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Posted at 05:00 AM ET, 04/05/2012

How the White House Easter Egg Roll became a kid-culture marketing bonanza

Nancy Reagan at the Easter Egg Roll on the South Lawn shaking hands with a Smurf. (Ronald Reagan Presidential Library )

Nothing says Easter like Power Rangers, Spiderman and Sponge Bob, does it?

The Cat in the Hat at the 2010 Easer Egg Roll. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)
The lineup of costumed characters at next Monday’s White House Easter Egg Roll reads like a Who’s Who’s of kid-friendly TV and movie favorites: Dora the Explorer, Katsuma and Poppet from the Moshi Monsters game, Alex the Lion from “Madagascar 3” (the DreamWorks Animation’s 3D sequel, coming in June to a theater near you).

Talk about product placement. The characters will prance across the South Lawn, greet guests, mingle with administration VIPs and — if they’re lucky — end up in cute news photos next to the president or first lady.

The White House announced the long list of cartoon characters as part of the week-long roll-out of this year’s event, themed “Let’s Go, Let’s Play, Let’s Move!” PBS Kids’ Princess Presto, Marvel Comics Iron Man and Hasbro’s Mr. and Mrs, Potato Head all made the cut, as did celebrity chefs and human performers like DJ Willy Wow. (Not on the list: British boy band One Direction , who scored a last-minute invite from Michelle Obama at the Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards Saturday but couldn’t squeeze it into their schedule.)

It’s a far cry from the simple days of children tossing hard-boiled eggs around to celebrate the holiday. Moved from the Capitol to the White House in 1878, the Egg Roll was a rare chance for average citizens to see the first family up close. Some presidents loved it, others (like Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon) never bothered to attend. It was canceled outright from 1942 to 1952: Harry Truman thought the sight of Americans playing with eggs sent the wrong message to a war-torn Europe suffering from food shortages.

Ike brought the tradition back in 1953— just children in their Easter best pushing eggs across the lawn. “The last really old-school Easter Egg Roll was during the Eisenhower administration,” said historian Carl Anthony, author of a blog devoted to the first familes and White House traditions.

Justin Bieber at the Easter Egg Roll in 2010. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Then it started to grow: Pat Nixon came up with the idea of putting a White House staffer in an Easter Bunny costume; Betty Ford added kid-friendly activities like face-painting. But it was the Reagans who blew the event into a huge pop culture marketing opportunity with characters like Snoopy and Mickey Mouse — and Nancy Reagan getting up close and personal with a giant blue Smurf. “You really see it was like a festival,” Anthony told us. “That’s when you begin to see Disney characters.”

And then — well, the sky’s the limit: Everyone wanted a piece of the action, including the Jonas Brothers, who performed in 2008 and Justin Bieber in 2010.

If not an outright presidential endorsement, it’s certainly been a marvelous opportunity for free publicity for all involved.

A White House spokesperson told us Wednesday that the corporate owners of copyrighted characters do not underwrite or otherwise contribute to the Egg Roll (aside from sending the costumed characters) and are not allowed to use images for commercial use.

Read earlier: Bo Obama promotes White House Easter Egg Roll tickets (video), 3/1/12

Rolling eggs with the stars on the White House lawn, 4/25/11

Skip the crowds: You can buy souvenir eggs from the White House Easter Egg Roll, 3/28/11

By  |  05:00 AM ET, 04/05/2012

Tags:  barack obama, michelle obama

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