Hollywood Flashback: In 1981, the Stars Came Out for Ronald Reagan's Inauguration
Though President-elect Donald Trump has said he doesn't need "A-list celebrities" on Jan. 20, Reagan was sworn in with the help of Frank Sinatra, Jimmy Stewart and Bob Hope in a star-studded inaugural gala, which was televised on ABC.
Unless Donald Trump, 70, does some last-minute bridge-building with the entertainment community, the current record-holder for the most Hollywood-centric inauguration will remain Ronald Reagan's, especially for his first term.
The then-69- year-old Republican launched his administration with ABC's All-Star Inaugural Gala on Jan. 19, 1981. The inauguration-eve event was so glitzy that emcee Johnny Carson remarked, "This is the first administration to have a premiere." It was produced by Frank Sinatra, who had done the job before: In 1961 he lined up talent for John F. Kennedy's gala and personally escorted first lady Jackie to her seat. But this was two decades — and a lot of gray hair — later.
Reagan's televised gala saw a near-septuagenarian president-elect watching equally old performers: Ethel Merman, 73, belting show tunes; Jimmy Stewart, 72, praising his friend "Ron"; and Bob Hope, 77, telling soft-hitting jokes ("He doesn't know how to lie, exaggerate or cheat — he always had an agent for that").
Reagan was sworn in as president the next day and a record 41.8 million TV viewers watched. His 1985 inaugural gala boasted Ray Charles performing "America the Beautiful" with a booming choir. The moment was such a showstopper that Reagan himself ended the night by slowly reciting the lyrics: "My country, 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing."
This story first appeared in the Jan. 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.