For half a century, it was a quadrennial display of the performing arts, a time capsule of the nation’s pop culture, a snapshot too of the varied entertainment tastes of the President about to assume office.
It was called the Presidential Inaugural Gala and it was an even hotter ticket than one to the Inaugural Ball.
From 1941 to 1997, some of the most legendary American performers from the fields of film, television, radio, stage, poetry and other spoken word, dance, opera, pop and classical music.
This year, in the days leading up to President Obama’s second Inauguration on Monday, all types of free and ticketed events will feature a variety of top-name entertainers. Katy Perry, Smokey Robinson, Usher, Alicia Keys and Brad Paisley will perform at one of the two Inaugural Balls or a children’s concert on Saturday. Beyonce will sing the National Anthem, Kelly Clarkson, who won the first American Idol season, will sing ”My Country, ‘Tis of Thee,” and James Taylor will sing “America the Beautiful.” Elsewhere at other of the many events will be Marc Anthony, Stevie Wonder, rapper Nick Cannon, John Legend and the cast of “Glee.”
It will be the fourth consecutive presidential inauguration, however, without such talent gathering together to perform for a global audience. Starting in 1977 until its demise, the Inaugural Gala was televised live.
The event was all held as one singular event under one roof.
The very act of gathering such diverse personalities from such disparate arts to give of their best and display their talents not just for the President-elect or returning President, his family and the audience but the nation and then the world was as powerful a symbol of national unity as the swearing-in ceremony itself.
It was that sense of national unity which led Republican actor John Wayne to perform for Democrat Jimmy Carter and bi-partisan Ethel Merman to perform for both Democrat John F. Kennedy and Republican Ronald Reagan.
The very first Inaugural Gala was held at Constitution Hall to mark the third of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s four inaugurals.
Taking place on January 19, 1941, the night before the swearing-in ceremony, the President did not appear, but his wife, mother, and two of his sons watched from a balcony seat, front and center.
The legendary Ethel Barrymore read poetry, Mickey Rooney did impersonations, Raymond Massey performed a piece from the play and film Abe Lincoln in Illinois and Nelson Eddy sang.
Making his first known public appearance in political Washington since helping to sell war bonds during World War I, the iconic Charlie Chaplin got into town just hours before in order to offer the audience the dramatic and poignant monologue from his sound-film The Great Dictator, the New York premier of which just three months earlier had been attended by Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jr. Although still comic, Chaplin’s film was a biting satire attacking German dictator Adolph Hitler, who was then engaged in his maniacal vision of taking over the world.
Four years later, at the time of Roosevelt’s fourth inauguration, the effort to crush Hitler was entering its final phase and there was no Gala. For his 1949 inaugural, Harry Truman revived the show, held in the large Washington Armory.
The Truman show featured a cross-section of Atomic Age pop culture; Lionel Hampton, Benny Goodman, Xavier Cugat and Guy Lombardo leading their bands, actresses Alice Faye, Jane Powell and Kay Starr, Lena Horne singing, comedy routines from Abbott & Costello and radio show puppeteer Edgar Bergen with his famous sidekick Charlie McCarthy, the show hosted by George Jessel and Gene Kelly.
The first two Republican Inaugural Galas were held in the Uline Arena for Dwight Eisenhower in 1953 and 1957, the talent solicited and organized by actor George Murphy who later went into politics and was elected a U.S. Senator from California. Entertainers reflected the personal preferences of Ike and Mamie.
Their favorite band leaders came with their choruses to perform, including Lionel Hampton, Fred Waring, Lawrence Welk and Guy Lombardo. Mrs. Eisenhower’s friend Ethel Merman came to sing. Other party loyalists took part, such as John Wayne, Irene Dunne, Ed Sullivan, Gower and Marge Champion.
For the first time, popular television stars also appeared, including Sid Cesar and Imogene Coca, Phil Silvers and Abbott & Costello.
Perhaps the most legendary Inaugural Gala was the one held in 1961 for John F. Kennedy, produced by his friend Frank Sinatra.
It featured not only a wide variety of types of entertainment but performers more diverse than ever before.
