Last concert at Reagan White House. `Democratic weather' dampens `In Performance' finale

In Performance at the White House: Chorus Lines PBS, tomorrow, 9-10 p.m. (check local listings). Emcee/music director: Marvin Hamlisch. Performers: Shirley Jones, Stubby Kaye, Lee Roy Reams, chorus line from ``A Chorus Line.'' Executive producer: John Musilli. ``The President and Mrs. Reagan request the pleasure of your company at a concert and reception to be held at The White House on Saturday evening, August 6, 1988 at seven-thirty o'clock,'' the invitation read.

At 7 o'clock, thunder and lightning heralded what the Republican White House might consider ``Democratic weather'': a rainstorm that threatened to postpone the last Reagan administration concert, scheduled for presentation under the stars on the southwest lawn of the White House.

Five years ago, among an audience of around 50, I had attended one of the first of the Reagan concerts in the intimate setting of the East Room. So it seemed fitting for me to see the final Reagan concert. But this time it was to be before an audience of 800.

From my hotel room, I called the office of Mrs. Reagan's social secretary several times, only to be told that a rain call would not be made until 7:15 p.m. Finally I was told, ``We're going ahead,'' and I dashed over to the White House from my hotel a few blocks away. There I found several hundred well-dressed people waiting outside the southwest gate, many under umbrellas as the rain drizzled down. Ahead of me was TV-radio talk show host Larry King, who was informed by the TV crew in the trailer at the curb that they still had no word on a possible postponement. ``Who's making the decision?'' King asked. ``George Bush?''

Finally one of the guards announced that the pre-concert reception was cancelled but that the invitees should return at 9 p.m. for the concert. The crowd dispersed and dashed for cover. It was a minor miracle that as many as 500 people braved the threatening skies and returned to the gate at 9 p.m., where guards checked their IDs before allowing them to proceed through the White House foyer to a metal detection arch.

I was directed through the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden, stepping over television cables, to the south lawn, where the President and Mrs. Reagan were just being escorted to their front-row seats. All the metal chairs, I noted, had been wiped dry.

A huge stage had been erected in front of the rear portico. The backdrop was the second-story balcony erected during the Truman administration. The bright lights pinpointed an audience of mostly middle-aged white people, with here and there a scattering of blacks and young people. All around stood uniformed guards from all the services as well as those ubiquitous dark-suited men with little earphones.

With members of the audience still trickling in, the concert began with Marvin Hamlisch reminiscing about the East Room concerts before introducing the opening act, Stubby Kaye, best known for his performances in ``Guys and Dolls'' and ``L'il Abner'' and currently featured in the film ``Who Framed Roger Rabbit?'' He sang ``Jubilation T. Cornpone'' from ``L'il Abner,'' backed up by the Morgan State University Choir. The choir, at least, was not off key.

Then, there was Lee Roy Reams of ``42nd Street,'' singing and dancing ``There is Nothing Like a Dame'' and a medley of George M. Cohan patriotic songs with chorus backing. Lots of people danced on stage, including Reams, who should have kept singing.

After more choir singing, Hamlisch brought on Shirley Jones, known for ``Carousel'' and her role in the 1962 screen version of ``The Music Man.'' She sang ``You'll Never Walk Alone,'' ``If I Loved You,'' and then a romantic ``'Til There Was You'' duet with Reams.

The concert ended with more off-key Stubby Kaye and a Gershwin medley by the Morgan State Choir, followed by a rousing everybody-in-the-cast chorus rendition of ``Oklahoma.'' All garnered polite applause from the dampened audience.

But it's not over till it's over, and suddenly Marvin Hamlisch was introducing President Reagan and Mrs. Reagan, who climbed on stage and made nostalgic little speeches. The audience was polite enough not to titter, although many looked up at the sky, when Nancy Reagan, reading from a script, said, ``This evening under stars fills all of Washington with joy.''

Then the real finale - ``A Chorus Line'' performers singing and dancing the big production number. Hamlisch called Mrs. Reagan back onto the stage for the finale, where she did a few kicks with the other stars.

The kitchen crew had relented, and it was announced that the two red-and-white-striped tents at the rear of the garden would be serving refreshments. There I chatted with executive producer John Musilli, noted for his superb ``Camera Three'' productions. ``Concerts are traditional here,'' he said. ``They have been going on in the White House since the days of Dolly Madison. Mrs. Reagan makes the final decision as to who is invited to perform. None of the performers is paid - after all it is a great honor to be asked to the White House.''

Although Shirley Jones, Stubby Kaye, and Marvin Hamlisch eventually appeared at the reception, the President and Mrs. Reagan did not; they stayed on stage to reshoot a few scenes, which would be inserted in the tape being aired tomorrow night. Then the two former actors linked arms and retreated to the quiet and privacy of their quarters in the White House.

I walked through the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden, past the squads of guards and servicemen, out the southwest gate. Waiting to pounce on departing guests was an angry young man.

``Did you enjoy this elitist concert?'' he asked. ``Do you feel it is good and proper use of the people's tax money?'' I managed not to answer, since the light changed and I had to dash across the street.

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