Paul’s Puppets, In performance at the White House

As a business man in the midst of the Great Depression, with a wife and a year-old son to support, Bernie needed to try everything possible to make a living as puppeteers.
The Christmas season of 1933 may have given him the idea of doing a performance at the White House during the Easter season. Around the first of the year he wrote a letter to the White House. All right, let’s be honest here; he had Edee write the letter. She was the one with the writing skill. She wrote the play scripts and did all the typing and correspondence.

Arranging for any type of entertainment at the White House was not simple even then. There are fifteen surviving letters relating to this one performance that give an idea of what was involved.

On Wednesday January 31, 1934, Mrs Roosevelt’s Secretary responded to the initial letter with Mrs Roosevelt’s appreciation of their kind offer, and informed them that all arrangements for musicals at the White House were handled by Mr. Henry Junge of Steinway & Sons, in New York.

Friday, February 16, Edee wrote to Mr. Junge offering a performance for the President’s grandchildren during the Easter holidays.

Monday the 19th, Henry Junge replied that Mrs Roosevelt was away on a tour and that he ”shall ascertain if she contemplates any Easter Children Entertainment”. “ I shall bear in mind (your offer) when a suitable opportunity offers to utilize your marionettes”. He also wanted to know if they were doing any puppet shows in New York City that he might see and report his personal impressions on, to Mrs. Roosevelt.

On Wednesday the 21st, Henry Junge wrote that “I am delighted to inform you that Mrs. Roosevelt has reacted very favorably towards your suggestion of your Marionettes’ Entertainment”. He went on to state that “ It is customary that no fees are paid to artists who offer their services for such occasions at the White House and if this harmonizes with your plans, I would suggest that you submit to me some of your features which you think would be enjoyed by Mrs. Roosevelt’s grandchildren and some of their friends on Easter Monday afternoon, April 2nd at 3.30 P.M.”.

Friday, February 23, Edee / Bernie responded “I am very pleased to know that Mrs. Roosevelt has accepted the offer, of our marionettes, to entertain her grandchildren.” “ My fee will be the pleasure I give my young audience and the applause my little actors receive”. He then suggested that he would like to stop by the White House to see the room where we were to give our performance, so that he could get an idea of how much curtaining would be needed, and where the stage would be located. He suggested the ‘Fiery Dragon’ as the play, but ended the letter with “I shall be pleased to give any play in my repertory that Mrs. Roosevelt or you select and shall look forward to the Easter Monday performance with great pleasure”.

On Tuesday the 27 Henry Junge replied that “Your suggestion, to look over the situation at the White House before deciding upon the program is a wise one. I am enclosing a letter of introduction to Mr Raymond D. Muir, Chief Usher at the White House, which kindly present to him when you visit Washington”. He then suggested that Berne “get in communication with Mr. Muir and appoint a day and I am sure that he will find time during the day you are in Washington to discuss essential details with you”.

Bernie did indeed communicate with Mr Muir, took a trip to the White House where he met with Mr. Muir, and saw the East Room where the performance was to take place. He also found out the Mr Muir would have a platform available as well as some curtains to block off the puppet stage.

On Monday March 12, he informed Mr Junge about his White House meeting and stated that unless Mrs Roosevelt preferred another story, they would be doing “The Fiery Dragon”.

Saturday, March 24, Mr Jung reported that “I heard this morning that Mrs. Roosevelt thinks that “The Fiery Dragon” will be quite satisfactory for the party on April 2nd, 1934”.”Please let me know when you expect to start for Washington and where you are going to stay, so that a White House Limousine will call for you and your assistants at the proper hour for your appearance”. Below Henry Junge’s fancy signature is a hand-written PS “The Easter Party on April 2, 1934, will be at 3.30 PM; and the marionettes may be shown at 3.45 PM”. Edee made a note at the bottom of the letter “leave 12 o’clock; arrive 1 o’clock”

Monday, March 26, Edee wrote to Mr Muir to inform him that they would arrive between one and one thirty o’clock, April 2, to unload the marionettes and stage equipment. It would take several hours to set up the stage on the platform. Bernie mentioned one other thing he forgot to mention earlier which was the possibility of darkening the East Room windows to make the stage lighting more effective.

Tuesday, March 27, a letter to Mr Junge explained that they only lived about forty miles from Washington, and that they will drive there with the puppets and equipment in a trailer attached to the car.