The show included not only the Japanese-American singer Pat Suzuki, but African-Americans Mahalia Jackson, Sidney Poitier, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole and Harry Belafonte. Gene Kelly danced, Milton Berle did comedy, Ethel Merman belted out Broadway standards, and
Jimmy Durante moved the President-Elect with his rendition of “September Song,” a song with special sentiment for JFK’s family.
Singers from opera (Helen Traubel), nightclubs (Louis Prima and Keely Smith) were balanced with actors Bette Davis, Anthony Quinn, Laurence Olivier.
Enthusiastic campaigners for Kennedy, the couple Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh did a bit of take-off on the comedic couple George Burns and Gracie Allen.
To see a sampling of some performers from a film apparently made during rehearsal, go to this link: JFK Inaugural Gala
The following two video excerpts show the President-Elect and Mrs. Kennedy arriving at the Inaugural Gala and Janet Leigh, Tony Curtis and Nat King Cole
The Armory was again the Democratic venue of choice for the 1965 Inaugural Gala for President Lyndon B. Johnson.
Some of the most current and popular names in entertainment were enlisted from diverse genres.
Dame Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev danced a pas de deux from “La Corsaire.”
Woody Allen did a comic routine, as did Johnny Carson. Ann-Margaret danced and sang.
Carol Channing, who became a close friend to the LBJs sang Hello Lyndon! with new lyrics, having adapted the famous song from her hit show Hello Dolly! as LBJ’s 1964 campaign song.
Booby Darin sang his signature song, “Mac the Knife” with lyrics reworked to focus on Defense Secretary Robert McNamara.
Carol Burnett and Julie Andrews performed a duet, Mike Nichols and Elaine May did one of their brief and smart comedy routines.
A young Barbra Streisand was universally declared the one who stole the entire show.
The presence of film director Alfred Hitchcock confounded many until he took to the stage and looked at the President’s wife and daughter, Lady Bird Johnson and Lynda Bird Johnson.
“You remember that I warned you in a movie not too far back that the birds were coming,” he dryly articulated. “Well, the birds are here.”
In 1969, it was Vice President-elect Spiro Agnew and his family who presided over the Inaugural Gala.
The absence of President-Elect Nixon and his family were explained as a security issue, according to historian Alan Shroeder in his 2004 book Celebrity-in-Chief, although they attended in 1973.
Entertainers included Dinah Shore, Buddy Ebsen, Johnny Carson and Tony Bennett.
Joel Grey sang a variety of patriotic songs by George M. Cohan from a musical about the composer then running on Broadway.
Lionel Hampton made his third Gala appearance, joined on stage by Mama Lou Parks & the Parks Girl dancers.
Connie Francis also appeared, an avid supporter of Nixon during his 1968 campaign. She even recorded his campaign song, Nixon’s The One.
“King of Soul” James Brown even performed his signature Black and Proud.
In 1977, the Inaugural Gala was not only held in the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, but televised for the nation.
Along with Republican John Wayne, the cast reflected a strong partisanship: Bette Davis, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, Shirley MacLaine, Warren Beatty, Linda Ronstadt, Jean Stapleton, Paul Simon, Jack Nicholson, and Redd Foxx.
Current television stars included Jack Albertson and Freddie Prinze from the popular sitcom Chico and the Man.
Also from television, from the cast of the relatively new Saturday Night Live, co-stars Dan Akroyd and Chevy Chase, impersonated Carter and outgoing President Gerald Ford in a sketch imaging the moment of transition.
The Alvin Ailey Dance Troupe staged an original movement and poet James Dickey read an original work he wrote for the event as did ex-fighter Mohammed Ali.
Of the two Inaugural Galas held for the start of Ronald Reagan’s two terms, the one produced by Frank Sinatra in 1981 managed to unite many of the most famous names of Old Hollywood.
Johnny Carson served as the master of ceremonies, introducing the likes of Ethel Merman (who’d performed for both Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy at their Galas), Jimmy Stewart, Bob Hope, and Charlton Heston.
The younger performers included sibling duo Donnie & Marie Osmond, and Debby Boone, country music provided by Charley Pride and Mel Tillis. Mikhail Baryshnikov performed ballet.
Also making a strong showing were the Beach Boys, the California-grown group familiar to and favorites of the Reagan family.
