WASHINGTON — Spending much of his recent life as a universally despised snake, Larry Hagman (a.k.a. J. R. Ewing on "Dallas") longed for a change of pace.
And he certainly got it.
When First Lady Nancy Reagan unveiled the gorgeous White House Christmas decorations to the press last week, down the poinsettia-lined stairway she came with an unlikely escort: Hagman in a Santa suit and red cowboy hat.
"Santa doesn't really come from the North Pole. He comes from Southfork," Mrs. Reagan explained. "Do you get it?"
Members of the media instantly recognized the imposter, and were delighted.
United Press International's veteran White House reporter Helen Thomas was the first to plop on Santa's lap and pose for a picture, sticking her tape recorder in his face and saying, "Tell me all about it."
Said Hagman later: "With the role I'm playing, the meanest guy in the world, people ask me what role I'd like to play in the future. And I said, 'Santa Claus.' I've always wanted to play Santa Claus."
Shortly after Mrs. Reagan attended a Broadway tribute to Hagman's mother, Mary Martin; Mrs. Reagan got the idea of inviting Hagman to play Santa and wrote to him about it. He gratefully accepted, joining an exclusive White House Santa alumni club that includes Mr. T.
With Santa at her side, Mrs. Reagan took the press on a tour of the decorations, which this year revolved around a turn-of-the century theme.
Dolls Used for Decoration
In various locations on the first floor were groupings of two-foot-high dolls dressed in winter plaid woolens, ice skating, building snowmen and otherwise frolicking in the snow.
Perhaps the most overwhelming aspect of the White House decorations every year is not how they look but how they smell. Upon entering any door of the White House, visitors--who number in the hundreds at Christmas time--are drenched in the smell of fresh pine, a wonderful aroma that does not fade away, even during parties that last for hours.
In the East Room, familiar to the public for its televised press conferences, six towering blue spruce trees reach for the high ceiling. The trees are decorated with tiny white lights, tinsel and simulated snow. Huge wreaths hang over the four fireplace mantels.
During the party for the Kennedy Center honorees, Riggs Bank president Joe Albritton was overheard in the East Room saying to U.S. Information Agency Director Charles Z. Wick, "These are the most beautiful Christmas decorations I've ever seen at the White House."
Wick will see plenty of the decorations since he and his wife, Mary Jane, and their five children once again will be spending Christmas with the Reagans at the White House. Also sharing Christmas night dinner with the Reagans will be the President's daughter, Maureen Reagan; her husband, Dennis Revell; Mrs. Reagan's brother, Dr. Richard Davis and his wife, Patricia; the Davis' two children; actress and longtime friend Claudette Colbert; former White House deputy chief of staff Micheal Deaver, his wife, Carolyn, and their two children; public relations specialist and longtime friend Nancy Reynolds and her son.
Newest Family Member
And last but not least, the newest, most celebrated member of the family, Rex, will be there. Mrs. Reagan says the dog is "so sweet."
Rex joined Mrs. Reagan and the unusual Santa to show off the decorations last week. Along with those big trees in the East Room is the large, 18th-Century creche that has gone on display every year since 1967. The 47 baroque figures, carved from wood and terra cotta in Italy, stand 12 to 18 inches tall.
The centerpiece of the White House Christmas decorations is the fat, 20-foot Fraser fir tree that touches the Blue Room ceiling. This year's tree is from Ash County, North Carolina, and is decorated with about 1,500 Christmas card ornaments, 500 gold foil snowflakes, 100 velvet and lace balls, hundreds of hand-blown glass ornaments and glass beads that date back to the Eisenhower Administration, all lit by thousands of miniature lights. Circling under the tree are two wooden trains built by White House craftsmen.
Volunteers from the Second Genesis drug rehabilitation program spent weeks helping to make the ornaments and decorate the tree. Twenty professional florists also donated their time to help display wreaths, poinsettia groupings, greens and trees.
A favorite decoration of many visitors is in the State Dining Room, a three-foot-tall gingerbread house baked by White House assistant chef Hans Raffert. Raffert has baked one every year since 1967 but makes them different each year, this time using tinted plastic windows to make a Green Room, a Red Room and a Blue Room. He also attached a Truman Balcony, like the one on the White House South Portico, and put the President's favorite treat, jelly beans, on the chimney.