Easter, Monday April 2,The Pauls and their puppets arrived at the White House at the appointed time and after hauling everything in they began setting up the stage in the East Room. With all of the careful planning and communication there was one thing that no one thought about. The 78 rpm record player that was used for the introductory and between-scenes music was operated on AC (alternating current) which was used throughout the United States, except in the White House where the original direct current (DC) electrical system, installed in 1891,was all that was available. When Mrs Roosevelt was informed of this problem she said “I think there is a wind-up phonograph somewhere. Then she and Bernie went from room to room searching until they found it, solving the problem. After the stage was set up and every thing was ready, Mrs Roosevelt took Edee on a short tour of the White House, which included the kitchen, which Mrs Roosevelt thought was not very well equipped. There were four Roosevelt grandchildren present for the show, William (age 2), Sara (2), Anna (7) and Curtis (4). Meanwhile, according to the Washington Post, there were 50,000 children on the White House south lawn participating in the annual Easter egg rolling event. What about the President? He was down south on a fishing trip.The show apparently went well and was well received by the audience; because the record player problem was the only thing that would go on to become Paul family folk lore.

On Thursday, May 17, Edee /Bernie wrote to Henry Junge, “I do hope Mrs. Roosevelt and her grandchildren enjoyed our recent performance at the White House, although I have never heard any comment from there”. “The purpose of this letter is to offer my services to Mrs. Roosevelt at any time she may care to have us again and also to suggest to the President, through her, the idea of a performance for the crippled children at Warm Springs, GA. , on the same terms as our White House performance, of course”.

Wednesday, May 18, a similar letter was sent directly to Mrs. Roosevelt, along with the suggestion of a performance at Warm Springs.

Around the middle of August, probably on Friday the 17th, a parcel post package from the White House arrived at the Linthicum Heights post office, where Bernie worked part time to supplement his puppet show income. Upon opening this package he discovered a framed glossy photograph of Mrs. Roosevelt standing at the bottom of the stairs leading to the private quarters on the 2nd floor. Fala, the Roosevelt’s famous scotty dog joins her on the fourth step. This photographs was signed in ink” To Mr. Bernard H. Paul with good wishes Eleanor Roosevelt”. The frame contained a brass plaque inscribed “This wood was part of the White House roof erected about 1817 and removed in 1927”. Mrs Roosevelt had these frames made in her Val-Kill Industries building in Hyde Park, NY. She built this building in 1926 and used it to train local farmers woodworking skills that they could use as a career, because farming in the area was dying out. Along with creating replicas of early American furniture, they created these frames for the Roosevelts to used as thank-you gifts.

On Saturday, August 18, a letter was written to Henry Junge thanking him for the photograph and telling him how they sincerely appreciated it. Never missing an opportunity to promote more shows, Bernie went on to say that “If Mrs. Roosevelt would like to have us give our little Christmas Play for the children at Christmas time we will be delighted to so as it is a pleasure to play to such a charming audience. The play has the traditional Santa Claus, Jack Frost, etc. that are a thrill even to the small children” “ Would you mind finding out if she would be interested so we can hold a date open for her”?

Promptly on Tuesday the 21st, Henry Junge responded. “ The contents of your letter of August 18th is very much appreciated and I shall bring your offer to Mrs. Roosevelt’s attention when an opportune moment arrives. However, I do not anticipate that this matter will receive any consideration before November 1st, when Christmas festivities may be taken up for discussion”.

The final surviving letter was written on White House stationary on Thursday October 12, 1937. “I am afraid I will not be in Chicago in June, 1938, but do not know definitely at the present moment just where I will be at that time. I am sorry to say that I cannot give you a note for advertising purposes but you may show this letter to any individuals. The children and I have enjoyed so much the plays which you have given here. I think marionettes are a very good form of entertainment as they can convey much valuable information and be both recreational and educational”. Signed “Eleanor Roosevelt”.

Even though Mrs Roosevelt’s letter mentioned “plays” as far as I know a Christmas show at the White House did not take place. There was also no show at Warm Springs, but Bernie had achieved what he had originally set out to do. From that time on “Performed at the White House” was mentioned all Paul’s Puppets promotional material, and in most newspaper articles about the Pauls and their puppets.

~ Larry Paul