I Made A Joke About The White House Easter Bunnies, But Then I Learned The Moving Story Behind Them

"One of the things he wanted to see was the Easter Bunnies continue to go to the White House, and we promised we would as long as the White House would let us."

The annual Easter Egg Roll returned to Washington, DC, on Monday after being canceled for two years because of the pandemic.

The tradition, which dates back to the late 19th century, also saw the return of several large costume bunnies to the green lawns and balconies of the White House.

The Bidens give thumbs up as the bunnies wave from the balcony

The bunnies interacted with children, posed for photos, and stood behind President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden as they delivered remarks from the White House balcony, welcoming people to the event.

The shocked expression of one particular bunny caught the attention of yours truly after I noticed it was the same bunny who had been seen alongside former president Donald Trump years earlier.

absolutely delighted to see the WH return of the easter bunny that always looked shocked & horrified by whoever is speaking. one of america's most incredible traditions

Twitter: @davidmackau

On a late afternoon lark, I set out to find out exactly how many bunnies were at the White House, on the mistaken assumption the costumes were owned by the White House. (A representative for Jill Biden didn't know off the top of his head on Monday where the costumes came from either or who owned them.)

Scrolling through decades of old wire agency photos, I noticed that the same three bunnies appeared across at least five presidential administrations, beginning in Bill Clinton's first term. (It was easy for me to imagine them hanging in a cupboard somewhere in the White House, getting dusted off each year.)

So we published a silly little article counting up the bunnies.

But I wasn't prepared for the full story behind the costumes, which was way sweeter than I could have imagined.

You see, after we published, I received two emails from friends of a man named John Schenz.

For decades, Schenz owned a costume store in Cincinnati and was regularly asked by other stores across the country to design new pieces.

In 1981, months after Ronald Reagan began his presidency, Schenz received a call from a store in DC.

The caller wanted a bunny costume to be made in a matter of days that would fit a 6-foot-3 Secret Service agent who would accompany the president during the White House Easter event, Schenz told Ohio station WCPO 9 in 2015.

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The costume was a hit, but when Schenz returned to the event the next year after donating the costume to the National Parks Service, he was aghast at the poor condition it was in.

There were grass stains visible and the drawstring was hanging out the neck at the rear, he told WCPO 9.

"Who's in charge of that bunny?!" he complained to park officials.

"In January [1982], I got a call from the White House saying, 'Mr. Schenz, you will be here this year with two more bunnies, and you will be in charge of them,'" Schenz recalled. "Heavens, yes!"

So every year, for the next couple of decades, Schenz would travel from Ohio to DC, bunnies in tow.

By keeping them safe at his Cincinnati store throughout the rest of the year, and refusing to let them be used for any other events, Schenz could ensure they were always in their best condition for the White House.

"The main job of these bunnies, over and above to give hugs to the kids, is to have their photograph taken," he told WCPO 9.

Different administrations put different people in the bunnies. Some used interns; others used Secret Service agents or members of the military. The wife of Reagan administration attorney general Edwin Meese frequently wore the costumes, according to Schenz. Long before he became Trump's press secretary, Sean Spicer even wore a bunny costume during George W. Bush's administration.

Schenz had been keen to see his costumes continue to appear alongside a few more presidents, but in 2020, the Easter event was canceled because of the pandemic.

A few months later, he died from lung cancer at age 81. Schenz, who was also a prolific dancer and entertainer, left behind Stephen Rausch, his partner of more than 50 years, who has also since died.

But the bunnies and Schenz's legacy continue.

Reached by phone, a friend of Schenz's told BuzzFeed News that he and two others now care for the costumes and will continue to take them to the White House event in his memory. (This friend asked that they not be named in order to keep the focus on Schenz.)

"One of the things he wanted to see was the Easter Bunnies continue to go to the White House, and we promised we would as long as the White House would let us," this friend said.

Schenz's Cincinnati store has since closed, and his friends now store the costumes "in an undisclosed place, close to DC."

The three bunnies pictured on Monday — "Mama," the bunny with pink eyes and a purple dress; "Papa," the shocked bunny in glasses; and "Junior," the bunny with blue eyes — were all originally made by Schenz.

This year's event was the first time all the bunnies had been at the White House without the late costumer.

His friend said it was sad to be there without Schenz, but the bunnies continued to bring children joy.

"It was surreal, but it was also a lot of smiles," his friend told BuzzFeed News. "The Easter Bunny always makes everybody smile."