'Tea for Three': Play humanizes First Ladies
While former presidents and politicians were eulogizing Sen. John McCain on Saturday at Washington National Cathedral, Elaine Bromka was having a conversation in Fredericksburg about politics, which included McCain.
Bromka was in town this past weekend to give two performances of her one-woman show, “Tea for Three: Lady Bird, Pat and Betty.” She treated the audience to spot on impersonations of first ladies Lady Bird Johnson, Pat Nixon and Betty Ford at the Fredericksburg Theater Company’s Steve W. Shepherd Theater.
And she knows a thing or two about First Ladies of the United States. She’s been studying them for over 16 years, starting her research in the early 2000s, when Rich Little chose her to play eight first ladies opposite him in the PBS show, “The Presidents.” She culled all the information together into a play with the help of playwright Eric H. Weinberger and staged this production.
What she gave the audience was a real sense of what life was like for women in the 1960s and ’70s through the words of Lady Bird, Pat and Betty. The road traveled to the Women’s Liberation Movement, which was represented in the words of Lady Bird Johnson, who said, “Lyndon has always been my identity” to Betty Ford who said, “No one tells me what to say.”
The joyful, exciting and sorrow-filled hour and a half was centered on the longstanding White House tradition of each First Lady preparing a tea for her successor.
This was used as a springboard to uncover the unique perspectives held by the wives and partners of the most powerful men in the world — presidents Lyndon Baines Johnson, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford.
The highlight of the evening for me was after the show, when Bromka stayed and answered questions from the audience. It was the perfect jumping off point to discuss today’s politics.
One audience member asked if any of the family members of the first ladies she portrayed on stage have seen the show. No family member had, but she said presidential and first lady staff members took in the show.
“Ronald Harold Nessen, the press secretary for (President Gerald) Ford said such an interesting thing that is coming up again at McCain’s funeral,” Bromka said. “He said, Congressional members (used to live) in Washington. Their kids went to school together and they had to cooperate. Now that everyone flies out, they don’t care.”
Sheila Weidenfeld, Betty Ford’s White House Press Secretary, told Bromka that Betty spoke a lot more slowly than her impression.
“I said uh-uh. It’s the third act of the night and we’re not gonna do that,” Bromka laughed. “Poetic license.”
Bromka also learned things about Lady Bird from her daughters, when she was researching the role. She said Lynda Baines Johnson Robb told her that her mother always said that she wished she had gotten a nose job.
And Luci Baines Johnson asked her mother a question for Bromka and her writing partner, because Lady Bird had already had a stroke and wasn’t speaking to others, she said. They wanted to know if it was true that Lady Bird told LBJ not to run again.
“Lucy got back to us and said no, he decided that. Eric was so grateful for the information, he sent her these wildflower soaps,” Bromka said. “We got this beautiful little note back saying, ‘I thank you for the wildflower soaps. They are gracing my guest bathroom.’ It was so Lady Bird.”
Bromka was treated to a bit of history from an audience member. Bernice Burg, who was Lady Bird’s hairdresser, was in attendance with her daughter, Dana Yocham.
She told Bromka the wig she wore during the Lady Bird skit was “pretty good.” Then with a little bit of coaxing from the actress, Burg dished on Lady Bird.
“One of the days I was doing her hair, President Johnson came by the bathroom door where I did her hairstyling,” Burg said. “He walked by and says, ’Bird, we’re leaving in five minutes.’ (Lady Bird) looked at me and says, ‘You know one of these days I might just walk onto Air Force One in my slip.’”
Burg got the biggest laugh of the night.
The show was more than politics. It was a humanizing look at politicians, which is something many people forget in this age of hatred, hyperbole and name-calling for anyone who holds an opposing political view.