Have Star-studded U.S. Presidential Inaugurations Typically Been the Norm?

By: Dave Roos
Beyonce performs the National Anthem during Barack Obama's inauguration swearing-in at the US Capitol on Jan. 21, 2013 in Washington, D.C. JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
Beyonce performs the National Anthem during Barack Obama's inauguration swearing-in at the US Capitol on Jan. 21, 2013 in Washington, D.C. JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

With his inauguration only weeks away, President-elect Donald Trump is getting flack for failing to book any A-list musical acts for the party-packed inaugural weekend. The list of musicians who have reportedly turned down offers to perform gets longer by the day, and the only confirmed acts for Trump's inauguration ceremony are the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, the Rockettes and a 16-year-old former "America's Got Talent" singer named Jackie Evancho.

But when exactly did the presidential inauguration, a constitutionally mandated ceremony to swear in the new leader of the free world, become Washington's biggest four-year fiesta? And have Hollywood celebrities and pop stars always been on the guest list?


According to Jim Bendat, author of "Democracy's Big Day: The Inauguration of Our President, 1789-2013", presidential inaugurations have always been a good excuse to party. Until recently, the ceremony itself was rather staid and serious — military parade, oath of office, inaugural address, done — but the before-and-after festivities have always been a hot ticket.

"Inaugural balls were there from the very beginning," says Bendat, referring to the invitation-only parties after the inauguration. "The first official inaugural ball was in 1809, but even George Washington had one a week after his first ceremony [in 1789]. In those days, the entertainment would just be orchestras playing light music, but as time went on, you started having big bands and other popular music acts showing up."

In 1941, Franklin D. Roosevelt was the first to throw a pre-inauguration gala the night before his third inauguration, a tradition that continues today. Roosevelt's gala drew some of the era's biggest names.

"Irving Berlin sang 'God Bless America,' which was a pretty new song at the time," says Bendat. "Mickey Rooney performed. Charlie Chaplin did a monologue from the film, 'The Great Dictator.'"

In 1961, the stars came out in a major way for the Hollywood-ready John F. Kennedy. Frank Sinatra and Peter Lawford (also Kennedy's brother-in-law) personally organized the night-before gala, which included "a tremendous group of famous people," says Bendat: Milton Berle, Harry Belafonte, Ella Fitzgerald, Gene Kelly, Janet Leigh, Tony Curtis, Nat King Cole and many others. 

Full Width
Frank Sinatra ( left) with U.S. President John F. Kennedy at Kennedy's inaugural ball at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington D.C., 1961.
GAB Archive/Redferns/Getty Images

Are Democratic candidates the only ones that can book the big celebrities? Today, Hollywood is bluer than a Smurf's butt, but that wasn't always the case.

"For Nixon in 1969, there was Tony Bennett, James Brown, Connie Francis, Dinah Shore. That's not a bad group," says Bendat. "For Eisenhower, there was Teresa Brewer, Jeanette MacDonald, Kathryn Grayson, all well-known singers. But that's 1957, early rock and roll, and you didn't have rock and roll acts at inaugurations. Not under Eisenhower, that wasn't happening."

More recently, George W. Bush's Texas supporters threw the Republican president-elect a Black Tie and Boots Ball in 2001 featuring Lone Star State celebs like Lyle Lovett, Clint Black and none other than Chuck "Walker, Texas Ranger" Norris.

In comparison, the only confirmed headliner for Trump's pre-inauguration party is the country band Big & Rich, whose best-known song is 2009's cheeky chart-topper "Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)".

Exacerbating Trump's "celebrity problem" is the fact that he's following the back-to-back inaugural love fests of President Barack Obama. Not only did celebrities trip over themselves to perform at dozens of galas, balls and concerts associated with Obama's first and second inaugurals, but Obama's actual swearing-in ceremony featured big-name performers. At the most recent inaugural, Beyoncé sang (or lip-synched) the National Anthem, Kelly Clarkson performed "My Country 'Tis of Thee" and James Taylor soft-rocked "America the Beautiful."

Prior to Obama, inauguration day performances were usually limited to the United States Marine Band, choirs and the occasional "national treasure" like soprano Marian Anderson, who performed at two separate inaugurations for Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1957 and JFK in 1961. Unless Kanye makes a bizarre last-minute decision to come to Trump's rescue — and let's be honest, Kanye has done stranger things — Trump's ceremony is likely to be a throwback to the celebrity-free days of yore. Trump's take on the matter can be summed up in the tweet below: