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In the fall of 1965, I had an experience that could have happened only in Washington. At the ripe age of 11, I appeared in a musical revue that was put on by LBJ’s White House staff to honor Congress for the landmark civil rights and Great Society legislation it had just passed in the 89th Congress. My role was a nonspeaking one, but it was nevertheless enough to give me the shakes. I got the role the old-fashioned way � through nepotism. My father, Lee C. White, who celebrates his 80th birthday Sept. 1, was White House counsel at the time. When the White House social secretary, Bess Abell, asked him whether he knew of a boy around 13 years old who would like to be in the production, he said he had a son in that age range who just might work out. Soon afterward, I took a bus downtown by myself, walked up to the White House’s East Gate, and, after a phone call, was admitted to the building and escorted to my first business appointment � with Abell and the show’s stage manager, who, after checking me out, gave me the thumbs up. While the chance to appear in the show was a one-of-a-kind opportunity, my siblings and I had already enjoyed some of the delightful perks that came with being the offspring of a White House insider, such as eating lunch in the White House mess and riding in the presidential motorcade to D.C. Stadium (now RFK) for the opening day game of the much-lamented Washington Senators. We also took vacations at Camp David. (I recall playing in a touch football game there in which, during a kickoff return, I was supposed to block LBJ’s National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy, who, running down the field full-tilt and finding a little kid in his way, emitted a curse as he reluctantly realized that he had no choice but to put on the brakes in order to avoid running me over.) Called “A Salute to Congress” and performed only once, the production was staged at the State Department’s auditorium on the night of Oct. 7 before a small audience that included President Lyndon B. Johnson, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, some members of Congress and of the Cabinet, and their spouses. When it was over, the president came up on stage and spoke to the assembled cast. He said he had loved the show so much that he wished every American could see it. Then he left the State Department and checked into Bethesda’s Naval Hospital in order to undergo his famous gall bladder operation, the scar from which he proudly displayed to photographers who shared the image with millions of Americans (most of whom probably wished they’d never seen it). The production featured such famous entertainers as gospel queen Mahalia Jackson, actors Fredric March and Hugh O’Brian, opera star Robert Merrill, singer/actress Sheila MacRae, the Bitter End Singers, and the then-uncontroversial singer Anita Bryant. The U.S. Marine Corps Band, seated in the orchestra pit, not only played the original score that had been written for the show, but also provided accompaniment to the wide range of songs that were performed. AT THE PRESIDENT’S REQUEST In a phone conversation, Abell recalls that the show almost did not go on. Republicans on the Hill prevented the Democrats from adjourning in time for everyone to get over to the State Department. Ironically, the legislation under discussion was the beautification program that was one of first lady Lady Bird Johnson’s favorite causes, says Abell, whose son is named Lyndon. The decision was made to cancel the performance, since it would not make sense to present a show honoring Congress when most of its members were tied up on the Hill, she says. Perhaps as something of a consolation for all the hard work that had gone into preparing for the production, the cast and crew were put on buses and taken through the rainy night to the White House to meet the president and have our pictures taken with him. The photo session was held in the Yellow Oval Room in the family quarters on the second floor of the White House. When it was over, one of the musical groups in the show sang a song for the president � a surprisingly stirring anthem called “The Great 89th,” which had recently been penned to pay homage to that legislative session’s notable accomplishments. Its chorus: “Oh, the great 89th will always be remembered. Yes, the great 89th has left its mark. No Congress before ever opened the door to the future like the great 89th!” President Johnson liked the song so much, Abell says, that when the group finished it, he asked them to sing it again. At the end of the second rendition, she says, the president asked, “Why can’t I see the play?” And with that simple question, the production was suddenly back on. “It was chaotic,” Abell says. “I jumped into the president’s car with Fredric March and Hugh O’Brian. We were all just rushing to get over there.” Back at the State Department, the production opened with an inspirational prologue that was read slowly and in wonderfully sonorous tones by actor March. At the conclusion of the show, he reappeared to provide an even more emotional epilogue. The original score was composed by Ferde Grof�, the American composer, then 73, whose best-known work is “Grand Canyon Suite.” “Everyone thought he was dead, but we found him in California,” Abell says. The script was drawn from a lushly lyrical passage in Thomas Wolfe’s renowned novel You Can’t Go Home Again that discusses different archetypal activities going on at one point in time all across America. Playing the key role of the onstage narrator was actor O’Brian, one of the cast’s few performers I was familiar with, thanks to his portrayal of Wild West lawman Wyatt Earp in the 1950s television show of that name. O’Brian would intone portions of Wolfe’s luscious prose as a way of setting up musical numbers that had a connection to the city or region being referenced. For