from the studio or the newsroom. But that kind of disorganization is fun to watch. It gives a true sense of being there "live" during a crisis as it is happening.

And WFAA was able to provide some very interesting interviews with some of the eyewitnesses within literally minutes of the shooting (Bill and Gayle Newman). And Watson interviewed Abraham Zapruder just two hours after Abe took his famous 26-second home movie of the assassination.

All of that stuff is archived on my websites as well. I've even provided separate videos that show only the interviews of various witnesses, such as the Newmans and Mr. Zapruder.

One thing that’s changed since 1963, of course, is the advent of the all-news network. I mean, here you had the president of the United States shot, perhaps fatally, and because the networks don’t have cameras warmed up yet they can’t switch to the studio, so they just do voiceovers where they’re reading the wire service copy, and then they return to regular programming and commercials!

Yes, it is indeed surreal to look at the first bulletins now and try to imagine anyone being the slightest bit interested in a Nescafe coffee ad or an episode of Father Knows Best after hearing those initial tragic bulletins.

The ABC affiliate in New York, I think it is, is showing a rerun of Father Knows Best when the first bulletins come in, where Bud is apparently trying to make himself look older for a date he has with an older woman. We have the interruption for an update on the shooting, and then when we go back to regular programming he's saying goodbye to the girl on the steps of her house, and in that moment between those two scenes it's almost as if the world has completely changed. What was a pressing problem for Bud pre-bulletin now seems to be almost a nostalgic look back at the past, a world that we might never see again. Perhaps it's just our contemporary perspective, looking back on it after all these years and knowing the tumult that's to come, but I find that moment in retrospect to be so naive, actually extremely moving.

BTW, I now have that complete episode of FKB on DVD--from the third season of that series. It's an episode called "Man About Town", and I always think of the ABC bulletins whenever I watch that show, halfway expecting an "ABC Bulletin" slide to appear on the screen after the girl says "Go on, Bud, it sounds exciting".

That's ironic, the timing of the bulletin, isn't it? A little too exciting, sadly. So, if all-news networks had existed back then, would the coverage have been better or worse? I know that's kind of a loaded question, but when I think back to Congresswoman Giffords' shooting, and all the misinformation that followed, I wonder if today's coverage would have been any better than it was in 63. But, having said that, do you think there's any chance the conspiracy theories would have been as prevalent if today's technology had existed? Or are the conspiracies after 9/11 proof that it wouldn't have mattered?

I think your comment about 9/11 is on-target. If people can actually be goofy enough to think that NO AIRPLANES AT ALL struck the Pentagon and the World Trade Center (even with VIDEO FOOTAGE of the planes striking both WTC towers!), then I have no doubt that if the JFK murder had occurred in the 21st century, there would probably be just as many ridiculous conspiracy theories as there are today about the JFK case. Possibly even more.

And there are now conspiracy theories about Osama Bin Laden's recent death. People just love conspiracies and plots and secrets--even when they make no sense at all (such as with 9/11).

Out of the mountain of footage, what are the moments that stand out for you as being the most memorable from the four days?

A: That's another toughie. I'm not sure I can narrow it down to just one single memorable moment. So, I'll list my top 4 (off the top of my head):

1.) Walter Cronkite's emotional announcement of the President's death on CBS-TV. Oddly enough, I think Walter's emotions have become just as famous as the bulletin itself.For the record, Mr. Cronkite displayed his inner feelings on the air at least one other time that weekend.  Walter broke up a little bit on Saturday, November 23 when he was reading a story about President Kennedy's son, John Jr.   

2.) Lee Harvey Oswald being shot and killed by Jack Ruby on live TV.

3.) This one is a pre-assassination moment --- before JFK gave his last speech in Fort Worth, there's a point in the TV coverage when the announcer starts talking (in some detail) about the 1901 assassination of President McKinley. In light of what happened in Dallas just three hours later, those remarks about McKinley's murder are quite chilling and poignant

4.) Another eerie pre-assassination moment is when KRLD-Radio reporter Bob Huffaker is providing live reports from Main Street in Dallas as JFK's motorcade passes by his position.

After the President's car goes by, Huffaker continues to broadcast live on KRLD-Radio for several more minutes. Bob was telling the radio audience how smoothly everything went with the motorcade, and how there were no anti-Kennedy demonstrations, etc. Huffaker was literally on the air live as JFK was being shot just a short distance down the street in Dealey Plaza.

If Huffaker had been located closer to Elm and Houston Streets, his open microphone would have likely picked up the sound of Lee Oswald's three rifle shots from the Texas School Book Depository Building in Dealey Plaza.

The FBI, in fact, did a detailed analysis of Huffaker's recording to see if any gunshots were audible on the audio tape. Unfortunately, none could be heard, as Huffaker was located too far east of the shooting scene. Here is Huffaker's recording.

