WASHINGTON — It was bound to come to this.
And not a moment too soon.
Yes, there is trouble in the Smithsonian Museum's First Ladies Hall. There is a growing problem with Nancy Reagan's 1981 inaugural gown: The garment is growing--sagging, drooping, falling to earth under the weight of designer James Galanos' galaxy of bugle beads, which for five years have been clinging tenuously to thin silk and a one-shoulder strap on a dummy of Mrs. Reagan's proportions.
'Save the Gown'
For $10,000 this could be halted before the gown turns into a bumpy parachute. But the museum, citing Gramm-Rudman budget cuts, says it is impossible to scrape together that much. So the gown continues to droop.
Cartoonist Garry Trudeau was so moved by this plight that he satirized it in his "Doonesbury" comic strip, telling "this incredible but true Gramm-Rudman horror story" and suggesting a "Save the Gown" movement. He listed the museum's address and phone number.
Immediately after Trudeau's strips appeared, nickels, dimes and checks began flowing into the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History to save the gown, along with five other First Lady frocks in trouble. These include gowns worn by Julia Tyler, Sarah Jackson, Jane Pierce, Frances Cleveland and Ida McKinley. It's a virtual Hems Across America.
"Children are sending in baby-sitting money," said Renee Kortum, director of external affairs at the museum. "We're getting hundreds of letters every day, and the last time Trudeau mentioned it, we got 565 calls in one day, on one phone line."
The response is forcing the museum to add another phone line and seek more volunteers to help answer the phones and open mail.
Despite "Doonesbury's" satirical tone, people who call and write are completely serious about their concern and Kortum is not treating it as a joke, either.
"This is giving us an opportunity to get out the word about the hall and what budget cuts mean to the Smithsonian and other institutions," said Kortum, noting that a man from California sent a check for $1,000.
"There are six gowns that need conservation, and that will cost $70,000, but we also want to do the whole First Ladies Hall over, which will cost about $400,000.
"The problem with the hall is that in 1986, people want to know more about the women in the gowns and we're not giving them the information. What were the women's issues? What were their impacts on the presidency? On the time? This is not being told down there."
Kortum said they have not been able to keep up an accurate count of the money that has come in but that it currently totals "several thousand dollars," and comes from as far away as England, Singapore, Japan and Australia.
Sturdier Lining Needed
Mrs. Reagan's gown will probably be saved by sewing a new, more sturdy lining into the dress. But the gowns that were donated by other first ladies are much older and will need more complicated work done, repairing rips and holes.
Mrs. Reagan herself is said to be distressed about the dress situation and has talked to museum officials about it.
"She suggested they speak with James Galanos to see if he would be of any help," said a spokeswoman in Mrs. Reagan's press office. "She does not own the gown but her interest is that it and the other gowns in need of help be properly displayed for history's sake and for the people who view the collection in the years to come."