Despite the fact that he’d served two full terms as governor of California, the nation’s most populous and prosperous state, when Ronald Reagan was running for President in 1980 he was most frequently dismissed by the perception that he was nothing more than a 1950s actor.
It may not, however, have merely been a partisan ploy to depict him that way.
For those voters who didn’t closely follow politics, particularly those who weren’t Californians, there was good reason for such a strong perception that has less to do with partisanship than with his home.
Some twenty-five years before he won the presidency, Reagan was known to the nation as an actor and “Corporate Ambassador” for the General Electric Company who had proudly shown the public his “Home of the Future” in a series of long-form television commercials with the corporate branding of “Live Better Electrically.”
The commercials so distinctly capture the quintessential 1950s ethos of optimistic consumerism in the post-war economic boom, it is easy to see how Ronald Reagan, with his own personal form of unrelenting optimism, became forever associated with such an idealized nostalgia of American life.
Here’s a look back at those commercials and still photos of that famous presidential home in honor of the February sixth birthday of the fortieth American President.
By the early 1950s, the future President found his acting career flailing after nearly two decades of appearing in mostly in “B” movies, those shown as the second feature film on a double-bill.
After a brief and unpleasant Las Vegas stint he took just to support his new wife Nancy, who he married in March 1952, and their daughter Patti, born seven months later, he truly lucked out.
In 1954, Reagan was contracted by General Electric to host a new episodic drama series it was underwriting, to be broadcast on television Sunday evenings.
Reagan introduced each episode with a prologue, and starred in four programs each season. Nancy Reagan sometimes co-starred with him.
At the end of each week’s General Electric Theater, Reagan signed off with, “Here at General Electric, progress is our most important product.” The show’s quality writing and acting garnered huge viewership numbers, and it was eventually reporting a weekly audience larger than the popular western Gunsmoke.
In 1956, after two years of working for G.E. Reagan achieved the financial stability that had long eluded him as an actor, and bought an acre of secluded land in the Pacific Palisades section of Los Angeles on what became San Onofre Drive.
There he would have constructed a nearly 5000 square foot ranch house, in the Mid-Century Modern style, designed by architect Bill Stephenson.
The four-bedroom structure, fronted in pale-colored stonework, was majestically modern in its simplicity, all the rooms on one floor in an interior configuration which Ronald Reagan himself designed, the kitchen, dining room, living room, den and library all flowing openly into one another.
White azalea plants banked against the stone entrance gates, and a paved driveway curved up towards the bluff, cossetted by high, manicured hedges. Arriving at the house atop the hill, a Mid-Century scroll-work design screen was the first striking element of the place. Bright red bougainvillaeas blossomed alongside the outer walls.
The layout gave the entire home a breathtaking quality, the eighteen-foot high floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the rugged, golden hills of Mandeville Canyon, Sullivan Canyon and Rustic Canyon. Built on a natural plateau, the many decks and patios of the house afforded a distant view of the sparkling, aqua Pacific Ocean.
For Nancy Reagan, who had determined to move on from her life as a Metro studio contract actress to become a traditional wife and mother, the building and design of the house with her husband was an especially happy process.
The couple frequently visited the site as construction and landscaping proceeded and when the cement was first poured for the three-car garage and the swimming pool, they drew their initials in it, intertwined together.
Inside, Nancy Reagan determined the color scheme in classic California shades of yellow, orange, green and pink.
There were several low tables in black lacquered woods, her growing collection of porcelain battersea boxes scattered around them.
General Electric saw opportunity in this.
The company would make the home of its national spokesperson the real-life showplace of its every new gadget, a model for the nation’s consumers to emulate.
Once the foundation was laid, the structure was entirely wired to enable every one of General Electric’s state-of-the-art modern marvels. Thus, the private home of Ronald and Nancy Reagan and their children Patti and Ron also served as GE’s “Home of the Future.”
“Everything in the house will be electric,” Reagan cracked when he learned about the plan, “except the chairs.”
