Easter at the White House

by Wade Sampson, staff writer

With so many outstanding Disney Web sites out there providing Disney historical information, it is sometimes a challenge to find unique stories for this column. However, here is a Disney Easter story that I don't believe many of you know about Mickey Mouse celebrating Easter with Fred Flintstone, Spider Man and Bugs Bunny at the White House.

It is just another credit to a very long list of credits by Disney artist Bill Justice.

Bill has had a long and varied career with the Walt Disney Company. He joined the studio in 1937 and quickly rose from inbetweening to doing full animation on feature films like Fantasia, The Three Caballeros, Alice in Wonderland, and more.

Perhaps the characters he is most closely associated with are the mischievous Chip and Dale, as he animated almost all of their appearances in theatrical shorts. In all, Bill contributed to 57 animated shorts and 19 feature films (including, with X. Atencio, doing the marching toy soldiers in Babes in Toyland).

Walt Disney moved Bill to Walt Disney Imagineering (then known as WED) in 1965, where he programmed audio-animatronics figures for such attractions as Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, Pirates of the Caribbean, the Haunted Mansion, Country Bear Jamboree, Mickey Mouse Revue, and America Sings.

In 1961, he began designing the floats and costumes (including the Babes in Toyland marching toy soldiers) for the early Disneyland parades. He also designed the City of Burbank float featuring Disney characters for the 1966 Tournament of Roses Parade where Walt Disney served as Grand Marshall. The artwork explaining the animation process using Disney characters in the August 1963 issue of National Geographic was the work of Bill Justice.

In fact, even after he officially retired in February 1979, Bill was often called upon by the Disney Company to execute special projects including work on the original baby station, "Babyland", at Magic Kingdom, the huge character mural at the exit of the Walt Disney Theater on Main Street, one of the traveling spokesmen along with Clarence Nash for Donald Duck's Fiftieth Birthday, and many more projects. He was inducted as a Disney Legend in 1996.

With all these accomplishments (and many, many more not listed here), there was one honor that people have forgotten: his contribution to the Easter at the White House celebration in 1985.

The White House Easter Egg Roll is one of the oldest and most unique traditions in U. S. Presidential history. Rolling eggs on the Monday after Easter was a tradition observed by many Washington families, including those of the President. Some historians tell stories of informal egg-rolling parties at the White House dating back to President Lincoln's day.

Over the years, the Easter at the White House event has evolved and changed, with different games and amusements popular in different years. Soon the event became a more elaborate affair, with bands, entertainers and food. Presidents and their families have long enjoyed the White House's largest public celebration.

The event involving Bill and Disney took place the Monday following Easter in April 1985. This was the 107th time this event was being held. It included an egg hunt, and an egg roll where children roll hard-boiled eggs in a race to the finish line. More than 100 eggs were hidden in straw for the children to find and keep as souvenirs. Fifty of America's best artists are asked by President Ronald Reagan to paint an Easter egg for the White House.

"I'm not quite sure why the White House contacted me in particular to paint an Easter egg for them," Bill shared with me when I interviewed him over a decade ago about the event. "They may have seen my work from a special 'Thank You' I designed for the President when he appeared on the Merry Christmas parade special filmed at Walt Disney World.

"In February of 1985 I received a call from the White House! They proposed I decorate an Easter egg to be put on display for their annual Easter Party.

The White House Easter Egg Hunt is a tradition that started in 1885. About 50 artists from around the country were asked to paint eggs. The organizers would supply a wooden egg for me to decorate with Disney characters. Even though I agreed, I worried about how does someone go about painting an egg? I thought I'd better practice before the real one arrived.

"At the time there was a special brand of women's panty hose called 'L'eggs' that were marketed in a hard plastic egg shaped container. I think every woman on the block was buying pantyhose so I could have their L'eggs' eggs. I glued the halves together and coated them with several layers of white acrylic. In pencil I drew the characters' heads, and then painted them in full color.