Here’s Bob Hope’s monologue – with a surprising number of jokes aimed at the victorious party and its policies:
Four years later, the country music was provided by Larry Gatlin & The Gatlin Brothers Band.
Again produced by Sinatra, Reagan’s second Gala included old-school glamour types like Elizabeth Taylor and Eva Gabor, television actors Robert Wager, Jill St. John, Mr. T and Tom Selleck.
Jimmy Stewart returned, joined by Pearl Bailey and comedienne Don Rickles hurling some of his famous insults towards even the President and First Lady.
Frank Sinatra made an unprecedented fourth Inaugural Gala appearance in 1989, but to sing, rather than produce the show.
Perhaps reflective of President-Elect George Bush’s East Coast origins and adopted Southwestern home, the breadth of the entertainment was wide.
Country-western band Larry Gatlin & the Gatlin Brothers Band (a favorite of Bush’s) returned for their second Gala performance, as did Loretta Lynn and Wayne Newton.
Republican actors were there in force (Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bo Derek, Drew Carey, Delta Burke and Gerald McRaney),Nell Carter but non-partisan artists also appeared, such as Destiny’s Child.
Latino entertainers accepted invitations to perform for the first time, such as Julio Iglesias and Ricky Martin.
The traditional Mormon Tabernacle Choir sang. There was a Broadway musical element with Michael Crawford performing excerpts of the hit show Phantom of the Opera.
The dance element was also diverse, from Mikhail Baryshnikov performing ballet and stage show dance routines performed and choreographed by Tommy Tune.
The following two video excerpts show the performances of country singer Randy Travis and dancer Tommy Tune:
The two inaugurations of Bill Clinton in 1993 and 1997 marked even greater Gala events. They were produced by his friends Harry and Linda Bloodworth-Thompson.
Held in the massive Capital Center in Landover, Maryland, the cast was an endless parade of famous performers such as Michael Jackson, Barbra Streisand, and Elton John.
The Alvin Ailey Troupe provided the dance feature of the evening.
Chevy Chase and Bill Cosby gave comedy routines. Readings and narrations were done by several actors including Jack Nicholson, Jack Lemmon and James Earl Jones.
For just this one time, the members of the former group Fleetwood Mac re-united to perform for Bill Clinton who had asked if it were possible, having used their song “Don’t Stop” as his campaign song.
They not only agreed but, of course, ended the show with a rousing version of the song.
Here’s an excerpt showing the opening and Clinton friend Barbra Streisand making good on a promise:
In 1997, Gala performers included Kenneth Edmonds (Babyface), Mikhail Baryshnikov, Candice Bergen, Michael Douglas, Gloria Estefan, Aretha Franklin, Kenny G., Whoopi Goldberg, Joel Grey, Yo-Yo Ma, The Dave Matthews Band, James Naughton, Bebe Neuwirth, Bernadette Peters, Ann Reinking, Kenny Rogers, Jimmy Smits, James Taylor, and Trish Yearwood.
The 2001 inauguration of George W. Bush abruptly ended the tradition of the Inaugural Gala.
There were numerous reasons for it.
First of all there was a sense of elitism to it; no matter how large the Gala venue, there were never enough tickets available for all those who wanted to attend.
The Inauguration draws to Washington, D.C. not just supporters of a victorious candidate who come in on planes and stay in lavish hotel suites, able to afford tickets to every event, but also many who can only afford to sleep in the car they drove into town.
Starting during the Nixon years, the first series of free concerts and other events were initiated and this was expanded into a permanent element of Inaugurations under Carter in 1977.
Beginning with the 1989 Bush Inauguration, the several days of events were kicked off with an official Opening Ceremony at the Lincoln Memorial where many of the famous entertainers were showcased for free to the public who gathered to watch it live and on jumbo screens.
Increasingly, entire families came to town for the Inauguration, and during the 1989 inaugural festivities, an afternoon event called “George to George” was held at Constitution Hall, specifically for children. Both of the Clinton Inaugurals in 1993 and 1997 continued with a children’s event, expanding its scope.
Since the time necessary for mounting the Inaugural Gala was truncated in 2001 because of the disputed election, it was entirely cancelled.
