The centennial of John F. Kennedy’s birth is on Monday, and to mark the occasion, PBS stations are presenting “JFK: The Lost Inaugural Gala.” The program is a one-hour documentary about the parade of showbiz A-listers who threw a big bash for the then-incoming President on Jan. 19, 1961.
There had been previous star-filled inaugural galas, but nothing quite like this one. Led by Frank Sinatra, the evening featured Nat King Cole, Laurence Olivier, Harry Belafonte, Ethel Merman, Jimmy Durante, Gene Kelly, Milton Berle, Janet Leigh, Tony Curtis, and Bette Davis.
NBC aired the telecast the following week, but the production ran into problems. The venue, the National Armory, was dark and cavernous, with so-so acoustics. That day, Washington was hit by a snowstorm, delaying the start of the ceremony by two hours. Merman showed up at rehearsal and couldn’t get back to her hotel to retrieve her evening gown. Instead, she had to sing in the clothes and coat she wore during the day.
“The Lost Inaugural Gala” features rare, restored footage from the evening, enough to make you wonder why NBC never aired it in the first place. An exclusive clip of Sinatra singing “The House I Live In” is below.
Roz Wyman, a longtime Democratic party figure who worked with Sinatra during the campaign and on the gala, spoke to Variety‘s “PopPolitics” on SiriusXM this week, along with Todd Purdum, who in 2011 reconstructed what happened that evening for Vanity Fair.
“President Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy, especially, wanted to show that this would be a different era from the stodgy Eisenhower administration,” Purdum said, noting the diverse group of performers to show that it was a “forward looking show.”
He said that Kennedy’s father, Joseph, paid to have the event videotaped, but the production quality proved problematic and broadcast plans were scrapped. The video ended up in the archives at the John F. Kennedy Library.
“We’ve always had celebrities in politics, but nothing like this night,” Wyman said. She worked with Sinatra throughout the campaign, and recalls that when he first walked into the armory he “almost gulped.” They put in an extra sound system, no one complained, and the result was a night of pretty extraordinary performances. It was also poignant, as when Durante sang “September Song.”
The interview can be heard below: