Hall of Presidents and First Ladies (Closed)
The 2016 presidential election will be the last for the Hall of Presidents and First Ladies. The Hall opened during the Eisenhower administration, and for ten successive presidencies has radiated a cheery reverence for the Chief Executive that seems out-of-place today. Rather than contort itself to fit the contemporary clown car, the attraction has chosen to end its run with its old-fashioned spirit unchanged.
The Hall was the brainchild of Gettysburg booster LeRoy E. Smith (1918-1987), who also either built or managed the Gettysburg Battle Theatre, Charlie Weaver's American Museum of the Civil War, the Jennie Wade House, and the Lincoln Train Museum. By the 1963 centennial of the Battle of Gettysburg, purists were complaining that the town had become a tourist mecca like Myrtle Beach. You either loved or hated Smith depending on whether or not you thought that was a good thing.
Smith was inspired to open the Hall of Presidents and First Ladies because of President Eisenhower, who lived in Gettysburg before and after his two terms in Washington and spent most of his weekends and summers there while occupying the White House (He spent so much time in Gettysburg that critics labeled him a part-time President). The Hall's vintage audio presentation originally ended with Ike, its narrator praising him as a "great man" while a rousing America the Beautiful swelled underneath.
The Hall of Presidents was technologically hip in 1956, long before Disney World opened an attraction with the same name, and even before there was a talking robot Lincoln at the New York World's Fair. At the Hall of Presidents, visitors are promised that they will not only meet the Presidents but hear them tell their stories in their own voices. This is accomplished through the wizardry of wax dummies, recorded voice actors, and synchronized lightbulbs. To expedite crowd control, the Presidents are chronologically separated into five rooms; push a button and each "talks" for a minute while a light shines on his immobile wax face. When the President nearest to the exit goes dark, you open the door, walk into the next room, push the button, and the timeline of chattering Chief Executives continues.
Several actors vary their voices as they try to imagine what Presidents 1 through 33 sounded like. George Washington is pompous, Teddy Roosevelt shrieks, tubby William Howard Taft grumbles like a cartoon walrus. Benjamin Harrison cheerfully announces, "America to me was good!," but other Presidents sound less satisfied. Franklin Pierce says of his four-year term, "The times were out of joint." Andrew Johnson complains, "I was misunderstood." William Henry Harrison, who died only a month into his presidency, is philosophical. "Perhaps I would have made a good President," he ponders. "No one can tell!"
Eisenhower marks the end of the voice actors, but the newer Presidents keep talking anyway, spouting audio clips from their inaugural addresses. The narrator jumps in to say nice things about the less-loved Presidents. Nixon was "a peacemaker during a very perilous time." George W. Bush "in a time of crisis... was able to reestablish a sense of normalcy to the nation." The narrator then concludes that our Presidents were "men whose faults were our faults, whose genius was our genius, whose hopes were our hopes. Men whose lives set the course for Presidents to come!"
Then it's on to the Hall of First Ladies. Unlike the men, they are speechless, and their hall echoes with an endlessly looping Strauss waltz. Each, according to the Hall, models the gown and hairstyle she wore to her inaugural ball. Informative placards give details about the dresses, but say nothing about the women inside them. Caroline Harrison and Mamie Eisenhower stare with bug-eyed intensity; Michelle Obama has curiously withered arms; Ellen Wilson looks like Lucy. Strangest of all, the First Ladies are all one-third the size of normal humans -- closer to oversized dolls than people. The Hall calls this "petite-sized" in its literature, but management told us the Ladies were shrunk so that they'd all fit in one room.
The Hall of Presidents closed its doors forever on November 27, 2016.