On August 16, 2013, theaters will premiere Lee Daniels’ The Butler, a historical drama that follows the experience of an African American butler in the White House during eight presidential terms from 1952 to 1986. The film’s main character is based on Eugene Allen (1919–2010), a White House butler and maître d’ who witnessed the remaking of American racial history. Allen worked in the White House for thirty-four years, beginning his career there as a pantry man in 1952 and rising through the ranks to become head butler and maître d’.
The Butler is not the first film that features Allen. In 1990, Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage curator Dr. Marjorie Hunt began researching White House workers for the 1992 Smithsonian Folklife Festival’s Workers at the White House program. One of the results of the research was a 32-minute documentary, Workers at the White House, directed by Hunt, that features Allen and other workers who served many presidents.
Hunt’s documentary, which was produced in collaboration with the White House Historical Association, also appears on the 2009 DVD White House Workers: Traditions and Memories, along with an introduction by President Jimmy Carter, a 12-minute video accompanying the Smithsonian traveling exhibition The Working White House, and two hours of additional interviews produced by Center curator James Deutsch and media director Charles Weber.
The DVD illuminates the social and cultural history of America’s most famous residence, exploring the skills, customs, knowledge, and experience of a wide range of White House workers. The DVD contains Allen’s stories about the differing customs among first families, golf with President Ford, presidential birthday celebrations, and many others.
In this video excerpt, you can see the man who inspired The Butler and learn how the dedication, skills, and sacrifices by residence staff members have helped the White House fulfill its multiple roles as a family residence, seat of government, ceremonial center, historic building, and museum.