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JAUNTS: Ventura County

A Past of Presents

Exhibit re-creates storage area housing President Reagan's innumerable gifts.

July 23, 1998|JANE HULSE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

So you think it's tough to find the perfect gift for the man who's got everything? Try the president of the United States.

Ronald Reagan received more than 75,000 gifts during his presidency--everything from a live elephant to ornate clocks to a Hula-Hoop-size ball of yarn. And they're still trickling into the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library near Simi Valley.

Since you can't peruse all these treasures in the complex's 4,000-square-foot-plus storage area, the museum is putting some of it on display. A new exhibit called "Within the Vault" opens Saturday and runs through Oct. 25.

It's not simply a display of gifts. The museum has tried to re-create the feel of this cavernous storage area and its vast collection by showing about 500 items as they are stored and cataloged.

That means you enter the exhibit through heavy vault-like doors made for the show by a movie-set company. Chain-link fencing simulates the high security the museum has for the artifacts. Paintings done for Reagan are displayed on movable racks, like those in the basement.

Utilitarian steel cabinets with drawers hold small items like jewelry. Even the flooring resembles the gray concrete in the basement.

The goal is to give people a sense of the huge collections museums harbor, and how only a fraction of them can be displayed.

"I've never seen it presented like this," said Mark Hunt, the museum's director.

Nearly all the gifts in the exhibit have never been viewed by the public. They're wildly diverse--from an exquisite gold clock from Britain's Margaret Thatcher to a 6-foot-tall yellow pencil he received when he spoke at the National Conference of the Assn. of Student Councils in Shawnee, Kan.

Some are humble, like the huge ball of yarn from an Escondido senior citizens club in recognition of the White House Conference on Aging in 1981.

Some come from the entertainment world. Frank Sinatra gave the Reagans his-and-her white satin jackets accented with gold thread to commemorate the inaugural gala in 1985. Actor Anthony Quinn carved a bronze sculpture of a dancer.

Even the Reagan's little dog, Rex, was on the receiving end. The King Charles spaniel was given a classy white-frame doghouse roomy enough for a family of Great Danes. At the White House, Rex snoozed in it, and the Reagan grandchildren played in it.

Special touches include a parquet floor, doorbell, nameplate, window boxes, American flag and decorative dog-bone stenciling.

Reagan received a record number of gifts as president. "There were hundreds every week," said Jim Powers, museum curator. The 75,000 number doesn't tell the whole story; there were another 25,000 perishable gifts such as flowers and food.

There is still an entire office at the White House, the gift unit, that deals solely with gifts--their packaging, storing and record-keeping.

Although the presents were intended for Reagan, laws regulate what a president can and cannot keep.

"When Ronald Reagan was in office, anything [valued at] over $100 was the property of the government," Powers said. "They [presidents] have the option of buying them when they leave the White House. The only gifts not available [to them] are those from heads of state."

In Reagan's case, the animals--the baby elephant, along with a panda--went to a Washington, D.C., zoo.

Fixing a value is impossible for some gifts. Of the 357 portraits, the exhibit includes one of Reagan created with lapis lazuli, diamonds and rubies--a gift from the president of Pakistan in 1982. Some have a sense of whimsy, such as the Reagan likeness an artist superimposed on Mt. Rushmore.

But the one that will astound visitors, especially children, is the 4-foot-square jelly bean portrait of Reagan, who brought the colored candies back in vogue. It's a mosaic using 10,000 jelly beans, by San Francisco artist Peter Rocha.

And speaking of jelly beans, the exhibit includes a Lucite walking stick filled with them. It's among some 50 canes and walking sticks Reagan has received, including one bearing a brass plate with the engraving "G.W.," which originally belonged to George Washington.

The assortment of canes puzzles Hunt. "For a man who didn't use canes . . . his image was not of a man who needed a cane."

The gift list goes on. More than 20,000 books poured in during the Reagan presidency. The presents with a Western motif number at least 300, including 15 pairs of cowboy boots. Ornate clocks seemed to be a favorite too, and watches, like the gold pocket watch inlaid with 104 diamonds, from a watchmaker.

But the most memorable may be the timepiece with a portrait of the Reagans on the face, accented by a red, white and blue watchband.

BE THERE

Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, 40 Presidential Drive, near Simi Valley, is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $4; $2 for seniors; free for children 15 and under. For information, call (800) 410-8354.

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