With the establishment of The National Theatre, Washington, D.C. was able to develop a theatre scene that would frequently attract some influential patrons, including one of the most powerful people in the world: the President of the United States. Since 1835, nearly every sitting, future, or former president has paid a visit to The National. Some have made numerous visits, while still others have arrived at The National at particularly significant times. In addition to showing up in the audience, presidents, and politics in general, have been a consistent feature on The National stage. Like the special occasion you read about in A State Visit, presidential appearances, onstage and off, are often as much about political performance as they are having a nice night at the theatre.
While not quite as dependable in the past 25 years or so, there was a time when every sitting president could be expected to catch a show at The National at one point or another. Many presidents of the late 19th and early 20th century, including Grover Cleveland, Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson, were especially dependable patrons. Their attendance coincided with the general growth of middle-class and upper-class society in Washington, D.C., which resulted in greater opportunities for leisure activities such as attending the performing. Two of the nation’s most iconic presidents of the 20th century were also ardent theatre-goers. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the nation’s longest serving president, who led the nation through the Great Depression and the bulk of World War II, often took in shows with his wife Eleanor. The National often accommodated FDR’s need for a wheelchair by opening the side door and escorting him to his private box while the lights were down. Indeed, FDR was such a big theatre aficionado that he was privy to special “command performances” for his birthday celebrations, many of which also served as fundraising efforts for local charities. He was also instrumental in establishing the Federal Theatre Project, a popular but short-lived program that was included in his New Deal package. President John F. Kennedy was another who spent considerable time at The National. As a Senator, JFK and his wife Jackie had seats in the orchestra; upon his election to the presidency, the Secret Service urged him to move to a box, which would allow them to provide greater security. This arrangement was not always enforced, however, and the Kennedys chose to spend their last trip to The National together in the orchestra seats. Security is always a concern when it comes to the president, particularly after the assassination of another longtime National Theatre fan: President Abraham Lincoln, who will be discussed on the next page. As for Kennedy, a love of the performing arts was a notable feature of his public life; no wonder his name graces the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, which briefly co-operated with The National in the 1970s.
In addition to paying frequent visits to The National, many presidents also made auspicious appearances at significant points in the theatre’s history. President Andrew Jackson is believed to have attended The National’s first performance in December of 1835. In 1850, the visit of legendary songstress Jenny Lind, discussed in detail in The National’s Leading Ladies, drew high-profile visitors from all across Washington, including President Millard Fillmore. That visit signaled the magnitude of the occasion and helped reestablish The National following its first fire in 1845. It also established an unofficial tradition of having the President in attendance following a reopening. President Ulysses S. Grant was present when The National reopened its doors in 1873 following another fire, and over a century later, President Ronald Reagan gave a brief address at The National as it reopened yet again following an extensive remodeling project. Significant moments in the lives of the presidents, such as the inaugural ball of President James K. Polk (who was, ironically, not a regular theatre-goer), have also been celebrated at The National. Unsurprisingly, the presence of the presidents has also coincided, sometimes accidentally, with major political movements of the day. In January of 1947, President Harry Truman crossed the picket lines to attend a production of Blossom Time. The protests in question were directed at The National’s discriminatory policies, something you will learn more about on the last page. Though Truman claimed ignorance of the protests, the controversy indicates how much political and cultural weight the president carries with them, even outside the Oval Office.
In addition to appearing in the audience, many presidents have “appeared” on The National stage as characters. National politics have been a consistent feature of Washington, D.C. theatre, which takes discussing, and confronting, government affairs very seriously. Among the most frequent real-life presidents to appear on The National stage was none other than one of its most ardent fans: FDR. FDR has appeared as a character in at least three plays at The National Theatre: I’d Rather Be Right (1938), Sunrise at Campobello (1959), and the celebrated musical Annie (1978). Abraham Lincoln has also appeared on some occasions, including in Abraham Lincoln (1921) by John Drinkwater and Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1938) by Robert E. Sherwood. Several musicals depicting the presidents have also made stops at The National, including the elaborate world premiere of Irving Berlin’s Mr. President (1962); the pre-Broadway tryout of 1776 (1969), which depicts the drafting of the Declaration of Independence, and the pre-Broadway tryout of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (1976), a legendary miss documented in our Big Before Broadway site. (Note: The header photograph for this site shows President Kennedy and his wife Jackie leaving the glamorous opening of Berlin’s Mr. President; unfortunately, despite much fanfare, the musical was not a success on Broadway.) Fictional presidents have also appeared in plays chronicling the “backstage” drama of Washington politics, including Advise and Consent (1960), Loring Mandel’s play about Senate opposition to a Secretary of State nominee; Gore Vidal’s The Best Man (1962), which follows a vice-presidential candidacy; and State of the Union (1945), the tale of a Republican nominee for president written by successful duo Howard Lindsey and Russell Crouse, whose worked graced The National many times.
As mentioned in A State Visit, politics is often a kind of performance, and the role of President of the United States is one of the most significant in the world. Indeed, some presidents were no strangers to being onstage, Ronald Reagan, a onetime Hollywood actor, being the most notable example. Part of playing that role is ensuring the president maintains a social life while staying attentive to how they are perceived by the public. This is part of why President Truman was quick to deny that he crossed the picket line on purpose: because even while enjoying a night at the theatre, the president is expected to always be playing the role of “president.” That role is also a popular one on stage because the stories of the presidents not only lend themselves to high drama but also to assessing how America’s highest office is understood by the wider world. The story of 1776 or the many plays depicting Abraham Lincoln are not just dry, fact-driven history: they are re-tellings of great American myths that affirm, or challenge, what the people of the United States believe about their leaders and about themselves. Other works, such as the ill-fated 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue or the many dramas depicting Washington’s backroom dealings, attempt to present a more balanced view by accepting the difficult historical features surrounding a president’s tenure or the murky process of making the government work. One of the key aspects of being a significant theatre in a city like Washington, D.C. is that audiences get to see politics play out both on stage and in the real world.
From the Archive
In this section, you’ll catch a glimpse of several Commanders-in-Chief taking in a night at the theatre. Originals and copies of these photographs are held by The National Theatre Archives. Note: presidents are referred to as “former President” when they are pictured visiting The National after leaving office. Fun Fact: President Nixon, who resigned in disgrace following the Watergate scandal, was a longtime fan of the theatre and performed onstage consistently throughout his youth!
Bogar, Thomas A. American Presidents Attend the Theatre: The Playgoing Experience of Each Chief Executive. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co., 2006.
Henderson, Amy. “The Curse of the Presidential Musical: Mr. President and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.” White House History no. 30 (2011): 12-21.
Lee, Douglas Bennett, Roger L. Meersman, and Donn B. Murphy. Stage for a Nation: The National Theatre, 150 Years. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1985.
Seale, William. Foreword to White House History no. 30 (2011): 2.