White House hatches new tradition -- wooden eggs

"Don't take any wooden nickels," says the old American adage. But what if you're given a wooden egg? And what if it comes from the White House?

If you're one of the 12,000 children eight-years-and-under expected to join their parents at this year's Easter Monday egg rolling on the South Lawn of the White House, you'll no doubt accept it.

Especially since it could be signed by Paul Newman or Clint Eastwood or Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr. or even President Reagan.

The pink, blue, and yellow eggs, to be given as prizes in this year's egg rolling contest and egg hunt, were mailed out in March from Nancy Reagan's office to the Cabinet, members of Congress, and 100 celebrities.

With each came an invitation to the event --box. Most recipients simply signed the eggs.

But some did more. Johnny Carson showed them to his late-night audience. Others, like Bob Hope, called up for another. He was in the East when his egg was mailed to the West.

The White House, however, was way ahead of him. It had already sent out unpainted eggs to the 130 foreign embassies in Washington. Each is to be decorated in the country's distinctive style -- like the jet-black egg with gold relief, bearing the state seal, that has already been returned by the Royal Thai Embassy.

And other eggs were mailed to some 100 American artists. When they have been decorated, they will be put on display and eventually turned over to the Smithsonian Museum.

"I thought the thing was a little whacky to begin with," says Eric Sloane, one of America's best-known landscape painters. He often gets requests from off-beat museums, he says, looking for such things as a paint-stained pair of pants or a pair of his old eyeglasses.

But the White House, pursuing him by phone from Santa Fe, N.M., (his winter residence) to his studio in Cornwall Bridge, Conn., convinced him he should contribute.

"I can't paint an egg very well," he told the Monitor, adding, "It's like asking you to write a column on an egg."

He finally gave in, he says, and "made a little church in black and white and signed my name." On the second egg (the White House sent two eggs to the artists , so they could practice on one) he drew a cartoon-style chicken.

Egging on the congressional contributors was easier. "My office is running over with eggs," says Carol McCain, the White House staffer organizing the event. She plans a four-hour party, complete with balloons, entertainment, cookies, and a traditional hard-boiled egg hunt. And, of course, the egg rolling, where children, six at a time, push eggs across the soft, deep lawn with long-handled spoons.

The event began in 1978 under the presidency of Rutherford B. Hayes, an Ohioan of New England stock. This latest twist still reflects Yankee ingenuity.

The plan was hatched a month ago by the Westport Marketing Group in Westport, Conn., which was previously involved in promotional work for the inauguration. This one also will be a full-blown extravaganza.

The firm's chairman, Richard Rovsek, ticks off a list of entertainers that includes the Broadway cast of "Annie," Big Bird, Captain Crunch, and Ringling Brothers clowns. And, noting that many of the children at this public event will be from Washington's inner city, he says, "It's going to be a spectacular, heart-warming event."

And the eggs? They, too, are of Yankee stock. A gift of Green Mountain Studios in Lyme, N.H., they are milled out of solid New Hampshire birch -- a fact, says the Studios' owner-manager Earl Strout, that he has called to the attention of the State's congressional delegation.

After his samples reached Washington, says Mr. Strout, "there was good news and bad news." The good news: They liked the eggs. "the bad news," he says, "was that they might want to do this every year."

Westport Marketing's Mr. Rovsek agrees this is probably true. He notes that "dozens of artists have contacted the White House saying, 'Gee, we wish we'd been invited to do this.'

"We already k now we've started a tradition," he says.

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