Is the Texas Theatre's Oswald T-shirt in bad taste?

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The Texas Theatre "Oswald" shirt. (Photo courtesy of Jason Reimer/Aviation Cinemas.)
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The Texas Theatre "Oswald" shirt. (Photo courtesy of Jason Reimer/Aviation Cinemas.)

A new T-shirt being sold by the historic Texas Theatre in Dallas is getting a lot of attention - and criticism - from local residents. Detractors say the shirt is in poor taste, while supporters say it is art that reflects the theater's history.

The shirt in question features the mugshot of Lee Harvey Oswald, the alleged assassin of President John F. Kennedy. Oswald was arrested at the Texas Theatre a short time after the assassination, forever linking the tragic events of 1963 with the movie house located in the north Oak Cliff section of Dallas. Some critics are claiming that the T-shirt, which can be viewed at The Texas Theatre's Facebook page, is disrespectful of the tragedy and is using Oswald's infamy to make money.

Jason Reimer of Aviation Cinemas, who operates the Texas Theatre and created the T-shirt, said it is about accepting history. For better or worse, Oswald's arrest at the theater (which Reimer prefers to call "the incident") has defined the theater's identity. "Dallas has not come to terms with a lot of its history," he said. "Oswald is a part of the theater's history. Everyone knows it. We are acknowledging it."

Even so, Reimer said he expected some would not like the shirt. "I'm not totally shocked," he said. "I would say I am mildly shocked at some of the responses. However, we were not trying to make a philosophical or political statement."

Aviation Cinemas operates the Texas Theatre as an indie-style art house, showing movies and holding live events that you would not see in a mainstream theater. The lobby projects an eclectic, funky atmosphere, with a bar that serves mixed drinks with movie-themed names and director David Lynch's line of coffees. Even when a film or performance is not scheduled, the theater is a popular hangout with many artists from the nearby Bishop Arts District.

The theater's T-shirt designs reflect an unconventional, creative mentality you would expect from an art house. Another less controversial T-shirt design features a Zapruder movie camera, so a T-shirt featuring Oswald seemed to be a natural progression.

As for the argument that the theater is making money off of the assassination, Reimer contended that was never the goal. "I didn't set out to sell a bunch of [Oswald] shirts. That was not the idea. We already sell a bunch of shirts that promote the theater and its history." That history, besides Oswald, also includes Howard Hughes, whose company built and opened the theater in 1931.

"I don't think we are profiting off of the assassination. We are acknowledging history. If you think people should not make a living off of bad news, then you need to stop watching the news or stop buying the newspaper. To say that we can't use that image, with the history of this theater, I think is a little unfair," Reimer said.

Reimer also pointed out that other assassination sites like Ford's Theater and even the Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas offer merchandise in a gift shop. He believes the Oswald shirt, although a bit unconventional, is in the same vein, and relates history to a generation of Dallas residents who did not grow up under the shadow of shame the assassination cast.

Despite the issues some may have, Reimer said the response has been overwhelmingly positive, and may be proof Dallas is really to embrace its past and move forward. "We sold out of the T-shirts within five hours. As soon as they heard about it, people were driving to the theater just to buy them," he said.

Victor Medina is a freelance writer based in Dallas. He has covered local issues as a Community Voices columnist for the Dallas Morning News and has served as a member of the board of directors of the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza.

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