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The Varsity Theatre and the Tower Sniper

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Contributed by Dave Sadler
Published on October 07, 2003

I worked my way through the University of Texas at Austin by working as an assistant manager of the Varsity Theatre in Austin, Texas. I started working there in June of 1965, when I finished a four year tour in the Air Force and was stationed at Bergstrom Air Force Force, just outside of Austin. In September of 1965, we opened an 18 month run of My Fair Lady (a reserved seat roadshow run). In August of 1966, at approximately 11:35am, I had just finished an accounting class on campus and was on my way to open the theatre, when Charles Whitman (the Tower Sniper) started shooting from the Main Library tower.

At the time, there was a lot of major construction going on in the area (buildings were being demolished and below-ground excavation for multi-story apartment buildings), and the sounds (which we later learned were rifle shots) did not seem out of place. The Varsity Theatre (operated by the Interstate circuit) was located at 2402 Guadalupe (at the corner of 24th and Guadalupe). The distance from the front doors of the theatre to the base of the Main Library building was approximately 700 to 800 feet.

Let me set the tempo of the times: There were what was called "guerrilla theatres" going on between classes in the common areas. These were little street dramas performed by students to draw attention to and protest the war in Vietnam. As I was walking from my class to work at the Varsity, I noticed students running and ducking, saying that the "revolution" had started. I dismissed these antics as student protest.

I arrived at the theatre, opened the door, let in a concession worker, and locked the door after me. The clean-up porters were just finishing up from cleaning the theatre from the night before. Just then, a man I recognized as a barber from the barber shop a few doors north of the theatre, knocked on the door in a rather frantic manner. I opened the door and let him in. It was then that he told me that he had just heard on the radio that a person or persons unknown were shooting from the top of the Texas Tower. We did not have a radio at the theatre.

By standing in front of the theatre on the curb, we had a clear view of the Tower. It was possible to see wisps of smoke and hear the rifle crack each time he shot (now that we knew what was going on). There was a small dress shop located next door (south) to the theatre and there were approximately three or four employees and customers from that shop on the sidewalk with us watching the top of the Tower. Just then, a shot hit the building approximately eight to ten feet above our heads. At that time, one of the porters, turned me around and said, "Let's get back inside!"

As we were rushing back into the theatre, (about five or six feet), I noticed the customers and employees of the dress shop were turning and running back into the dress shop. Just then, I saw one of females going back into the dress shop get hit in the back with a shot to the upper left shoulder. She fell to the sidewalk just outside the door of the dress shop. The persons from the dress shop pulled her inside the shop. Realizing that we were within rifle range, we squatted behind corners and pillars to observe what was happening from then on.

Approximately 10 to 15 minutes later, I received a phone call from the Austin Police Department dispatcher asking me to open the rear exit doors to the theatre (the theatre occupied the whole block from Guadalupe to Red River, the next street to the west). In this manner the EMT personnel could park behind the theatre, bring the stretcher through the theatre to the front of the theatre (the Guadalupe Street side), and transport the injured female while using the theatre building for cover and minimizing the exposure time to rifle fire.

I walked through the theatre auditorium, behind the screen, opened the rear exit doors, and waited for the ambulance to arrive. It was just a few minutes later, that the EMS unit arrived. As the two EMTs were unloading their medical equipment, one of them asked me to go to the front of the theatre, call the dress shop, and tell them that the EMT persons would be there in a few minutes to transport the injured.

I attempted to call the dress shop, their phone rang and rang. ... No answer. By then, the EMTs had arrived in the front lobby. I informed the EMTs that I could not contact the dress shop by phone. The EMTs stated that they would proceed to the dress shop anyway. I held the front door of the lobby open, so the EMTs could get their equipment and stretcher out the door. The two EMT's pushed the stretcher to the door of the dress shop very quickly. One of the EMTs tried the dress shop door. It was locked. He pounded on the door and shouted for them to let him in.

After pounding and shouting for 10 to 15 seconds without gaining entry, the two EMTs ran the stretcher back to door that I was holding open, and reentered the theatre lobby. One of the EMTs told me that the women were in the shop and everyone in there was in a state of near hysteria. I again attempted to use the phone to contact someone in the dress shop with no success.

I then made a note on a page of typing paper, informing the occupants of the dress shop that the EMTs were here and wanted to help and that they would need to unlock the door to allow the EMTs to enter and help. I placed four pieces of Scotch tape on the corners of the note, ran out the door, ran the 10 feet down the street to the dress shop, placed the note on the door so that the persons inside could read it and ran back to the theatre lobby. We could hear the dress shop door being unlocked and a female voice called out that the door was open. The EMTs again left the theatre lobby and this time were successful in gaining entry to the dress shop.

After approximately 5 minutes, the EMTs returned from the dress shop with a young 18-20 year old female on the stretcher. She was laying on her back and seemed unconscious. Her front upper chest in the area of the collarbone beside her neck was swollen to about the size of a cantaloupe. I followed the EMTs as they went through the auditorium and loaded her into the ambulance. I reentered the theatre, closed the rear exit doors and returned to the front lobby area.

The barber appeared at the front doors again. This time he stated that he heard on the radio that the sniper had been shot and the danger was past. It was then that I noticed the surge of students and others that were traveling to the base of the Main Tower Building. I walked out of the theatre, locked the front doors and proceeded with the crowd to the Tower.

As I passed the dress shop, I noticed that the area just inside the front door was covered with a large puddle of dark red blood. It seemed about four feet in diameter and about an inch deep. I continued on to the Main Tower Building.

It had been about 90 minutes from when I left the accounting class earlier. It seemed like there was over 2000 people waiting outside the main door to the Tower. After waiting about 15 minutes and exchanging event stories with the person next to me, two Austin PD officers emerged from the main door followed by a young male in his 20s on a stretcher. It was obviously the sniper. His pants were drenched in blood from the waist down. The Austin PD officers and a couple of UT Campus PD officers kept the crowd away from the stretcher as it was loaded into an ambulance that had just driven to the edge of the crowd. The ambulance left and the crowd then slowly dispersed.

I returned to the theatre. By then, the manager had arrived and informed me that the theatre would be closed until the next day.

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