White House's silent butler is finally heard
Walter Belcher portrays Alonzo Fields, White House butler from the '30s into the '50s, in Invisible Theatre's presentation.
By Kathleen Allen
ARIZONA DAILY STAR
For 21 years, Alonzo Fields stood silently by in the White House as wars were declared, presidents died and the military became desegregated.
Being silent was Fields' job - he was the chief butler, the first black in that position.
"Do not smile or indicate any interest in the conversations you may overhear," instructed first lady Lou Henry Hoover when he started his job in the early 1930s.
But Fields finally speaks to us in James Still's play, "Looking Over the President's Shoulder," which Invisible Theatre opens next week.
Fields retired from the White House in 1953 after serving four presidents. He took with him copious notes, detailed budgets, menus and insights into life in the White House.
He never was a high-profile kind of guy. In fact, Still came across Fields, who died at 94 in 1994, quite by accident.
In 2000, he was doing some research for another play at the Indiana Historical Society when he discovered a tiny, yellowing newspaper clipping.
"It was about this guy named Alonzo Fields, chief butler in the White House," recalled Still, speaking from his Venice,Calif., home. "It was one of those moments that felt like providence. Something about that triggered a whole flood of things in me. I went on a wild goose chase, looking for him, his family."
He looked up Fields at the Harry S. Truman library; it had limited information. But it gave Still the name of a woman in the White House who might be able to help him.
He dialed the number and explained who he was and what he was trying to do.
"She told me he wasn't living but agreed to send his heirs something. I sent a bio and a basic idea for a play off to the White House. I gave myself a 30 percent chance of hearing anything back."
A week later, at 6 in the morning, Still's phone rang. It was Alonzo Fields' widow, Mayland.
"She said, 'I've been up all night reading your materials, and I want you to do it.' "
That was in May 2000. By July of that year, Still was sitting in her living room.
"She had set up a card table with a pad of paper for me, and we went through boxes and boxes of his things. He had saved literally everything. He had saved entire stacks of handwritten menus he had planned for the White House. Essays, diary entries, newspaper clippings and a handwritten first draft of his memoirs."
It was as though Alonzo Fields were there, speaking to Still, relaying his experiences. Still was able to get a sense of how Fields spoke, how he thought, how he phrased things.
Then he set off for the White House, where he managed to land a behind-the-scenes tour of the places Fields wrote about.
"I wanted to go to the kitchen and the pantry and up and down the back stairs, and I wanted to go in the entrance where he used to go," Still recalled.
When the tour was over, Still walked out of the White House, across the street to LafayettePark, sat on a bench and looked back at the home of the president.
"That's when the whole structure came together," Still said.
The one-man show begins on the day Fields retired. It's the memories of a man who witnessed some of the greatest moments of American history during those turbulent times that included World War II, the Korean War, the atom bomb and the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
"The family didn't give me any restrictions," Still said. "They gave me total access. It came down to who was this guy, and what was going on in his head that last day when he finished his job after 21 years in the White House."
This isn't a kiss-and-tell play. "The more salacious, gossipy kind of stuff is certainly fun," Still said, "but that's not the kind of guy he was."
Much of the dialogue in the play is Fields' actual words. When they aren't, the words are true to Fields' voice and character, Still said.
This project has been a sort of labor of love for the playwright.
"There was something so satisfying to me to give him the stage, to let him tell his story finally."
Contact reporter Kathleen Allen at firstname.lastname@example.org or 573-4128.