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Before 'The Butler' There Was ‘Backstairs At The White House’ And ‘1600 Pennsylvania Avenue’

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by Sergio
August 19, 2013 9:01 PM
12 Comments
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Backstairs at the White House

Now that Lee Daniels’ The Butler is off and away, it shouldn’t be surprising that this is not the first project to deal with the work and the private lives of black servants in the White House.

I’m sure some of our “boomer” readers might recall the 1979 NBC 8 hour mini-series Backstairs at the White House, which chronicled the lives of black servants who worked at the White house, from the administration of William Howard Taft through the Eisenhower years, which is just around the around the time when The Butter’s Cecil Gaines starts working at the White House in the film.

The mini-series was based on a memoir by a former White House maid Lillian Rogers Parks, who is played in the program by Lesile Uggams, while Olivia Cole played her mother Maggie, who, in real life, was actually only one year older than Uggams.

The program itself was a huge ratings smash and was nominated for a ton of Emmy awards.

As I recall, the series, not surprisingly, plays rather fast and loose with historical accuracy. I do recall one moment in which president Woodrow Wilson is shown as a benevolent and considerate person towards his servants, when, in fact, he was a dyed-in-the-wool, hard core, Southern racist. But we’re not supposed to speak ill of the dead are we?

The only other thing I recall is the series was also one of the grungiest, dark-looking TV programs ever. The whole thing looked like it was shot in a dimly lit basement.

Though the series has been available on DVD for a some time on Acorn Media, I wouldn’t be surprised if the success of The Butler, convinces Acorn to re-release Backstairs in a sparkling, digitally-restored blu-ray DVD to capitalize on Daniels’ film. At least it’ll look better.

However, Backstairs wasn’t the only project based on the lives of black White House servants.

Three years earlier, in 1976, the legendary conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein, along with lyricist and librettist Alan Jay Lerner (My Fair Lady, Camelot) together created a Broadway musical called 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, which dealt with the lives and relationships between White House black slaves and servants, and the U.S. Presidents they worked for, from 1800 to 1900.

Well some of them were more than servants. In fact, the musical began with Thomas Jefferson and his relationship with his black slave mistress Sally Hemmings. Needless to say, that didn’t go over too well with audiences back then.

Unfortunately, the play ran into serious problems during the out of town tryouts. The original storyline, which used a play within a play concept,  was considered too convoluted and confusing and was simplified.

Then the original director, choreographer and costume designer were replaced with the black director Gilbert Moses (who later directed a lot of episodic TV in the 1980’s and 1990’s until his death in 1995), and choreographer George Faison.

However when it opened on Broadway, it went on to become one of the most infamous disasters in the history of the Broadway theater, running for only 7 performances. Critics completely trashed the play, though some had nothing but high praise for Bernstein’s music; some even saying that it even surpassed his music for West Side Story.

Bernstein was reportedly so upset that his music was shorted and altered during the tryouts, that he forbade any Broadcast cast recording from the show to be made, which was regularly done back then for any Broadway show flop or hit. This is the main reason why no one really knows what his music for the play sounded like.

Later, Bernstein did recycle some of his music for later symphonic concert music pieces.

However, once again, because of the success of The Butler, one wonders if someone might try to resuscitate the musical, so we can finally hear what Bernstein wrote.

Here are the opening credits for Backstairs at the White House:

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12 Comments

  • LLC | September 25, 2013 3:17 PMReply

    I am not of the "baby boomer" generation, and I did not realize these shows had existed prior to the production of "The Butler". I was genuinely surprised by this due to the mass amount of publicity that surrounded "The Butler", calling it a truly original masterpiece.

  • Roof Pounder | September 21, 2013 11:10 AMReply

    Even though 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Leonard Bernstein and Alan Jay Lerner's musical about race relations in the White House, failed on Broadway, it is possible to hear the score (under a different title) in its entirety on a CD called A White House Cantata. It's an excellent studio recording featuring Thomas Hampson and Barbara Hendricks and it vividly captures the excitement of a lost and fascinating Broadway treasure.

  • sergio | September 25, 2013 3:42 PM

    That's what I meant when I stated that some of the music from the musical had been recycled by Bernstein

  • anon | September 20, 2013 5:31 PMReply

    Was this america's version of upstairs downstairs?

  • sergio | September 20, 2013 7:03 PM

    Sort of. Though Upstairs Downstaris is really the ORIGINAL version of Downton Abbey

  • Kool | September 17, 2013 10:09 PMReply

    I remember watching Backstairs at the White House when I was a little kid. Uggams and Cole were very good in it.

  • ME_MO | September 8, 2013 7:44 PMReply

    I remember watching "Backstairs at the White House" with my mother as a youngster. For the longest time I have been trying to find it on DVD, with no luck, I finally watched it on Youtube. I ordered the book on Amazon for my literary collection. Thank you for the info to order the movie on DVD from Acorn Media.
    I'm looking forward to 12 Years a Slave. What history Solomon Northup preserved in his writings.

  • Ling | September 8, 2013 1:42 PMReply

    Black servant are frequently appear in the american film,but actually i can hardly find the story set them as the leading role.It seems that black artists want history put more emphasis on themselves.Nowadays black tend to reconstruct the United States social status of black,black's mission is the new interpretation of literature and art and the shaping of black self image so as to establish a black aesthetic

  • davae | September 6, 2013 6:29 PMReply

    why because iam black

  • sheldon taylor | August 26, 2013 12:53 PMReply

    I saw this when it first aired. Posed it on FB page. The whole episode is on you tube.

  • Curtis Caesar John | August 23, 2013 7:14 AMReply

    I'm glad SOMEONE finally mentioned this. We brought it up on conversation here years ago. I wrote a partial comparison of the two on another 'site.

  • sheldon taylor | August 26, 2013 12:54 PM

    I agree. I did the same.

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