"By the time the White House's wooden egg arrived nearly two weeks later, I had painted 11 panty hose eggs. On one of them I had painted about 30 Disney character heads. There were the heads of Snow White, Pluto, Donald, Dopey, Doc, the Mad Hatter, Goofy, Mickey Mouse and Gurgi from The Black Cauldron! The White House sent two wooden eggs. One to be added to an Easter egg collection housed in the Smithsonian Museum and one for the egg hunt. To my surprise, the wooden egg wasn't much bigger than a normal hen's egg. I got to work and managed to paint 17 heads on the White House egg, then rushed it back to Washington by Federal Express.

"Soon I got another phone call. Would I design the cover for their program? I considered this request quite an honor and spent several days creating something suitable. Then I heard from the White House a third time. Everyone was very pleased with my work and I was invited to the Easter Party itself. The Disney Studio heard about the invitation and offered to pay all my expenses plus furnish me with limousine service for the entire three days I would be there. Not a bad deal.

"About 30,000 other people also decided to accept the invitation. Each guest received a shopping bag with eggs, candy, a program, some balloons, and a pin.

I was pleasantly surprised to find my program design on the shopping bags, balloons and pin."

Bill's design was of Mickey, Minnie, Donald and Chip'n'Dale decorating five eggs as large as themselves. Donald is irritated because unbeknownst to a smiling Mickey and Minnie, Chip'n'Dale have decorated their egg with a tic-tac-toe game that it looks like Chip will win. The artwork is copyrighted by Walt Disney Productions which means that the Disney Company could always duplicate that design in the future if they wanted. So pin collectors have another official limited edition Disney pin to try and locate for their collections.

Besides the program cover, Bill did four pages of Disney line art for children to color. One of the drawings has a Thumper-ish rabbit with a huge fluffy tail, picking out jelly beans from a basket. Behind the basket is an open empty jar with the label "White House Jelly Beans" and a picture of the White House. This was a reference to President Reagan's fondness for that particular candy.

"My wooden egg was displayed with the other artists' eggs," Bill told me. "In a second display were all my practice panty hose eggs. Those designs included the Three Caballeros, Mickey handing a flower to Minnie, Thumper and Flower with colored Easter eggs, The Three Little Pigs dancing, Lady and the Tramp nose to nose, and the White Rabbit rushing to the White House with some of the 101 Dalmatians. There was even an egg featuring the Fair Folk from The Black Cauldron. My wife was Irish so I dressed the Fair Folk characters in green with shamrocks and mounted it on a music box that plays 'When Irish Eyes Are Smiling'."

The Studio sent a costumed Mickey Mouse along with Bill. Many other costumed characters also attended, including Raggedy Ann and Andy, Spider Man, Bugs Bunny, Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble. Most of Bill's time was spent at a table meeting and drawing for guests, which I know from personal experience makes him very happy. The only problem was the cold. It snowed the next day! Bill had to wear his limousine driver's overcoat throughout the drawing session.

Afterward, he was taken inside to meet then Vice President Bush. President Reagan was in California that day. Bill attended an elaborate dinner party that evening and spent the next day sightseeing with his driver.

"I have always been surprised by the publicity this event generated. On Easter Sunday, the Los Angeles Times ran my picture with a nice feature article.

When collectors heard about the White House egg, I did another series of wooden eggs. These were about four and half inches wide by six and half inches high with wooden bases. My friend Stan Pawlowski cast miniature Chip'n'Dale figures to hold the eggs in place.

"I also made a special egg for President and Mrs. Reagan. I painted a portrait of the President and his wife and Mickey and Minnie Mouse on opposite sides. Ninety degrees around from them were Donald and Daisy duck with Chip saluting an American flag Dale was holding opposite Donald and Daisy.

"I am very honored to have been asked to provide so much artwork for the White House. This has been one of the most wonderful experiences in my life. I can't believe all the attention I got. It's nice though, after working for so long, to have it topped with a trip to the White House!"