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Close to Home: 486 Frames

  • A National Archives technician opens a canister containing the Zapruder film recording the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas. (Associated Press file)

My wife and I were house-sitting for a friend in Los Angeles in 1996 when the phone rang and a voice asked to speak with Dr. Rose.

I was puzzled because nobody knew where we were. But it was the U.S. Justice Department calling; apparently they have their ways.

The man asked me if I, as a longtime documentary filmmaker, would be interested in helping the government resolve a dispute concerning the value of a piece of film. Not just any piece of film, either, but the 26-second home movie of one of the most famous murders in American history, shot by Abraham Zapruder in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963.

Zapruder had by then been dead for 26 years, and his son, Henry, was asking that the National Archives either return his father's film of the Kennedy assassination or pay his heirs millions for it. He hadn't sued; he was negotiating. The government wanted me to help put a dollar figure on its value.

But what were 486 frames of 8-millimeter film actually worth? Although I agreed to help, I hadn't the vaguest notion of how one went about appraising a motion picture, let alone one that documented such a pivotal moment.

I enlisted the help of C. Cameron Macauley, a former colleague at UC Berkeley, whose knowledge of photographic history had led to a second career as an appraiser of still photos for museums and private collectors.

Abraham Zapruder sold his film to Time-Life Inc. the day after the assassination for $150,000 (equal to just over

$1 million in today's money), and Life magazine's editors, in their wisdom, decided that the public should never see it as a moving picture, but only as still pictures taken from its frames. Even Walter Cronkite couldn't get his hands on it, much to his fury. (“We believe that the Zapruder film is an invaluable asset, not of Time, Inc., but of the people of the United States,” he intoned to the camera.)

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