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Classic Royko: How they laughed as Bobby Kennedy’s body was flown back home

n this Nov. 25, 1963 file photo members of the Kennedy family attend U.S. President John F. Kennedy's burial at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va., including JFK's mother, Rose Kennedy, center left with veil; his brother U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, center right; and the president's widowed. | AP

Editor’s note: Three days after Sen. Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles on June 6, 1968, Mike Royko, then writing for the Chicago Daily News, went to the movies.

Somewhere in the sky, at that moment, a jet plane was crossing this country with Sen. Robert Kennedy’s body as its cargo.

Down below, a thin young man in a T-shirt hurried through the afternoon crowd on Randolph Street. He took out his wallet as he walked.

He pushed three one-dollar bills at the cashier at the United Artists Theater. As she gave him his ticket and 80 cents change, he glanced at the ad posters.

“Strung up. Whipped. Tortured. McCord gave them ‘A minute to pray and a second to die.'”

He went in the middle aisle but it was crowded, so he went to the next aisle and slid into a seat. He sat low and put his legs up. The movie began and he got what he went there for. Blood, guns, death. Kicks.

There hadn’t been enough death, apparently, on his TV screen during the last 36 hours. And the terrible black headlines in the papers didn’t satisfy him.

None of it was enough for the biggest crowd at any Loop movie house Thursday — the same day Kennedy died, the day after he was shot in the head.

In the United Artists auditorium, shortly after noon on a work day, there were …. take a guess: 50? 100? 200?

There were at least 250 people there. Probably 300.

The manager said: “Something like this outdraws anything else downtown.”

Why?

“People like the violence. That’s the big thing today.”

Like most of today’s movies, the color is great, the camera work is imaginative. Technically, today’s B-movies make yesterday’s Academy Award winners look like homemade jobs.

But the technical excellence isn’t what draws those crowds.

A few minutes after it began, the hero — a thief and a killer — shot his first man. In the head.

Then he made another man kneel and he put the gun to his head. He smiled and slowly squeezed the trigger. It took a long time and the victim registered terror. The audience laughed.

Get that: the audience laughed. You would have thought it was Abbott and Costello.

The gun clicked. The man gasped with relief that he was not going to have a bullet in his brain. The audience howled.

There was a bigger laugh a few minute later when two bad guys beat a priest’s face bloody with their fists. Then one showed him the contents of a bag — a human head. The priest screamed and ran hysterically to the altar. Laughter. They shot him.

One killer said: “It is bad luck to shoot a priest.” Belly laughs.

During the final mass-bloodbath scene, the laughs ran together from one death to another.

A wounded man fell into a fire. Funny. Another lost his gun and the hero kept shooting his feet until he fell backward off a cliff and screamed all the way to the bottom. The laughter drowned out his scream.

After almost two hours, it ended. They came out, swaggering a bit, smiling, gorged with vicarious kicks.

They are easy to describe. They look like the next 300 men you’ll see on the city’s streets. Black and white, most in casual clothing, some in summer suits. They looked like ordinary American men.

And as they left, others like them were coming in, filling the seats.

It began again. The man knelt and trembled at the thought of a bullet crashing into his brain. And the audience laughed. The priest screamed. The audience laughed.

Outside, people were asking what is wrong with this country, why it kills the way it does. The world was asking if the United States is that sick and corrupt.

Inside the United Artists, and in theaters across the country, guns were barking, blood was flowing — and people were laughing.

They laughed and laughed. And by then the plane had landed. Now, his family would bury him.

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