Take an Assassination Vacation

3 Nov

by Cheri Sundra

How long does a memory resonate in the collective subconscious? 


 The JFK Assassination

Dallas: Dealey Plaza

Photo Credit:  Big Yank Ball

On November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy arrived in Dallas, Texas, and never got out alive.  The nation’s 35th president was gunned down, while sitting in a convertible next to his beautiful young wife, as his motorcade traveled past the now infamous Dealey Plaza. The aftermath was one of the first mass media events that unfolded in real time on TV while the nation watched in horror.

Whether you believe that it was a single sniper or several shooters, and whether or not the Cubans or the Russians or the CIA or the Mafia were involved , once you step into Dealey Plaza, you will feel like you are on sacred ground.  It is the place where more than two million historians, assassination buffs, conspiracy theorists and citizens of the world in general, make an annual pilgrimage.
dealy plaza

Photo Credit:  Todd Landry

Some death scenes represent something far deeper than simple voyeuristic pleasure, and Dealey Plaza is a location that allows visitors to touch history in a real way, since images of the Kennedy Assassination have been burned into our collective consciousness as one of the most controversial cases in modern history.  Almost everyone who visits the JFK Assassination Site runs out into the middle of the road, risking injury by moving car, to set foot on the “X” that marks the spot where the fatal shot hit our handsome young president, turning the lights off in Camelot forever.

Right next to Dealey Plaza, people carve their conspiracy theories into the back of the fence that surrounds the train station parking lot where some say a second assassin stood to deliver the final blow to the President’s head. The fence scribes don’t seem terribly fond of Senator Arlen “Magic Bullet Theory” Specter.
The picket fence on the Grassy Knoll

Photo Credit: Chris Freeland

But things aren’t all doom and gloom in Dallas.  Visitors going to The Sixth Floor Museum inside of the notorious Texas School Book Depository,  where the Warren Commission concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald fired his rifle at least three times from a window perch, will also learn that a little song about an ant that pulls rubber tree plants wasn’t just something that Shirley sang to Laverne.  It was also John F. Kennedy’s campaign song performed by none other than Frank Sinatra.

The museum is the top tourism draw in North Texas and reminds visitors of the “Camelot” White House era by examining the life, times and legacy of the Kennedy Presidency, before getting to the event that changed the course of American history forever.  The exhibit also provides a moment-by-moment account of the day of the assassination, and a day-by-day recollection of that harrowing November week. Of course the museum exhibits images from the famous Zapruder film which has been examined more than any other footage in history, and visitors can see for themselves the spot where Oswald crouched and fired his rifle.

The MLK Assassination

Lorraine Hotel

Photo Credit:  Brian Bubonic

To support the city’s striking garbage collectors; Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. went to Memphis and checked into the Lorraine Motel.  He was shot dead by James Earl Ray on April 4, 1968, when he stepped out onto the balcony outside his room, inciting riots across the country.

Years later, when the Lorraine Hotel was a foreclosed property slated for demolition, prominent citizens found a way to keep the site sacred as a memorial to the fallen civil rights leader.  The balcony where Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot now exists as part of the National Civil Rights Museum where, with a little help from your imagination, you can ride on that infamous Montgomery bus with Rosa Parks.  In evocative displays, the museum chronicles the struggle of African Americans from the time of slavery to the present.

The Lorraine Hotel itself, with its 1950s style sign, is so well preserved that visitors forget what year it is when they walk down the ramp to the museum.  Seeing the place where King was shot, after seeing the print countless times as part of our Pop Culture lexicon, is a jarring experience.
Loraine Hotel-1

Photo Credit:  Carter G. Woodson Project TEACH

In the annex across the street, inside the building where James Earl Ray perched and assassinated Dr. King, you can experience for yourself where the gunman stood and visualize what he saw before he shot the Civil Rights Leader.  This building contains a provocative exhibit about the assassination and the case made against Ray.

The RFK Assassination

Ambassador Hotel and Cocoanut Grove nightclub (1921), 3400 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, California

           Photo Credit: Steve Minor

Shortly after midnight, on June 5, 1968, Senator Robert F. Kennedy was shot in the pantry area of The Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles after delivering a short victory speech.  He died the next day.  Sadly, a website set up during efforts to have the site declared a historical landmark now reads “Everyone spoke, but it’s history”.

 Demolition of the Ambassador Hotel was completed in 2006, despite the historical significance of the property.  The Ambassador Hotel was designed by renowned architect Myron Hunt (Rose Bowl Stadium and Caltech) and was situated on Wilshire Boulevard.  For decades, the hotel’s Cocoanut Grove was the hot spot for live entertainment giving rise to stars like Bing Crosby and Barbra Streisand and hosting such celebrities as Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Gene Kelly, Diana Ross, Judy Garland, Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole and Julie Andrews. It’s where Marilyn Monroe had her start as a model, as a client of a poolside modeling agency. Howard Hughes and Jean Harlow were some of the many longtime residents who made the Ambassador Hotel their home. The hotel was used so regularly as a set for film and television; people were calling it The Ambassador Studios. Yet, with all of this history, The Ambassador Hotel has disappeared forever, and so has our chance to experience that piece of our collective history in a visceral way.

Today, on the site of the former Ambassador Hotel, stands the Robert F. Kennedy Community School.  The school just completed the installation of a visible tribute to the iconic Ambassador Hotel in the form of an interactive public artwork for school children and educators.

The grand sweep of our history may not engage every American, but there are places and moments that manage to snag the public imagination.  In the case of the Ambassador Hotel, imagination is all that remains.

Cheri Sundra © 2010     

All Rights Reserved 

One Response to “Take an Assassination Vacation”

  1. Martina December 8, 2010 at 8:50 am #

    A vacation with a twist. I like it.

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