It is not every day that a small town in rural Pennsylvania gets to honor a president, and not just any president, but a beloved war hero. On October 13, 1953, the people of Hershey got to do just that, when Hershey hosted a 63rd birthday party for President Dwight D. Eisenhower, sponsored by the Pennsylvania Republican Finance Committee.
The birthday party was intended as a fund raiser for the Republican Party (in which they hoped to raise $500,000), and was comprised of three main events taking place in the Hershey Stadium, Hershey Arena and a big top tent provided by Ringling Brothers-Barnum & Bailey Circus. Events held in the Stadium were free to the public, and spectators began arriving at 10 a.m. to attend the evening’s festivities, which began at 5:45 p.m. Some of the nation’s leading golfers, including Lew Worsham, Patty Berg and Ben Hogan, all who later appeared again for the Arena show, teed off from the Stadium field as the crowd awaited the President.
President Eisenhower’s entourage of three cars entered the Stadium at about 6:14 p.m. and circled the Stadium track. The President and his wife stood alone at the table set for them at the south end of the Stadium while the crowd joined in singing "Happy Birthday." President Eisenhower ate a fried chicken box lunch and watched six Pennsylvania bands, including the Lebanon High School state champions, in a field performance. In total, approximately 12,000-14,000 people attended the Stadium celebration that day. After the closing of the Stadium programs, Hershey Park Ballroom offered free dancing to the music of Red McCarthy.
At 5:00 p.m., the gates to the circus tent opened to receive the first of 6,000 diners. This "Big Top" dinner cost $100 per plate. Decorations featured a huge 24 foot high and 40 foot wide wooden "cake" containing bushels of colorful Pennsylvania fruits and vegetables on its seven tiers and topped with the American flag. The dinner menu included Roast Prime Tenderloin with mushroom sauce, peas, potato croquettes and cole slaw.
After the guests were finished, they moved to the Arena, for the culmination of the day’s festivities. President and Mrs. Eisenhower entered the Arena riding in a one horse buggy. There they found 6,000 guests (from the Big Top dinner) singing Eisenhower’s campaign song, "Where In The World But In America." The President walked up the steps to a large platform positioned beside his giant birthday cake (9 feet wide by 6 feet high) topped with 63 electric candles. When the President "lit" his cake in the vast darkened hall, the audience also "lit" their candles (shaped like hand sized wooden cakes, topped by a small red electric candle). The effect was dramatic. When the Arena lights came up Eisenhower cut Mamie a piece of birthday cake. Only the Eisenhowers got a piece from a small portion of real cake inserted in the second layer. The rest of the "cake" was made of plywood and papier mache.
Other Arena guests were served cake and ice cream by 500 high school girls. Cake was provided by 800 women who each baked a cake for the festivities. At Mamie Eisenhower’s suggestion, the maker of one of the cakes received an expense free three-day trip to Washington. The lucky one, to be chosen by lot, was to be the First Lady’s guest for tea in the White House.
The 2 ½ hour reception and tribute featured a 45 minute pageant, specially produced by Fred Waring for the party, entitled "The Song of America," a musical saga tracing the founding and development of America. It was performed by the 1000 voice All-Pennsylvania Schools Chorus. President Eisenhower’s birthday gift was the establishment of the Eisenhower Exchange Fellowship. The goal of the fellowships (incorporated and funded by 55 prominent Americans) was to improve international relations by financing the training of leaders in the fields where they are most needed in the rest of the world.
President Eisenhower would return to Hershey on two other occasions. In 1960, he returned for a dinner at Hotel Hershey along with Vice President Richard Nixon. In 1963, he returned to the Hotel again, this time for a "Stag" dinner, following a format used during his White House years where he invited scholars, business and cultural leaders to gather to discuss issues and ideas.