Live Noir

Henry Ford McCrackens 1952 Santa Ana murder trial launched the age of broadcast voyeurism

"Yes, but haven't we always had an interest in other people's misery?" I ask without shame.

"Mass voyeurism has been around at least since 1836, when the New York Herald covered the ax murder of a prostitute," says Calvert, an assistant professor of communications and law at Penn State. "But the McCracken case helped to break the mold. It was live. For the audience, it was the first time that the outcome was unclear. There was drama, suspense, it was unscripted—we didn't know what to expect."

"How is that different than what we see on TV today?" I ask.

"Since then, it's been a case of constantly pushing the envelope. Each generation's audience seems more willing to see more of other people's private lives—more willing to tolerate certain uses of cameras than previous generations were."

"Have we lost our innocence?" I ask.

Second-trail jurors visit
McCracken's cottage.
Photo courtesy of Old Santa Ana
Courthouse Museum

"We gaze at our new reality, feeling involved when we may not be," Calvert says. "With an increasing amount of TV reality shows, fact and fiction, acting and being are getting harder to distinguish."

The scene shifts. It is 1951, and we are once again inside a theater at the screening of The Bird of Paradise.

TENGA: As soon as you kidnap her, the big drum will sound the alarm. My father will rush out in anger because someone has stolen his daughter. And I will rush out with my weapons, and all our warriors will come with their weapons, and we will look for you. We will look everywhere.

ANDRÉ: Where will I be?

TENGA: You will have carried Kalua into your house.

ANDRÉ: But that's the first place anybody would look.

TENGA: Yes. But we will not find you. That is the custom, too.

Did McCracken find it increasingly difficult between "acting" and "being"? Did he imagine Patty Jean to be Debra Paget, who played Kalua in The Bird of Paradise? Was his kidnapping of Hull part of some movie-based delusion? Are we guilty, today, of sharing a similar part of McCracken's delusion?

I turn on the TV and surf through the channels. There's Judge Judy providing us with a 21st century pillory. There's the parents of Danielle van Dam, the once-missing seven-year-old San Diego girl whose body was found by a roadside. There's Daniel V. Jones, the Los Angeles man who on May 1, 1998, pulled his truck to the side of an offramp, set it on fire and then shot himself in the head with a rifle on live TV. There's Law & Order and Fact or Fiction and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. There's Elizabeth Smart playing the harp and the skull of Chandra Levy.

When I get the call from Nancy Meyer at Universal Studios, I'm taken off-guard. She goes straight to the point.

"I talked to my friend at Court TV," Meyer says. "Unfortunately, because there are more alarming and lurid cases that have come along, your story is not the kind of thing—as she understands the marketplace—that she would want to incorporate into programming."

"Incorporate into programming" echoes like a dub remix in my head.

"That doesn't mean this is the end of it," she offers. "Everyone has a nose and an opinion. Someone else may have an interest in this."

Today, a hard light flares off the cars at Ken Grody Ford in Buena Park. This is where the Valuskis Theater once stood. After Patty Jean's kidnapping, customers stayed away, business declined and the place shut down. By the 1960s, the Valuskis had become a Pussycat Theater. Now it's a car lot. The Hull family home has been torn down, too—so has the White Elephant Cafe. A little farther down Beach Boulevard, a law office occupies the lot where McCracken's cottage once stood. Santa Ana's Courthouse still stands at the corner of Broadway and Santa Ana Boulevard, but now it's a museum. If you want, you can sit in a juror's chair or walk down the hallways where TV cameras made history.

When I visit these places, Baudrillard's observation of the futility of imagining space when distance can be diminished by time settles hard in my consciousness. I wonder how far we've actually come in so short a time and how much, if any, innocence we have lost.

This July 22, 50 years will have passed since the Supreme Court of California ruled on Henry Ford McCracken's appeal. That ruling set another precedent. It was the first appeal in California history in which live television coverage of a crime case was considered in the determination of a fair and impartial trial. In response to the inauguration of the electronic moment of truth, the appeal failed.

Since then, we tell ourselves that everything has changed. Because of television's prying eyes, we believe that our TV reality, as Baudrillard wrote more than 20 years ago, "is no longer a question of imitation, nor duplication, nor even parody. It is a question of substituting the signs of the real for the real."

Yet, there has always been a fascination with crime and its consequences. In the past, we turned it into folklore and staged it in theaters. Since the first cave drawings, we visualized ourselves in a victim's circumstances from a distance. We have always been voyeurs, only now we have another buffer zone—our television screen—between "the signs of the real and the real."

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