After months of budget-related delays, White House resumes busy events schedule

November 10, 2013

They put a green screen in the Red Room, directly across from an early 19th-century portrait of Dolley Madison.

In the Blue Room, where the president receives guests beneath a large crystal chandelier, period costumes were being fabricated and gory makeup was being made to look like deeply stitched wounds.

The China Room, where the famous White House china collection is displayed, was the site of a directing workshop. And the family movie theater became a sound-effects studio where Gary Hecker — a sound designer for the “Spider-Man” films and other blockbusters — took a bunch of celery, held it over a microphone, covered it in a black cloth and broke it in half. It sounded like bones breaking, triggering gasps from the students in attendance.

Welcome to the first White House Film Symposium, hosted Friday by first lady Michelle Obama and featuring Whoopi Goldberg, actress Blake Lively, “Fruitvale Station” director Ryan Coogler and Oscar-winning producers Harvey Weinstein and Northern Virginia’s own Bruce Cohen, among others.

The symposium was one of several recent White House events presided over by Michelle Obama after a hiatus of several months due to budget constraints. It represents another step in her effort to transform the mansion into what she calls “the people’s house.”

“When we say that we want to make the White House the people’s house, we mean all people,” the first lady said at another event earlier in the week, which was celebrating to Diwali, the Hindu “festival of lights.”

That term, “the people’s house,” has become a mantra of sorts around 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. The visitors office, which oversees White House tours, has worked “the people’s house” into its way of doing things. More than once, Michelle Obama has had a note sent down saying she wants to say hi to tour groups coming through the house. The first lady also adds her perspective as a mother to the tour operation, asking the visitors office to consider what a mom would do for half an hour while waiting in line for an event.

“It’s a value that everybody on the staff and throughout the building embraces,” said Tina Tchen, the first lady’s chief of staff. “It’s something she constantly challenges us on, to come up with new ways to implement.” She added: “It is not without complications to just throw open the doors. How do you bring these experiences into what is essentially a museum?”

For the film symposium, furniture was pushed aside. Set lighting was built. Electrical wires snaked across floors.

No china was broken, but the house was as noisy as a high school cafeteria at lunchtime.

Deputy Social Secretary Deesha Dyer started the event by leading the students — from Richard Wright Public Charter School and Sitar Arts Center in the District, as well as schools in Boston and Brooklyn — to the south balcony of the White House to see the president’s helicopter take off for fundraisers in Florida.

The teens, most wearing their snappy school blazers, were assigned to the workshops based on surveys they had completed.

“We thought about what they usually don’t get in school. They get art. They get painting. This is different,” said Dyer, who rushed from room to room.

The organizing prowess of the half a dozen men and women in the White House social secretary’s office was in full view. Dyer was prepared for the organized chaos of the day and carried her trusty binder with names and photos of the workshop hosts, background on the visiting schools and a run of the day.

“If the first lady asks me a question, I have everything here,” Dyer said, tapping her binder. “The first lady really wanted to do this.”

After the morning workshops, lunch was served in the State Dining Room. As the students munched on veggie wraps, CBS’s Gayle King, a friend of the first lady’s, walked from table to table, chatting with the kids.

The first lady soon arrived and greeted her young guests, escorted by Weinstein, a big donor to President Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign. Weinstein earlier told the students he and his daughter had the idea to get the first lady to present the Oscar for best picture at the Academy Awards in February. (The previous night, the White House held a VIP screening for his new movie, “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom,” in the family theater.)

A costume designer offered Obama a Jackie-O-style pillbox hat to try on, which she gamely wore. Other students dressed up as zombies, the first lady was told. Weinstein jumped in: “Yeah, we call them Republicans.”

“Shh,” the first lady said, frowning. “That didn’t come from me.”

After a musical interlude by film composer Alan Menken, the first lady told students what she hoped they would take away from the day:

“Talent comes and goes, but it’s your ability to dig deep when times are hard and make things happen for yourself that’s the difference between just an average life and success,” she said. “It’s also about things like grit. It’s about determination, resilience, about the ability to overcome adversity.”

The first lady headed off to a meeting with her staff.

“I’m going to go do a little hard work,” she said.

The students stayed behind and kept learning.

Krissah Thompson began writing for The Washington Post in 2001. She has covered local businesses, traveled to El Salvador and Guatemala to tell stories of immigrants’ connections to their home countries and reported from the newsroom’s Prince George’s County bureau. More recently, she has written about civil rights, race and politics.
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