instance, a passage about a Louisiana boy practicing to become a big-league pitcher was followed by a performance by a New Orleans ragtime band called Your Father’s Mustache. A passage on the Midwest set the stage for Sheila MacRae’s frisky version of “Everything’s Up to Date in Kansas City.” O’Brian’s references to California set up a performance of the song “San Francisco,” while his comments about the Second City led up to a rousing rendition of “Chicago.” And a passage about the Great Plains provided the setup to Robert Merrill’s thunderous version of “Oklahoma.” (As a cast member, I was privy to the secret that the large cowboy hat he held as a prop had a sheet of lyrics taped onto it to help him get through it and/or the other song that he performed, “Tumbling Tumbleweed.”) Passages about New York City provided the context for two songs. The first was by Anita Bryant, who, dressed in a slinky, sparkling gown, delivered a sultry version of “Manhattan,” with its great line of “I’ll take Manhattan, the Bronx, and Staten Island, too.” Then, near the end of the production, as O’Brian recited Wolfe’s words about a bespectacled young boy who sits at night reading on a Lower East Side fire escape driven by the aspiration of attaining “the world distinction of an Einstein name,” the audience saw me downstage left doing exactly that. When he stopped talking, a single spotlight came down on Mahalia Jackson upstage right. She proceeded to sing a slow, crystal-clear version of “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” that brought the house down. SCHMOOZING WITH THE CELEBRITIES One of the great benefits of being in the production was the opportunity to hang out with some of the world-class performers in the cast. For instance, I had an amusing exchange with Merrill that took place at a reception at the State Department while the show was in rehearsals. An exhibition of small paintings was on view in the reception room, and I was standing in front of one of the paintings sipping a 7-Up when Merrill sidled up to me with a real drink in his hand. He looked at the painting and saw that it was an abstract depiction of a naked woman. There was no head, only the voluptuous contours of her torso and breasts. He looked down at me and smiled, then looked back at the painting. “Hmmm,” he said, “anyone I know?” I also fondly remember an exchange with actor March in which he steeled my nerves. At the time, all I knew about March (1897-1975) was that he was an old, legendary movie star who had a superb voice and an aura of almost-palpable dignity. Only later in life did I see his superb film performances. Thanks to the much-adored cable network Turner Classic Movies, now I see him all the time, whether he’s playing opposite Greta Garbo in “Anna Karenina” of 1935; opposite Humphrey Bogart in “The Desperate Hours” of 1955; holding down one of the central roles in the 1946 classic “The Best Years of Our Lives”; or giving a thoroughly convincing performance as the U.S. president in 1964′s “Seven Days in May.” After returning from the White House on the night of the performance, he and I spent a few minutes together backstage a short time before the curtain was due to rise. He was calm and steady, but I was a different story. I was so nervous that my knees were shaking. I said to him, “You know, I always thought that the old expression about being so scared that your knees shake was just an expression. But now I see that it’s really true.” He smiled at me reassuringly. “Don’t worry,” he said softly. “I’ve seen much worse cases than that.” His words had their intended effect. I was able to fulfill my meager responsibilities of walking out onto the fake fire escape and sitting with my back against one of its supports while pretending to be deeply engrossed in the book that I held. In all honesty, I was nothing more than a living, breathing piece of scenery for Mahalia Jackson’s astonishing performance. But receiving the comforting comments from the big-hearted March gave my confidence enough of a boost that I was able to pull it off. Not many children get the opportunity to share thoughts about stage fright with someone who starred with Bogie and Garbo. While I’ll always be grateful for March’s words of encouragement, the most spiritual moments were probably those that I spent backstage with Jackson. I was familiar with her from having watched her weekday TV program, on which she’d sing her signature version of “He’s Got The Whole World in His Hands,” which always got me singing along. But seeing her in person backstage was much different from watching her on the tube. For one thing, she was surprisingly frail. She was only 54 years old and would live another six-plus years until January 1972, but she had been hospitalized with heart problems in 1964. (She later regained her vigor and returned to performing up to 200 concerts a year, according to Ebony.) Her presence was extremely powerful. It was as if piety were oozing out of every pore. On her face was a contented glow that I could tell, even at my young age, was the manifestation of an inner peace. Something about her made me think that she had sensed her fate and had reconciled with it. I remember thinking that she seemed like she already had one foot in heaven. Her entourage consisted of one quiet, gentle man who was always with her, tending to her needs. The other cast members seemed to sense her special aura and left her alone. As the only child in the cast, I was able to interact with her without really invading the zone of privacy that seemed to surround her like an invisible cloud. I asked her to sign my program, and she cheerfully obliged. In addition to her name, she wrote two sweet, simple words that spoke, and continue to speak, volumes: Keep smilin’. Murray White is a writer in Kensington, Md. He may be reached at [email protected].

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