“May you have as much fun getting to my age as I did…and may you raise as much hell, too.”
DC can on occasion be a cold and cynical place. Yet there’s always one moment, every year, when someone special visits and basks in the city’s weirdness – breaking the dour cruelty that hangs over America’s corridors of power.
I’m talking of course, of the Easter Bunny.
1969 was a momentous year for the USA. Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon, the first ATM appeared on American streets, and, most importantly, Pat Nixon invited the Easter Bunny to join the annual festivities that took place on the White House lawn. Now, every Easter Monday, everybody’s favourite rabbit (sorry, Bugs) joins the President on the balcony and draws all looks.
Except, there’s not actually one rabbit who attends nowadays. There are three, and they are wonderful. This is their story.
Which came first? The Bunny or the Egg?
The myth of the Easter Bunny is brought to us by, you guessed it, the Pagans. Probably. There’s a goddess who may-or-may-not be legit who owned a hare who may-or-may-not have laid eggs because said hare may-or-may-not once have been a bird. It’s a confusing, uncertain origin story. The roots of the White House Egg Roll, thankfully, are much clearer.
DC has rolled eggs at Easter since its earliest days. Dolley Madison is said to have organised the first, taking place upon the lawn of the US Capitol. Then, in 1876, those clowns in Congress decided that the sight of children having fun was abhorrently against the spirit of Capitol Hill, so they banned any use of its lands as “playgrounds.” Two years later, Rutherford Hayes (most famous for selling black Southerners down the river so he could become President) moved the Easter Egg roll onto the grounds of the White House. The eggs have rolled there ever since (barring rain) except between 1942 and 1953, when war, shortages and construction work got in the way.
In 1969, along came the bunny. The OG Presidential BouncyBoy™ wore a Peter Rabbit head and a white jumpsuit, and now haunts my nightmares.
Various rabbit styles paraded the South Lawn until 1981 when the White House decided to up its bunny game. In a typically efficient policy directive from the Reagan administration, staffers called up the Schenz Theatrical Supply shop in Cincinnati, Ohio on the Monday before Easter. They requested of costume and mascot designer Jonn Schenz a bunny costume that would successfully house a 6ft2 Secret Service agent (how cuddly). He had five days.
Schenz rose to the challenge and created a rabbit that, unlike its predecessors, did not threaten to consume the souls of all those within the District. Part-Loony Toon, part-Alice In Wonderland, it was gentler despite its size and, importantly, had a soft, slightly surprised expression, lacking the assured grin that identifies evil rabbits the world over.
The following year Schenz gifted the Gipper a bunny, and took his nephew to Washington to see his creation in action. “The bunny had a great big green stain on his knees where he knelt down in the grass to talk to the kids,” Schenz recalled to CityBeat, “and the drawstrings were hanging down the back.” His gift was being spurned. Infuriated, Schenz demanded to know who was in charge of the lagomorph. Apparently, no one was. Schenz decided he would take charge, and for the next few years, he himself managed all costumed creations, having added Mama and Junior to the repertoire.
Rabbit Hat Tricks
Schenz wasn’t just protecting his costumes – he was concerned too about the children and the volunteers. That rabbit suit exacts a heavy toll on its steward – as Schenz puts it, “that suit is not warm; that suit is hotter than hell,” and the only way to see is through the mouth. On top of all this, the bunny is not allowed to speak – after all, there is no surer way to chill a small child than to hear the severe tones of a Special Agent emanating from deep within Junior Bunny. For similar reasons, the bunny must not in any circumstances remove its head in view of anybody. In short – they need handlers.
That said, soon the White House started varying who wore the costumes. Ursula Meese, the wife of Reagan’s Attorney General, wore one six times, and as such was dubbed “the Meester Bunny.” Its most notorious custodian was Dubya’s Press Sec Sean Spicer – who revealed in 2017 (after a decade of silence) that he had twice played a rabbity role in the Easter Monday festivities.
Keeping Up with the Bunnys
In recent years, the bunnies have found fame. Global social media has beamed images of the Egg Roll across the world. Whilst some memes focus on the familiar Devil Bunny vibe (they should see the early editions), or barrel-scraping furry brain farts (there are young mascots present – cover their giant ears!), there’s a fair few that play on the bunnies’ slightly startled countenance to mock the incumbents. This trend has accelerated since Trump took office.
Schenz makes a point not to get involved in the politics of each administration. They all get three costumes, for free, every year, designed by Schenz and his partner of over forty years Stephan Rausch. But, to learn about Schenz is to learn of a mischievous soul – playful and joyous, with a youthful spark in his heart that is yet to be extinguished.
“May you have as much fun getting to my age as I have,” Schenz told Citybeat,” and may you raise as much hell, too.” I can only speculate, but it is within the realms of possibility that Schenz’ bunnies startled stare is exactly by design, to entice a little mischief from the audience, especially when the cameras are looking.
Surprised or otherwise, the bunnies also bring out a side to the Presidential family that isn’t usually seen, hid as it is behind carefully-crafted set piece “public” appearances. From its Bush’s warm embrace of Mrs Bunny to Bill Clinton’s colourful egg tie that he wore very year, the photos and festivities helped reduce some of the distance the First Families have imposed between themselves and the US public. But this exposure does not always shine a kind light on the powerful. As the memes show, Trump’s blustering hyperbole jars next to a blank-faced gargantuan mascot, showing him more as clubhouse crank than the First-among-Equals he reckons himself to be.
The bunnies are the centrepiece of the White House at Easter, and bring a bit of chaos to a carefully crafted Presidential media appearance. Whether coincidentally or by design, they poke some healthy fun at the most powerful people on the planet, and allows us all to take them down a notch, if just for one day.
But, more than that, they serve as a symbol of the event itself, a gracious carnival of childhood joy – and for one day at least, that jaundiced cauldron of malaise that is downtown DC is brought a little life, like a daisy through concrete.