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The last thing you want to do as a White House butler is spill Champagne all over the president and first lady.
Alan DeValerio came pretty close.
Carrying a tray of Champagne glasses, DeValerio entered the Yellow Oval Room after the evening entertainment to serve President Reagan, the first lady, Germany Chancellor Helmet Kohl, and Kohl’s wife. Sounds simple enough for a butler who’s poured thousands of wine glasses for the likes of Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, and Johnny Carson. But those guests were usually seated at white linen tables, and this time the man of the house and his guests of honor were currently lounging on a sofa.
“I wasn’t used to serving people having to bend down,” says DeValerio, who typically stood straight in “butler style” as dignitaries or celebrities scooped food from his serving platter. “I walked up to them, and I started to bend down, and the glasses started to slide off the tray—and I know that I lost at least five years of my life in that split second.”
Fortunately, DeValerio righted the tray before the drinks landed in their laps. But four decades later, he still shudders thinking about the scare. “Can you imagine if I would have spilled Champagne over the four of them?” he says. “I would have been mortified.”
This is just one of the stories DeValerio has tucked in his memory from his years as a part-time butler at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (he’s also the author of A History of Entertainment in the Modern White House). He will be sharing some of those stories in his one-man Capital Fringe show, At Your Service, Mr. President! From 1980 to 1989, DeValerio wined and dined White House guests and residents during the Carter, Reagan, and Bush administrations. At the time, the White House employed about five full-time butlers and 30 to 40 contractors as extra hands for state dinners, holiday parties, and other elaborate functions. “I would be the first person they would call if they needed an extra person,” DeValerio says.
DeValerio promises plenty of amusing anecdotes: There was that time Tony Bennett wrapped his arm around his wife before following President Reagan into the East Room. Thinking they were alone, “she reached down and pinched [Tony’s] bottom, not knowing that I was standing right there,” DeValerio says, chuckling.
There were also tense moments, like when DeValerio served lunch to Reagan and Canada Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. “You could tell he and Reagan did not get along,” DeValerio says, “because Reagan was always smiling, he was always laughing, and neither of them smiled throughout the entire lunch.”
DeValerio’s stint mostly spanned the Reagan years, when the White House was a revolving door for celebrities. He talked comedy with Carl Reiner and the Yankees with Yogi Berra, and met Sally Struthers, from his favorite sitcom, All in the Family. “There were more celebrities than I can remember,” he says.
But serving Sinatra at a state dinner tops the list, he says. Sinatra regaled the ladies at his table with stories. (DeValerio specifically remembers him boasting about punching a reporter and putting him in the hospital. Then, the story goes, Sinatra called the hospital—not because he was concerned about the guy, but he wanted to hit him again when he got out.) Then he and Perry Como requested that all the butlers be allowed to hear them perform that night. “We rushed to get our work done and went. There I was sitting in the East Room and listening to Frank Sinatra and Perry Como—and getting paid on top of it,” DeValerio reminisces.
That pay was about $10 for a four-hour shift, but the perks, like chit-chatting with the president on the private second floor of the White House, were priceless.
DeValerio got his toes wet as a banquet waiter during summers as a University of Rhode Island student. He then wound up in Washington, intending to write political humor, but he needed money so he landed a job as a waiter at the restaurant in the Senate. On his way to and from work he’d pass the White House and wondered if there was any chance he could work inside those white walls.
As luck would have it, he ran into his Rhode Island senator in the hallway of Congress and let it slip that he was interested in waiting tables down the street. The senator lent a hand, and a few phone calls later, DeValerio found himself waltzing right through the North Portico facing Pennsylvania Avenue with his tuxedo bag on his back. (One step in, and he quickly learned butlers were not supposed to enter the front door.)
DeValerio, in his early 30s at the time, was hired by head butler Eugene Allen, whose experience serving eight presidents was portrayed in the 2013 film Lee Daniels’ The Butler. “Unfortunately, I don’t feel like the movie depicted the true person,” says DeValerio, who worked under Allen until he retired in 1986. The film was “very loosely” based on Allen’s life, DeValerio says, and the character played by Forest Whitaker was often angry and surly, which did not match Allen’s personality. “He was the most easygoing, pleasant person. He was just a joy to work for,” DeValerio says. “Never in the entire time that I was there did I see him get upset about anything.”
DeValerio’s voice also oozes with respect when he discusses John Ficklin, a White House maitre d’ who became a White House butler in 1939 during the Roosevelt administration and continued to serve at the pleasure of the president until 1983. Ficklin, Allen, and the other African-American butlers in their mid-60s accepted DeValerio as one of them, even though DeValerio was one of the few white butlers in the circle.
When Ficklin retired, he told DeValerio not many white people were interested in open butler positions. To this day, DeValerio can’t understand why.
As he puts it: “Imagine every time you went to work, anyone in the world could be there at any one time, and you never knew whenever you went there who you were going to see.”
Now a 65-year-old retired Marriott consultant in Frederick, Maryland, every so often DeValerio dreams he’s walking the White House corridors, serving with the other butlers who are nearly all deceased today.
“To have that dream and I’m back with all these guys, and with all the fun that we used to have, and then I wake up, and say, ‘Ugh, it’s not true…’” He trails off. “It was a dream job.”
At Your Service, Mr. President! will perform at the Argonaut on July 16 at 6 p.m., July 18 at 1:45 p.m., July 24 at 7:35 p.m., and July 26 at 4:15 p.m.
Video by Jake Serwer
Photo courtesy of Alan DeValerio