Those looking for star-name entertainment found it at that year’s Opening Ceremony where, along with old-school Vegas entertainer Wayne Newton and country-music band Brooks & Dunn, Latin crossover pop star Ricky Martin performed alongside President-Elect Bush.
Also that year, Laura Bush hosted a celebration for American authors, an aspect of the American popular culture long-neglected by the traditional Inaugural Gala.
Four years later, the 2005 Inauguration of re-elected President George W. Bush featured “America’s Future Rocks Today, A Call to Service,” a youth event at the old Armory which focused on volunteerism, and “Saluting Those Who Serve,” for members of the Armed Services.
The faintest remnant of the Inaugural Gala was “A Celebration of Freedom,” a free open-air event on the Ellipse the night before the Inauguration, with NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, opera singer Andrea Bocelli, pianist Van Cliburn, singer Patti LaBelle, and actors Angie Harmon and Gary Sinise.
There was also, apparently, another issue which spoke to the reality of life in the 21st century. The Department of Homeland Security designated Bush’s second inauguration as “a National Special Security Event.”
From an undisclosed location in northern Virginia, law enforcement and security personnel watched from cameras to monitor downtown Washington streets, kept track of aerial surveillance flights and checked sensors scanning for evidence of deadly biological or chemical agents.
While this information was publicly disclosed by the Department of Homeland Security, it was also not far-fetched to realize that protecting a President who would remain stationary in a massive venue with thousands of people like an Inaugural Gala would present greater challenges than it would have a decade earlier.
Inaugurations without a Gala was not a matter of partisan preferences; four years later, President Obama’s first inaugural festivities in 2009 featured the Opening Ceremony, Children’s Concert, and a Day of Service, echoing events held during the 2001 and 2005 inaugurations.
The Presidential Inaugural Gala was gone forever.
Except for some excerpts once the shows were televised, tapes of the fourteen Inaugural Galas are no readily available; it’s not even clear all of them were entirely recorded.
Comparing different genres from periods of time where performances were judged by different standards make it seemingly impossible to determine what might be deemed the best of the accumulation of hundreds of brief appearances.
Yet one does stand out – above and beyond all else. It was from the very first Presidential Inaugural Gala.
It is Charlie Chaplin’s moving and poignant 1941 monologue from The Great Dictator, affirming what freedom means to the individual human being, whatever nation they call home.
Here is the performance from the film:
Categories: Dwight D. Eisenhower, Franklin D. Roosevelt, George W. Bush, History, Hollywood, Jimmy Carter, Lyndon Baines Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama, Presidential Inaugurations, Ronald Reagan, The Eisenhowers, The Kennedys
Tags: Alfred Hitchcock, Charlie Chaplin, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Frank Sinatra, Franklin D. Roosevelt, George Bush, George W. Bush, Harry S. Truman, Jimmy Carter, John F Kennedy, Lyndon Baines Johnson, Michael Jackson, Richard M. Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Rudolph Nureyev, United States presidential inauguration
I’d rather hear Juvenile sing the national anthem. The game is in New Orleans, ain’t it? Much better choice.
Haha – now if we were to strt polling people on who they wanted to sing the National Anthem at Inaugurations I bet we’d have several thousand different entries. Thanks for writing – appreciate it,
What a great review of past entertainment at these inaugural balls. Carl, you’ve really captured the flavor of the different eras. How interesting it is to get a feel for the political predilections of performers from Hollywood, Motown and Broadway. It is surprising to see how many performers attended democratic and republican balls. We really enjoyed some of the video clips from past events. These are vintage and are great history lessons for those who were not born at the time of these inaugural balls. Your article has got us excited and curious about next weeks events. We already know some of the performers who will be attending, plus our First Lady is already sporting a new hairdo. Soon the media will be at full lights-camera-action mode for all of us arm chair attendees enjoying the DC festivities. Of course there’s always the big question: what will be the primo inaugural sound bite. Stay tuned.
Thank you Doug. It’s funny after reviewing all that half a century of entertainment, I still find that the very first Gala performance of Charlie Chaplin – which I include the video of at the very end – was the one which remains timeless. I appreciate your observations and writing in with them,