The White House Theater was built to show films to the President, his family and their guests.
The theater was infiltrated by mercenaries disguised as video technicians, who pretended to be fixing a sound system. They also disguised silencers as microphones and proceeded to take over the White House.
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.
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.
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.
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 goofy, 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.