MS. REBECCA SHEIR
Welcome back to "Metro Connection," I'm Rebecca Sheir. And this week, we've been exploring the more private side of Washington, with a show we're calling Behind Closed Doors. And now we'll go behind the closed door of what may be the most famous address in Washington, D.C., 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
MS. JANE FONDA
I'd like to invite you to the state dinner next week.
MR. FOREST WHITAKER
I'm gonna be here, Mrs. Reagan.
No. Not as a, not as a butler, Cecil, I'm inviting you as a guest.
But the president prefers for me to serve him personally.
Don't you worry about Ronnie. I'll take care of that.
This is a scene from the 2013 film, "The Butler," a historical drama based on the story of Eugene Alan, an African-American man who worked at the White House for 34 years as a waiter, butler and maitre d' and who died in D.C. in 2010. I recently visited a man in Frederick, Md...
MR. ALAN DEVALERIO
Okay, this is, let's see...
...who knew the real Gene Alan, quite well.
...these two pictures are my treasures, my son with Gene and myself.
Oh, your son's so little, he's only seven months old.
Yeah. He's not so little anymore.
Yep, Alan DeValerio's son is a little over 30 now, which is just about the age Alan was, back in December 1980, when he started working part-time as a White House butler, under Gene Alan.
Well, he was, like, one of the nicest guys I've ever known. In the movie, they kind of depict him as being angry and -- but, of course, you know, those are all made up scenes. My disappointment was, in the White House scenes, because some of them were inaccurate. For example, when Jane Fonda, as Nancy Reagan, invites the main character, Cecil Gaines, who was Gene Alan, to be a guest at the state dinner.
You know, he kind of protests and he says, but the president is gonna expect me to, you know, to be serving him, you know, that night. The maitre d' didn't do any serving, he was the coordinator. I mean, even as head butler, he didn't do any serving. And then they kind of showed him at the state dinner, as being uncomfortable and that was totally not true. You know, he was really happy to be there. And in same with John Ficklin was also -- he was actually the first butler to be invited to a state dinner. John Ficklin was the maitre d' when I started working there.
So when you first got the job, do you remember your first gig and how you felt going into?
Yeah, the first one was probably be a dinner that President Carter had. He had a series of dinners after he had been defeated, last suppers, kind of. And, yeah, of course, I was extremely nervous and when I got there, I went to the North Gate and they sent me in and I didn't know where to go. So I went to the front door, which was a mistake. Fortunately, just to the right of the front, North portico, is the ushers office. And so somebody saw me and knew what I was there for and kind of pulled me in and said, you know, we'll explain to you where to go, later.
So I was nervous but I was lucky because one of the first things I learned was that White House functions are always over staffed. So, you know, that was good for me. All I had to do that night was pour wine. I just had to walk around the State Dining room and pour wine for anybody who needed it. So...
That involves a steady hand though.
Yeah. Oh yeah.
Did you ever have any mishaps of that sort?
I never did but I came really close one night. This was a few years later. One of the really great privileges of working there was getting to work upstairs in the family quarters. And we were doing a dinner one night for Helmut Kohl, the Chancellor of Germany and his wife. And that night the entertainment was Marvin Hamlisch. So it was a great night, yeah.
After the entertainment, we were to serve champagne, in the Yellow Oval room. And I came in with a tray of four champagne glasses, the fruit-cup type glasses, not the long flutes. And normally when we're serving, you're standing, so holding a tray level is easy when you're standing up. But President and Mrs. Reagan and Chancellor Kohl and his wife were sitting on the sofa. So I had to bend down to serve them and as I started to bend down, the glasses started to slide off the tray. I know that I lost about five years off my life in that split second. Every time I see those fruit-cups now and if they don't have fruit in them, I break out into a sweat.
Did you over hear anything or ever sort of privy to, like, major business happening or something?
When we did the working luncheons, occasionally, you could kind of get the sense of what was going on. For example, one time, Pierre Trudeau from Canada, was visiting, and you could tell that he and Reagan were not getting along 'cause neither of them cracked a smile during the entire time. But if you're a celebrity watcher, you know, that's the place to be. I mean, you know, it's just credible, the very first function that Reagan had, January 21, it was a reception and it was just Hollywood people.
I was one of the first butlers to go out with a tray and I went into the Red Room and there was, the first four people that I saw were Vince Scully, who was the voice of the L.A. Dodgers, Ray Charles, Lou Rawls and you probably don't remember but it was Hugh O'Brian, he was an actor back in that day. And, you know, Johnny Carson was there and Ed McMahon and Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra and Jimmy Stewart and Wayne Newton and it was just an incredible array.
I was reading about your experiences with Frank Sinatra. That's so cool.
Tell that story.
Well, every table at a state dinner has a host or a hostess. He was the host and I was -- he was at my table. And he was regaling the women at the table with stories about how he had punched out a reporter and put him in the hospital. And then he called the hospital to find out when the poor fellow was gonna get out, not because he was interested in his well-being but because he wanted to punch him out again and put him back in the hospital.
But, you know, I always say that I have to give him credit because he did something that had never been, to my knowledge, and he requested that the butlers be allowed to come after we finished our work, to come down to the East Room, for the entertainment. And the entertainment, of course, that was Frank Sinatra and Perry Como. So there I was, you know, sitting in the East Room of the White House, listening to two of the great entertainers of their era and getting paid for it, on top of it.
Yeah. It was a great night. But beyond the history, seeing the presidents and the celebrities, it -- the people that I worked with were just some of the greatest people I've ever known. You know, they were mostly older, black gentlemen, that were retired from government work. And they were working there for years and years and years. And I was speaking to the Head of the White House Historical Association, William Seale, who was -- and he said, he said, people don't understand, he said, what these people, you know, live through, what they represented.
Because, you know, sometimes they were the first people that the president saw in the morning and the last person they saw, you know, when they went to bed. And, you know, so they had a very intimate relationship with many presidents, and it's fascinating to me.
That's Alan DeValerio who worked as a White House butler from 1980 to 1988. He recounts his memories, in the book, "A History of Entertainment in the Modern White House." He also has a piece about John Ficklin in this month's Washingtonian Magazine. To learn more, visit our website, metroconnection.org.
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