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DEMOCRATIC CONVENTION '96

Convention Producer Puts Glitz in Democrats' 'Infomercial'

Television: Gary Smith went from Tony Awards to prime-time political party. 'Everything we do is a TV special,' he says, 'but this is a genuine event.'

August 30, 1996|DAVID LAMB | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CHICAGO — Few delegates or journalists know his name. But to Democratic insiders, Gary Smith is the Wizard of Oz, the impresario who turned the convention into a grand spectacle of Hollywood scripting, pacing and glitz. Even an event as momentous as the sudden resignation Thursday of Dick Morris, President Clinton's top campaign strategist, didn't force a change in the convention's content. The show went on as written, without missing a beat.

It is 6 p.m., and from his platform overlooking a cast of thousands, Smith--a producer who over three decades has staged events for everyone from Bugs Bunny to Ronald Reagan--is issuing orders into the mouthpiece of his headset and controlling every detail unfolding on the floor below as firmly as a puppeteer. "OK, we're cuing for a second minute here," he's telling his stage manager on the podium. "We've got a little latitude. Tell the orchestra to do another one. You can go ahead. Keep the music going. Do it."

The 61-year-old Smith, New York-bred and unflappable, is talking into his headset and a microphone nearly simultaneously. He's got two phones up to his ears. Someone passes him a note saying that Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) has called. He's looking back over his shoulder at 40 TV monitors.

Now he's running down the script with his finger--24 hours spread over four days, broken into 45-second segments--and the control room on the seventh floor has a question, and the light on a third phone is flashing, and he's pressing the microphone button to ask about a video clip that's coming up.

"Who are you talking to on the mike?" someone asks, and Smith says, only half joking: "To the world."

Network audiences for the convention may be down, but the man who designed and directed this whole gala is helping change, probably forever, the way conventions are choreographed and conducted.

It's hard to believe now, but in 1972 when the press--as the media was then called--learned that the Republicans had put together a detailed itinerary for Richard Nixon's renomination, the protests shook the rafters of the Miami Beach Convention Center. The very idea that a convention could be scripted instead of spontaneous was heresy.

Now, to both parties, the very idea that a convention could be impulsive or contentious is ludicrous. "We didn't expect surprises, and we didn't have a lot," said Joseph Finneran, Smith's associate.

There's a 10-minute recess on the floor and Smith--suspenders over his blue-striped shirt, sleeves rolled up--takes off his headset and pushes back his chair. The 16-piece orchestra is high-decibel, amplified so that the United Center seems to sway, giving the impression that the most joyful party on Earth is going on here. Smith has to speak loudly to be heard.

"Everything we do is a TV special," says Smith, who recently produced the Tony Awards in New York and next month will do a Dolly Parton special for ABC-TV. "But this is a genuine event, not just a show, because what happens here has significance. You're walking a line between show business and history, and you can't cross over that line.

"Obviously we want to appeal to a prime-time market. But when the media complains that we're producing an infomercial, I'm not sure there's anything wrong with that. I think the Democrats and Republicans may even have a responsibility to do an infomercial, to tell the American people what their policies are and what their future actions are going to be.

"The networks say nothing's happening that viewers want to watch, but what are they going to put on in place of the convention? 'Gilligan's Island?' Are they so concerned with each others' ratings that they'd drop the conventions because they perceive nothing is happening?"

Perhaps. With both the Republican and Democratic conventions this year resembling MTV extravaganzas, networks cut back prime-time coverage in Chicago to one hour each of the first three nights and two hours Thursday, when President Clinton delivered his acceptance speech.

While the Democrats chose one of Hollywood's best-known producers to design everything from the podium to the minute-by-minute show itself, the Republicans in San Diego turned to an attorney and lobbyist, 47-year-old Paul Manafort Jr. Manafort's stagecraft was so superb that he had to defend himself against charges that he stole the spotlight from Bob Dole and Jack Kemp. In Chicago, Smith--a staunch Democrat whose partner, Dwight Hemion, is a Republican--strove to stick to the party's convention themes of optimism, responsibility and community, and to create an atmosphere that would appeal to the senses and emotions.

When he dismissed the Democratic logo on the podium as too bland, he commissioned a new one from Tom Martin, a Los Angeles graphic artist who had helped design the set for "Jurassic Park."

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