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Peter Graves's White House state dinner adventure, lost luggage and all

Dec. 6, 1976: Peter Graves looks knowingly at a member of the Marine Band as he joins them on clarinet for a song at the White House. Graves was attending a state dinner for Giulio Andreotti, prime minister of Italy. (Gerald Ford Library)Enlarge Image

People tell the best stories about you after you die.

Most people think of actor Peter Graves, who passed away Sunday, as Jim Phelps in "Mission: Impossible" or the pilot in "Airplane!" But a few Washingtonians remember him as the star who played clarinet at a state dinner.

In December 1976, just a month after Gerald Ford lost the presidential election to Jimmy Carter, Graves and wife Joan were invited -- along with other celebrities who campaigned for the incumbent president that year -- to Ford's last state dinner, for Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti. They landed at Dulles about two hours before the dinner and discovered that their luggage, with all their formal clothes, was lost.

A distressed Graves called the White House to say they couldn't make it and were catching the next flight back to California. Staffers calmed him down and swung into action. "We convinced Peter to have the car drop him off at Sam Scogna's formalwear for a tuxedo and have Mrs. Graves come directly to the White House," former social secretary Maria Downs told us Tuesday.

Downs was about to ask her husband to bring in a couple of her evening gowns when Betty Ford called. "I'll take care of Mrs. Graves," she told her. The actor's wife was escorted to the family living quarters where three of the first lady's dresses were waiting for her; she selected a long white one. Shoes? Downs presumes she wore the shoes from the plane.

The night was a smash. "Given it was a month after he lost the election, it was really kind of a love-in," Downs said. In the house that night: Yogi Berra, Johnny Bench, Mario Andretti, Joe Frazier and Tony Orlando and Dawn, who sang for the VIP crowd.

When everyone moved into the foyer for dancing to the Marine band, celebrity guests spontaneously started grabbing the mike: Rod McKuen did his Rod McKuen thing, Pearl Bailey belted out a medley -- and Graves, the action star in his rented tux, stopped the show with a clarinet solo.

By The Reliable Source  |  March 17, 2010; 1:04 AM ET
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