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A White House Easter Egg Role for 130 Artists

April 07, 1985|DAVE LARSEN | Times Staff Writer

Maybe an egg is a whole day's work for a chicken, but it's not so easy for an artist, either.

Especially a wooden egg.

At Easter.

That isn't deterring 130 artists from across the nation who are preparing for the 107th observance of an egg roll, which has nothing to do with the Chinese.

The one in question is held annually on the South Lawn of the White House as part of an Easter party. If past turnouts are any indication, more than 30,000 people will show up Monday, some of them children.

Among the attractions, in addition to the kids competing for prizes by pushing hard-boiled eggs along the grass with plastic spoons, is a display of wooden eggs that were decorated by the 130 invited artists.

"I don't know where they get the chickens that lay wooden eggs," Bill Justice joked. "The splinters must be terrible." Justice was among those who were mailed two artificial eggs slightly bigger than supermarket size. One was for practice, the other for shipping back to the White House.

The 71-year-old Justice, laboring in his Burbank home, was able to crowd onto the small curved surface the likenesses of no fewer than 17 Disney characters.

The reason he chose them--and one of the reasons he was chosen to participate--is that for 42 years he was associated with Walt Disney Productions, and in retirement still is a consultant. His first major assignment was helping animate the movie "Pinocchio," which was followed by screen credits on 57 short subjects and 19 feature films.

He directed the animated Mickey Mouse march heard and seen on the familiar "Mickey Mouse Club" TV series. Although he didn't win, he was nominated for Oscars four times for directing cartoon short subjects.

"Last year President Reagan appeared on tape on our Christmas TV show from Disney World," Justice said. "The studio asked me to come up with something to thank him."

The artist's creation showed photos of the Reagans at a podium, as if holding a news conference. Painted in front were reporters, all wearing Mickey Mouse hats. The Reagans were surrounded on the platform by Pluto, Goofy, Donald and Daisy, the dwarfs and assorted friends.

One good thing leads to another. Several weeks ago, Justice received a phone call from Peggy Henkel of the Westport Marketing Group in Connecticut. She is director of the Easter program at the White House.

"She invited me to be among the persons who will paint eggs for display this year. I agreed, and shortly afterward she called and asked if I would do the cover for the program."

The cheerful cover he produced shows Mickey and Minnie Mouse and Donald Duck dutifully decorating Easter eggs, while two chipmunks instead play tic-tac-toe on theirs.

This was a snap for Justice compared to having to paint on eggs. "Try painting on a curve without getting your fingers in the paint," he said.

Nevertheless, like eating peanuts, once he got started, he couldn't stop. "My friends started sending me egg-shaped canisters that had contained pantyhose, and I wound up painting 30 of those. I even mounted a few on music boxes that play tunes such as 'Easter Parade.' "

He already has mailed in his wooden one, and now the White House wants him to bring along the other versions. This he will do when he leaves today for Washington, D.C.

Justice will be drawing on the lawn. More accurately, he will be drawing on paper while seated on the lawn.

"Every year we invite an American artist to execute a painting of the Easter event while it is taking place," Henkel explained. "This year it will be Janet Munro of Fly Creek, N.Y. But this is also the first time we will include a cartoonist on the grounds."

For four hours (barring rain, which forced activities inside last year), Justice will sit at a table and turn out rapid drawings of Disney characters, which he will hand out to the children.

And, according to Henkel, represented by their decorated eggs will be such California artists as Mel Lazarus of Woodland Hills, Duane Light of Escondido, Rosemary and Wheatly Allen of Mendocino, J.R. Reed of Riverside, Joseph Barbera of Los Angeles and Charles ("Peanuts") Schulz of Santa Rosa.

The Monday-after-Easter tradition of rolling eggs on the White House lawn began in 1878, during the Administration of Rutherford B. Hayes. This much is clear, but lost in history is the reason the location was transferred that year from the previous site on the grounds of the Capitol Building.

Lawmakers Objected

One version has it that when some lawmakers objected to the egg mess, the participants were so shell-shocked that they moved to the White House grass, where they were welcomed by President Hayes.

It is fitting that Walt Disney be represented at this year's event in the person of Justice, because for decades they labored together in the same building, and the animator has fond memories of his late employer.

"I remember one time when Walt was asked by an interviewer how many many people were working for him. 'Oh, about half,' he replied."

Did Parade Designs

Not only was Justice involved in cartooning, but he designed all the floats and costumes for the first Disneyland Christmas Parade, and did the same for the first Main Street Electrical Parade at the Anaheim park.

Everything comes full circle. On a bulletin board in the dining room of Justice's home is a black-and-white snapshot taken by his wife, Marie. It was taken on the day Disneyland opened, July 17, 1955, and shows one of the celebrities who was hosting, a movie star sporting a bow tie.

Now, 30 years later, that former actor, Ronald Reagan, gets to return the favor at his place.

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