Former White House butler Alan DeValerio gazes at a photo of him serving President and Mrs. Reagan at a Congressional barbecue.
Among Frederick, Maryland resident Alan DeValerio’s most treasured possessions is a photograph from the early 1980s. It shows Alan, age 30 or so, his 7-month-old son, Mark, and a man whom Alan has come to view as a hero: Eugene Allen.
“Gene” Allen’s story was the basis of the 2013 film, The Butler, about a man who served behind the scenes at the White House. Alan DeValerio himself served as a White House butler from 1980-1988, and says Gene Allen “was one of the nicest guys I’ve ever known.” He says in the movie, “they kind of depict him as being angry, but those were all made-up scenes.”
Alan worked under both Gene Allen and John Ficklin, who was the maître d’ when Alan arrived at the tail end of the Carter administration. Though Alan had plenty of catering and service experience, he says he was extremely nervous going in to his very first White House gig.
“The first one was a dinner that President Carter had. He had this series of dinners after he had been defeated — last suppers, kind of,” Alan recounts. “I was extremely nervous and when I got there, I went to the North Gate and when they sent me in 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 door is the usher’s office. And somebody saw me, pulled me in and said ‘We’ll explain to you where to go later.’”
Alan DeValerio in the State Dining Room during his time as a part-time White House Butler. (Alan DeValerio)
Alan says he was lucky that day since, as he came to learn, “White House functions are always overstaffed.”
“All I had to do that night was pour wine. I just had to walk around the State Dining Room and pour wine for anyone who needed it,” he says.
Not that that was a total comfort; the chance of spilling said wine on an unassuming guest is always a possibility, and one time, a few years later, he came pretty close.
“One of the really great privileges of working [at the White House] was getting to work upstairs in the family quarters,” Alan says. “We were doing a dinner one night for Helmut Kohl, the German chancellor, and his wife. And that night, the entertainment was Marvin Hamlisch, so it was a great night.
“After the entertainment, we were to serve champagne in the Yellow Oval Room. I came in with a tray of four champagne glasses: the fruit-cup-type glasses, not the flutes,” he explains. “Normally when we’re serving, you’re standing, so holding a tray steady is easy when you’re standing up. But the President, Mrs. Reagan, Chancellor Kohl and his wife were sitting on the sofa, so I had to bend down to serve them.
“As I started to bend down, the glasses started to slide off the tray. I know that I lost about five years off of my life in that split second!” he adds with a laugh. “Every time I see those fruit cups now and if they don’t have fruit in them, I break out into a sweat!”
Alan DeValerio says as a staff member while you may not be directly privy to official business going on at functions, you can “kind of get a sense of what was going on” – especially at what he calls “working luncheons.” He particularly remembers one working lunch with Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau.
“You could tell that he and Reagan were not getting along because neither of them cracked a smile the entire time!” Alan recalls.
Another memorable aspect of working at the White House was the constant stream of gliteratti.
“If you’re a celebrity watcher, that’s the place to be,” he says. “The very first function that Reagan had January 21st 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 the first four people that I saw were Vince Scully, who was the voice of the LA Dodgers, Ray Charles, Lou Rawls and Hugh O’Brian, who was an actor back in that day. 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!”
Speaking of Frank Sinatra, Alan DeValerio loves recounting one particular tale about Ol’ Blue Eyes.
“Every table at a state dinner has a host or a hostess,” he explains. “[Sinatra] was the host and 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 getting 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 Sinatra’s hijinks weren’t the only memorable thing that night; his generosity has stuck with Alan DeValerio, too.
“I always say you have to give him credit because he did something that had never been done to my knowledge: he requested that the butlers be able to come after we finished our work to the East Room for the entertainment,” Alan says with a smile. “And the entertainment, of course, was Frank Sinatra and Perry Como. So there I was in the East Room of the White House listening to the two great entertainers of the era, and getting paid for it!”
DeValerio says while he enjoyed moments like these, his favorite thing about the job was the people with whom he worked. He calls them “some of the greatest people I’ve ever known.”
Most of them, he says, were older African American men who’d retired from government work, “and they were working there for years and years and years. I was speaking to the head of the White House Historical Association and he said, ‘People don’t understand what these people lived through, what they represented.’
“Because sometimes they were the first people the president saw in the morning and the last person [he] saw when they went to bed. They had a very intimate relationship with many presidents, and it’s fascinating to me.”
Music: "The President's March" by Ensemble Phoenix Munich from Rose of Sharon