Sunday Snapshot: In Cold Blood in Emporia

Thirty minutes before the show, movie goers are in the lobby, swapping stories about their memories and knowledge of the Clutter family and the movie.

Even though I’m a native Kansan, my first glimpse of Emporia–a city I would call home for a dozen years–was on the big screen while on my exodus to California. I still remember sitting with a few hundred other Trojans in Norris Cinema Theatre during USC’s famous Cinema 190 class, watching In Cold Blood. We were supposed to be watching it for the brilliant cuts and montage scenes. But I was mesmerized by this new window into my home state.

Dick Hickock (played by Scott Wilson) and Perry Smith (played by Robert Blake) as they drive down Commercial Street in Emporia. You can see the marquee of the Fox Theatre (now the Emporia Granada Theatre) just over Dick’s shoulder. (Still photo courtesy of Bryan T. Williams.)

I moved to Emporia in 2000, more than 40 years after Dick Hickock and Perry Smith brutally murdered four members of the Clutter family in their Holcomb home. The murder happened long before I was born. But the scene where Hickock and Smith drive through Emporia stayed with me because it was an important part of Hickock and Smith’s journey.

Emporia was where Hickock and Smith bought the rope they would use to tie up their victims before shooting them.

In a handful of real-time minutes and even fewer cinema minutes, Emporia became part of the history of the Clutter family.

Perry Smith (played by Robert Blake) measures out the rope.

It is a strange thing to see your home through the eyes of an outsider. Truman Capote‘s poetic descriptions of Kansas and its people would go on to influence how generations of Americans–and generations of Kansans–would perceive our state. But the movie is something different altogether. If you can take your eyes off the stars of the film, you begin to realize that the movie is a time capsule of 1960s Kansas: old buildings, old cars, and younger versions of today’s older people. Behind Robert Blake and Scott Wilson pretending to be murderers are real images of our real state.

Movie goers head out into the sultry September night. The theatre is on Commercial Street, the same street traveled by Hickock and Smith and Wilson and Blake.

When we reached the scene where KBI agent Alvin Dewey and other law enforcement officials lead Hickock and Smith into the Finney County Courthouse, there is some excitement coming from a few rows behind us. “That’s me!” a woman exclaims. “There on the lawn! I was fifteen and was standing on the lawn when they filmed this part! That’s me!”

And this is the real reason why Kansans are fascinated with this story. It’s not just about a famous murder. It’s a reflection of ourselves, our history, and our state. It’s about trying to understand us.

Special thanks to Bryan T. Williams for providing art and to the Emporia Granada Theatre for bringing In Cold Blood back to the big screen for a night.

11 thoughts on “Sunday Snapshot: In Cold Blood in Emporia

    1. Diana Staresinic-Deane Post author

      What? Really? Wow! Watch the movie, and read Truman Capote’s book by the same title (available in audiobook, ebook, hardback, and trade at your local library!). All based on the true story. The movie and book are both wonderful in different ways.

  1. Tracy

    I grew up in rural southwest Kansas and though the murders were long before I was born, as well, the lore of it was large and still felt very immediate. I read the book when I was a teen and then spent many nights wishing I had not. (Had trouble shaking it from my already over-active imagination.) I did not realize the Emporia connection until now.

    1. Diana Staresinic-Deane Post author

      In his book, Capote writes about how even most Kansans had not heard of Holcomb before 1959, and I think that’s true. It’s an awful way to get notoriety. I can only imagine how the story still looms over a community that remembers the family. As it is, you never know when you’ll run into someone who has a story about where they were or who they knew connected to the case.

  2. Tami

    My husband lived in Holcomb as a child – after the Clutter murders, but not by much. When we moved back to that area 10 years ago, one of our children was assigned the book in High School English. There was much discussion over the assignment because so many locals knew the family and don’t want to relive it. There are some of the over-60 crowd that still won’t talk about it. They felt it was disrespectful for kids to read the book/see the movie and treat it as fiction. Made for some lively discussions. 🙂

    Love that the old theater is reshowing it – and that there are still small-town theaters being preserved. So much more character than the “mega-plex”!

    1. Diana Staresinic-Deane Post author

      I can understand that the story would still be hard for members of the community who were close to the Clutters or close to the case. Still, I am really opposed to shutting down the truth just because it’s painful. It’s probably a good thing I wasn’t around for the discussions! 🙂 We’ve been lucky enough now to live in two towns that have revived their local theaters. Emporia’s is more of a non-profit, hosting some awesome performances and bringing back classic movies. (We saw Nitty Gritty Dirt Band there a few months ago and were in the kind of seats that would have cost $300 at the Sprint Center.) Ottawa’s theater is more of a commercial venture, but it’s still showing movies and has a restaurant. I love that it’s close enough to walk to.

  3. Gale Wall

    I have been to visit their grave. We ramble around Kansas often and while out that way we stopped to pay our respects.

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  5. Pingback: Dying to read about Kansas murders? | Diana Staresinic-Deane

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