By Petula Dvorak and William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, April 13, 2009 3:31 PM
President Obama welcomed thousands of families to the White House today for the first Easter egg roll of his administration, an event with a 131-year tradition that this year is aimed at promoting healthy, active lifestyles among the nation's youth.
Obama read a children's book aloud to a few dozen kids, played basketball with others on the White House court and officiated at the featured event of the day, the traditional Easter egg roll in which children use oversized spoons to push decorated eggs in a race across an expanse of White House lawn. The festivities also included musical performances by pop star Fergie, Ziggy Marley and the D.C. Youth Orchestra, among others.
After a rousing rendition of the National Anthem by Fergie, Obama this morning officially welcomed the throng to the White House from a balcony overlooking the South Lawn. Appearing with him were first lady Michelle Obama; their children, Malia and Sasha; Michelle Obama's mother, Marian Robinson; and someone wearing an Easter bunny costume.
"This is one of the greatest White House traditions because it reminds us that this is the people's house," Obama said. He said he was "not really in charge here today" but that his sole job was to thank Fergie and the Easter bunny and to introduce the first lady. He spoke after a brief glitch with the microphones that was solved when 10-year-old Malia spoke into one of them.
"That's Malia, our technical adviser," Obama said.
"Our goal today is just to have fun," Michelle Obama told the crowd after the president introduced her.
Tickets for the event were issued to 30,000 people from 45 states, many of whom signed up for the free tickets on the White House Web site. It was the first time that tickets for the event were distributed online, a method that replaced having to stand in line -- often for hours -- at the Ellipse Visitor Pavilion or at the White House.
For Washington native Monica Carter, it was also the first time she had been to the annual Easter egg roll. She got there thanks to the hard work of her 7-year-old daughter, Ashunti Carter.
"We got the tickets through her school," Monica Carter said. "They gave them to two kids in each class for good grades, hard work."
Ashunti was ecstatic about the experience, which placed her amid the largest crowd ever for the event.
"I got to see Fergie!" Ashunti said. "And the Easter bunny, too." She was carrying her souvenir, a bright blue egg, carved from sustainable wood, which is wood harvested from carefully managed forests or reclaimed from furniture or old buildings.
For the first wave of egg rollers, it was a tough morning.
To get to the White House in time for their 7 a.m. tickets, Mary Ann and Raymond Devera had to wake up at 5 a.m. Raymond, a 5-year-old D.C. pre-kindergarten student, yawned as he related the highlight of his trip to the White House egg roll: "I hit the egg with the spoon," he said. "It cracked."
Dozens of children -- pink crinoline sullied, once shiny shoes scuffed -- fell asleep in their strollers, exhausted from the early morning wake-up call. A tall father in bunny ears pushing one of those strollers dead-panned: "Happy Easter."
Jaylen Odemns, 4, slept on the bus as he and his mom rode in the early morning darkness. "I wish I got to see Obama and the girls," said his mother, Ericka Odemns. "But it was so beautiful. I work right over there on 18th Street, in the Department of the Interior mailroom.
"I walk by here every day; never thought I'd get in," said Odemns, who used a ticket that her son received at his school.
Cassie Bonnette moved to the Washington area from Kentucky less than a year ago and was thrilled that she got to bring her three kids to the White House. Her friend worked the computer all day trying to get tickets for the military family that lives at Fort Belvoir, and her persistence paid off.
"I got to see Fergie, and she sang all her good songs," said Bonnette's 12-year daughter, Aurora.
In a message posted on the White House Web site, Michelle Obama said the theme of this year's Easter egg roll is "Let's Go Play!"
"We want to encourage kids to lead healthy, active lives, and today's activities will include basketball on the White House court, soccer, a dance floor, yoga, and Double Dutch! We also have a reading stage, a music stage -- some special guests will perform throughout the day -- and a Kids Kitchen where White House and guest chefs will teach kids how to cook easy, energizing snacks and meals. In addition to all of these new activities, we have 13,000 hardboiled eggs ready for the traditional Easter Egg Roll and Egg Hunt!"
The 2009 Easter Egg Roll continued a spring tradition that started in 1878 when President Rutherford B. Hayes first invited local children to roll Easter eggs on the South Lawn.
In an effort to reach out to diverse communities, the White House this year allocated some tickets for the event to gay and lesbian parents for the first time.
As part of "storybook time," President Obama began reading "Where the Wild Things Are" to a group of children on the South Lawn, holding out the book's pictures for them to see. He pointed to one picture in the book and said, "That's a wild thing. It's like a dragon-looking thing."
At one point, he got the group of children to try staring without blinking their eyes. One little girl's bug-eyed expression prompted the president to burst out laughing.
Obama also asked the children if they had ever been in a "wild rumpus" as described in the book. "You guys look like you have a wild rumpus all the time," he told them.
As he read about imaginary beasts and the adventures of the book's main character, a little boy named Max wearing a wolf suit, the president howled and spoke in a monster voice. When he finished the story, almost all the children clapped, but one started crying. "These wild things can be a little scary," Obama said with a smile as someone picked up the boy and held him.
Obama then went over to the basketball station on the White House tennis court, where he coached some kids on shooting hoops and lifted up a young boy so he could dunk. He recognized one player from the District's H.D. Woodson High School girls' basketball team: Jeniece Johnson, 18, a 6-foot-6 center who was featured in a March 8 story in The Washington Post about how basketball enabled her to pull her life together.
"Didn't I just see a story about you in the newspaper?" Obama asked Johnson as he shook hands and posed with the team, which won the City Title game last month.