Memories of the man who looked over ‘The President’s Shoulder’ a keen slice of history

SHARE Memories of the man who looked over ‘The President’s Shoulder’ a keen slice of history

A man of easy elegance and self-possession, as well as impeccable discretion and discipline, Alonzo Fields served four United States presidents —Herbert Hoover, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower.

As chief butler he was the man who tried to maintain order in the White House, overseeing everything from family meals to state dinners. And of course this gave him unique access. He was able to closely observe these presidents’ domestic lives, note the quirks in their character, compare their public and private personas, and pick up on their attitudes to racial and ethnic minorities.

As for whether any of Fields’ employers knew very much about this man with whom they were on such intimate yet formal terms —well, that is a different matter.

But now, thanks to American Blues Theater’s production of James Still’s one-man show, “Looking Over the President’s Shoulder” —which features a winningly understated and convincing performance by Manny Buckley —we know a good deal more, including the fact that Fields (who lived to age 94) took notes. In fact, some years after his retirement in 1953, he published a memoir, “My 21 Years in the White House.”

‘LOOKING OVER THE PRESIDENT’S SHOULDER’

Recommended

When: Through March 6

Where: American Blues Theater at Theater at Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln

Tickets: $29 – $39

Info: www.AmericanBluesTheatre.com

Run time: 90 minutes, with no intermission

First produced in 2001 (and not to be confused with the 2013 film, “The Butler,” which dealt with another White House employee), “Looking Over the President’s Shoulder” begins with Fields waiting for the bus after his last day of work at the White House.

He gives us a rat-a-tat inventory of the place (107 rooms, 19 bathrooms), and notes that much of the construction was done by “Negroes —some slaves, some free.” He then settles in to talk about himself.

Manny Buckley stars as Alonzo Fields in the one-man show, “Looking Over the President’s Shoulder,” an American Blues Theater production. (Photo: ….)

Manny Buckley stars as Alonzo Fields in the one-man show, “Looking Over the President’s Shoulder,” an American Blues Theater production. (Photo: ….)

Fields, who grew up in an all-black town in southern Indiana where his father owned a thriving general store, had hoped to be an opera singer, and even studied in New England. But with the onset of the Great Depression, and a wife and child to support, he was happy to receive an offer from the White House based on a recommendation from Mrs. Herbert Hoover, who had encountered him earlier. What he thought would be a temporary gig turned into a long career.

Along the way, Fields offers interesting insights into those he served, noting that with each change of president came a whole new way of life. And he captures just enough of the man to make you wonder about what he did not say.

Fields felt that Hoover, a taciturn man with an engineer’s mind, was judged unfairly —that he was, in fact, a compassionate person simply unable to show the great emotion he felt for the Depression’s devastating impact.The Roosevelts were a challenge, with FDR quite the patrician (and profoundly rattled by the attack on Pearl Harbor), and the furiously busy, improvisational Eleanor Roosevelt generating a sort of butler’s nightmare with her free-for-all buffet-style preferences. But the White House was never dull. And Fields was even sent on a mission beyond Washington to help oversee a special guest —Winston Churchill.

It was Harry Truman with whom Fields felt the greatest affinity, in part because he seemed to possess the deepest concern for equal rights. And when Fields’ mother died it was Truman who arranged for him to be flown back to Indiana for the funeral on his official plane.

The Eisenhowers? As Fields notes, they were somewhat distant.

Under Timothy Douglas’ lean direction, the quietly luminous Buckley effortlessly suggests a man of easy grace and authority —one whose pride in himself and his job never faltered as he maintained an aura of total professionalism. Only in the rarest moments does Fields let his guard down, most notably with a rueful mention of never having achieved his dream of becoming a famous singer like his idol, Marian Anderson.

Adding a subtle note of beauty and formality all its own here is Brian Sidney Bembridge’s set, with a grand banquet table upstage. You might well find yourself wondering who will be gathering around that table in the wake of the next election.

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