Speaking of Cronkite, it’s interesting how he’s become shorthand for the assassination coverage – whenever a period movie or show wants to depict it, they always use the CBS clips, even though we know from contemporary accounts that more people watched NBC and Huntley-Brinkley than CBS and ABC together. Is that because CBS already had the tape rolling whereas the other networks didn’t, or is it because Cronkite’s stature has grown even more in the years since?

A: I think Walter Cronkite's bulletin would still be the most famous -- even if NBC had rolled tape sooner. I don't think that delay had much to do with anything in the long run.

I just hate hearing people now bad-mouthing Mr. Cronkite (following his death a year or two ago). Some conspiracy people were calling Walter a traitor and a liar and a CIA stooge, etc. Just ridiculous. It makes me sick.

Is there a "Holy Grail" for Kennedy assassination video collectors and researchers? Anything you'd like to see but haven't seen yet?

Oh, there are lots of things I'd like to have in my collection that I currently do not possess -- such as more of the live "as it's happening" type of TV and radio coverage from any number of U.S. stations and markets, such as the Chicago coverage (WLS and WGN), and Los Angeles, and San Francisco, and Miami, and many other cities.

In 2008, I was lucky enough to obtain almost 40 hours of November 1963 audio material from radio station WLW in Cincinnati, and it got me to thinking about all of those other major cities which were covering the JFK assassination for hundreds of other radio and television stations across the country, very little of which has ever been heard or seen since 1963.

But it seems to me that if WLW had nearly 40 hours of footage archived somewhere in its vaults for over 40 years, it stands to reason that many other TV and radio outlets might have saved their audio and video from those four dark days too.

I'd also like to see (or hear) the Parkland Hospital press conference that was given by Dr. Malcolm Perry and Dr. Kemp Clark on the afternoon of November 22, 1963. As far as I know, however, that conference has never surfaced in either an audio or video form.

My wife would say this discussion is getting exceedingly morbid, so let me close with some questions about classic television. What's your favorite show of all time?

Another tough inquiry from you, Mitch. I'm going to have to do a "list" of favorites (again), because I cannot narrow it down to just one single show. That's impossible. So, I'll give you my Top 6:

Leave It To Beaver
The Dick Van Dyke Show
The Fugitive
The Andy Griffith Show
The Mary Tyler Moore Show
Father Knows Best (especially Season 3)

What do you think is the most underrated show, from that era?

I can tell you one particular TV series that I, myself, severely underrated before buying the first four seasons on DVD in the last few years -- and that's Father Knows Best.

After watching the episodes of FKB on DVD, I began to realize what a truly outstanding show it was (and still is). I don't know if other people "underrated" FKB, but I know I sure did.

Do you think TV was better back then than it is now? And if so, why do you think that is?

Oh, yes, I think TV was much better "back then" (i.e., in the "Golden Age" of the 1950s and 1960s, and even through the 1970s too).

Why is that, do you think? I’m always concerned it’s because I’ve just become an old fuddy-duddy, even though I’m not that old.

I really can't pinpoint the exact reasons for my opinion, but I certainly watch a lot more of the "oldies" on TV (and via DVD) than I do current offerings on the boob tube.

I think part of the reason is that the performers, writers, and producers of the older TV shows put a lot more of their heart and soul (and talent, of course) into making the older shows the best they could possibly be.

It's not that the TV people of today don't put a lot of effort and sweat into their current shows too. I didn't mean to suggest that. But the quality of the older shows (like my "Top 6" list above) cannot be denied.

And as far as I am concerned, there hasn't been another drama series like The Fugitive come along since David Janssen's iconic series ended in 1967. And as for comedy--it's hard to beat Mary Tyler Moore and Dick Van Dyke...and even "The Beaver"...for genuine, realistic laughs and situations.

Lastly (for now), what are the best retro TV sites on the web?

My brother's site that I linked to earlier is a very good site. He's included information and photos about nearly every TV program ever made on his site.

And a few good sites about individual television series (or performers) that I really like:

The David Janssen Archive
The Fugitive
Leave It to Beaver

And before my current advertising campaign ceases (grin), allow me to steer you to my newest website -- CLASSIC TV ON DVD.

Of course that oft-used word "classic" is a very subjective term, as we all know. But if you look at my movies site, I think you'll agree that I've included a lot of truly great all-time classics in there. I think my photo galleries for those films are very worthwhile too, as well as my Kennedy photo album, which I recently revamped and expanded.







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Thanks so much for your time and insight, David. We'll be sharing some unique footage of the JFK assassination coverage over the next few days.

3 comments:

  1. Nowadays, video and document archiving have become unappreciated sources of history. It's great that there are still people out there who care about this.

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  2. You're right, Jenny. As original source documents for looking at an event in context, it's hard to beat them. Too bad the networks didn't realize it earlier.

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  3. This year,2013, will be a busy one for people like Mr Von Pein. I've had a keen interest in the JFK for over 40 years. His collection is impressive, not so sure of his TV shows rated, though I like all of them.

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