“They provided us with so many refrigerators, ovens, and fancy lights – not to mention a built-in garbage disposal – that they had to build a special panel on the side of the house for all the wiring and the switches,” Mrs. Reagan later wrote. The electrical switch box was, indeed, formidable, weighing some three thousand pounds. “We’ve got a direct link to Hoover Dam,” Reagan quipped while showing it to guests.
Reagan trimmed the hedges and cleaned the pool but was actually on the road for nearly two years of the eight that he was in the employ of G.E.
The job also required that Ronald Reagan serve as the “General Electric Corporate Ambassador,” touring the company plants and research facilities around the nation, and delivering pep talks to the company’s quarter of a million employees.
The content of his remarks were intended to boost G.E. but he enlarged them to further hail the free enterprise system of democracy, the entrepreneurship, and the bigger, brighter future which capitalism was sure to deliver to every American home.
Even when he was home with his family, however, Ronald Reagan could still be found on the clock.
The marketing division of General Electric coaxed their “Ambassador” to let the entire nation look around his family home in a series of long-form commercials.
Thus Ronald and Nancy Reagan showed off the company gadgetry and gizmos, intended to urge all consumers to also “live better electrically” by buying the latest General Electric offerings.
One of the commercials showed off the house in a number of rooms, with the Reagans and their toddler daughter Patti focusing on all sorts of GE gadgets in each. Here it is:
Another focused just on the extraordinary lighting fixtures inside and outside of the house.
It even had a scene with Nancy Reagan tucked into bed, as she showed off a switchboard that could turn on all of the house’s lights from that one fixture.
“I wasn’t wild about having my home turned into a corporate showcase,” Mrs. Reagan later admitted, “but this was Ronnie’s first steady job in years, so it was a trade-off I was more than happy to make.”
Here’s the commercial of them showing off the lighting:
Reagan’s work with General Electric ended in 1962, by which time his conviction that government regulations enacted by Democratic President John F. Kennedy were increasingly impinging enterprise. It led him to switch political loyalty to the Republican Party.
Four years later, in 1966, he was elected Governor of California, serving until the first day of 1975. Several weeks before that, the Reagans purchased their famous ranch near Santa Barbara which they named Rancho del Cielo and used as a weekend home.
Although Reagan failed to gain the Republican presidential nomination in 1976, he forged ahead towards that goal over the next four years. During that time, his “Home of the Future” became the base for his own intended future, turning out political editorials and conducting his weekly radio show from his office there.
The house served as a peaceful refuge for both Reagans during the rare, brief periods they were away from the 1980 campaign trail during which he first gained his party’s nomination and then challenged incumbent President Jimmy Carter in the general election.
After voting on Election Day 198o, the Reagans returned home for a few hours of rest before the expected long night at the home of friends where they intended to have dinner while watching election returns come in.
Instead, as they were both showering as the television news was blaring, they learned earlier than expected that he’d won the election.
Nancy Reagan long laughingly recalled the scene of them both dripping wet with towels wrapped around them at the surprise call came in from President Carter to their home, conceding the election.
The Reagans moved out of their G.E. house in January of 1981, many of its furnishings to be integrated with historic ones in the White House collection and used by them as a presidential family in the private quarters.
Leaving the house proved especially emotional for Mrs. Reagan and her daughter Patti.
They never returned, the house being quietly sold during the presidency.
During the eight years of his two terms in office, it was Rancho del Cielo that served as the California White House for the Reagans; when events kept them in the city of Los Angeles they occupied the presidential suite of the Century Plaza Hotel.
When the Reagan presidency ended, they returned to a new home in the Bel Air section of Los Angeles where the widowed former First Lady continues to reside.
With Alzheimer’s disease advancing on the former President, the couple made their last visit to their ranch in 1995.
It was sold three years later to the Young America’s Foundation which has preserved it as an historic site, but it is not open to the general public.
Unfortunately, any chance that the President’s equally historic General Electric “Home of the Future” might be potentially purchased by the National Park Service and restored to show the general public how the Reagans lived better electrically was lost a year ago.
The house was put on the market for the first time since the Reagans sold it in the 1980s and sold within two weeks for about $5 million.
At least the Reagan “Home of the Future” will live on in the old commercials filmed there, electrically of course.