I had a call last week from a guy who asked, "Would you like to hear a story about how Ronald Reagan signed a banjo?"
In the crush of articles after the president's death -- Reagan as master of charm, Reagan as defeater of the Soviets, Reagan as foe of the poor, Reagan as friend of the common man -- I hadn't seen a single one about Reagan as signer of the banjos. So I said yes.
Bethesda's Steve Moore is a musician, writer and the overseer of a computer lab at Georgetown University. In the 1980s, he became friends with an Olney man named Brooke Johns.
I say "Olney man," but Brooke Johns was much more than that. He had a job title I can guarantee you don't see much anymore: vaudevillian.
Born in 1893 in Georgetown, Brooke was a tall, handsome man who knew his way around a banjo. He toured the country singing songs at movie houses before the silent feature came on, played on Broadway with the Ziegfeld Follies and was named the best-dressed man in America four years in a row. He retired at 40, bought a bunch of land in Olney, opened Brooke Manor Country Club and got involved in Montgomery County politics. (His time in vaudeville must have been good preparation.)
Hanging on one wall of Brooke's 17-room house was a banjo head that had been signed by two celebrities Brooke had met and entertained: the Prince of Wales (later known as the Duke of Windsor) and Calvin Coolidge.
One day when Steve was at Brooke's house, the old vaudevillian said, "You know, my boy, I'm a lifelong Republican. I've had Richard Nixon out here at the golf club, playing golf. I'm going to get that banjo head signed by Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon."
Steve offered to help. "I said, 'Why don't I write some letters for you, on your behalf?' "
Steve penned separate letters to Reagan, Ford and Nixon. In each, he said that Brooke Johns was a stalwart member of the GOP and admired the president in question.
"Four days later," Steve said, "the secretary on my floor comes running to me: 'Steve, the White House is on the phone!' "
It was Reagan's personal secretary, who told Steve that the president remembered having seen Brooke Johns as a kid and would be delighted to sign the banjo head.
"He's a big fan," Reagan's secretary confided.
Steve had planned on sending only the head -- a dinner plate-size animal hide disc, like the one on a tambourine -- over to the White House, but for some reason Reagan wanted to see the entire banjo.
So the next day Steve trekked to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to drop off the banjo. ("The Secret Service guys were looking at me like, 'What is this thing?' ") He returned the next day to pick up the banjo, its signed head and a photo Reagan had inscribed to Steve. ("To Steve Moore, with best wishes, Ronald Reagan.")
About a week later, Steve got a call from Rancho Mirage, Calif. It was one of the Secret Service agents working with Gerald Ford.
"He said, 'We heard that you have a banjo that President Reagan signed.' " Steve hadn't put that in his letter to Ford, raising the prospect that Reagan's people and Ford's people were talking banjo at the highest levels.
The agent said that Ford would be in Washington the following week for Tip O'Neill's birthday and that Steve should bring the banjo head to Ford's hotel. Steve went at the appointed hour and watched as Ford put his John Hancock on it.
"He just signed the banjo head, looked at me and said, 'Good luck to you.' "
Now Steve had two out of three.
Nixon would prove to be a tougher nut to crack. It wasn't that Nixon had a no-banjo-signing policy, it was that the handlers at his New York office told Steve the ex-president signed only personal letters and books that he had authored. Steve asked whether if he dropped off a book and the banjo head, might Nixon sign them both? Nixon's assistant said he might.
It took two months, but Steve finally got the last signature.
"I was able to go back and give Brooke Johns the banjo head, now signed by four American presidents and the Prince of Wales," Steve said. Brooke was "ecstatic." He died a few years later.
It was Reagan's quick response that had impressed Steve most. "He really could connect one-to-one," Steve said of the Gipper.
Still, Steve said, "I don't want to overplay it. It's a great story. On the other hand, all he did was sign a banjo head."
But how many of us, presidents or not, can say that?
Camp It Up
"This is always my favorite charity," wrote Annandale's Anne Radway on a note accompanying her Send a Kid to Camp donation. I hope you'll also see the worth in supporting Camp Moss Hollow, the camp for at-risk kids in Markham.
We need to raise $750,000 by July 23 to support summer activities there. As of yesterday, Washington Post readers had donated $121,723.31.
Here's how you can contribute: Make a check or money order payable to "Send a Kid to Camp" and mail it to: Attention, Lockbox, Department 0500, Washington, D.C. 20073-0500.
To contribute online, go to www.washingtonpost.com/camp. Click on the icon that says, "Make Your Tax-Deductible Donation."
To contribute by phone with Visa or MasterCard, call Post-Haste at 301-313-2200 on a touch-tone phone. Then punch in KIDS, or 5437, and follow the instructions.