April 2016

Former White House butler shares tales of presidential protocols, celebrities

Former White House butler Alan DeValerio with Diakon Senior Living resident Sally Durant.

Need a tuxedo in a hurry?

Mention you work at the White House.

At least that worked for Alan DeValerio.

DeValerio, former White House butler and author of the book, “A History of Entertainment in the Modern White House,” recently spoke to residents of Diakon Senior Living – Hagerstown/The Robinwood Campus, relating tales of his work and of the celebrities he’s met over the years.

A Rhode Island native, DeValerio had once read the book, “Upstairs at the White House,” by White House Chief Usher J.B. West. DeValerio enjoyed the book—but never dreamed at the time he would spend part of his working life at the presidential residence … and also write a book about his experiences.

Focused on developing a career as a writer of political humor, DeValerio moved to Washington, D.C., in 1979. Understanding he also needed steady employment, he applied the next year for a part-time job with the Senate dining room, but a friend from a Rhode Island senator’s office assisted him with paperwork for a White House position—and in December 1980 he received a call from the head butler to begin work.

So began his career as a White House butler, one that would last the next 10 years.

When the president and First Lady leave a function, it is your cue to leave as well.

His first question upon receipt of that telephone call was: “What do I wear?”

“A tuxedo,” came the immediate reply. Not having one, DeValerio headed to a specialty clothing store but was disappointed to learn his new suit would not be ready in time for his first day of employment!

When he mentioned he needed the tuxedo for his new role at the White House, however, the garment suddenly became quickly available.

Alan DeValerio signs a book at the Diakon event.

Among the various experiences and observations DeValerio detailed in his presentation—part of a wide range of educational and similar events Diakon’s many senior living communities host on a regular basis—were:

  • His first day on the job, he walked through the front door—the wrong thing to do!
  • Protocol is of utmost importance.
  • State dinners are different today from many years ago. President Dwight Eisenhower, for example, was very interested in food preparation; he chose the wine for state dinners and created the menus. When he had the time and opportunity, you might find him on the third floor making homemade soup or on the roof of the White House barbecuing. 
  • The Kennedy administration changed the seating of state dinners from an E-shape to round tables and replaced the previous high-backed chairs with smaller gold-colored ones.
  • DeValerio particularly enjoyed the introduction of the president and First Lady; as they came down a staircase to proceed into the East Room for the receiving line, “Hail to the Chief” was played.
  • President Lyndon B. Johnson’s favorite drink was scotch and soda water. However, during the Vietnam conflict, he would chase the scotch and soda water with milk. 
  • The Johnsons enjoyed staying up late for parties; the Reagans did not.
  • As a butler, you do not speak to the president or First Lady unless he or she has spoken to you first. And when the president and First Lady leave a function, it is a cue for you to leave as well.
  • DeValerio once met Bob Hope in the restroom of the White House. 
  • Frank Sinatra invited all the butlers to come to the East Room when their work was completed. He and Perry Como entertained them; Sinatra was the only entertainer at that time to invite the butlers to enjoy a show. 
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