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
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
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
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