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Out of the sky, some Hollywood magic

An 'alien spaceship' that descended on the Coliseum during the closing ceremony of the 1984 Olympics was a moment of sheer wonderment.

August 12, 2009|David L. Wolper

A roar sweeps across the Los Angeles Coliseum. It is the closing ceremony of the 1984 Olympics. The rousing cheer intensifies when, from the eastern sky, with a full moon as a backdrop, a strange object appears.

With flashing lights and a roving spotlight, an alien spaceship approaches the Coliseum. The Earth signals the spaceship with the "Olympic Fanfare" and the spaceship responds with a dazzling display of lights and sound. It then lands behind the Coliseum peristyle in a fury of smoke, light and fire.

With a sense of wonderment, the crowd, including ABC announcer Jim McKay, couldn't figure out how it flew. A few in the crowd said, "Is it real?"

Nine days earlier, as the producer of the opening and closing ceremonies, I went to the inaugural flight of that spaceship. It weighed 2 tons and was 52 feet in diameter fully covered with fabric.

A giant helicopter with a cable that was bridled to the spaceship took off. As it was lifted off the ground, the powerful wind from the helicopter's rotary blades blew the fabric off the spaceship, which in turn caused its large frame to collapse, basically folding in half and looking like a giant taco in the sky.

Nine days to the closing ceremony -- and no spaceship.

Bob Gurr, project designer, says, "David, don't cancel it. My crew and I know we can fix it on time."

It was the closing ceremony's main attraction, so I really didn't have a choice.

Only 24 hours later, thanks to Bob with his terrific redesigned spaceship and his dedicated crew, we had a perfect test flight.

With five days to go, we moved our next test flights near the Coliseum. In one test flight, the giant helicopter created such a windstorm that, on Figueroa Street, it blew the small vendors' selling tables, tents and Olympic pins in every direction (they were reimbursed for their losses).

Final rehearsal flight only 24 hours to go and another problem pops up in the spaceship. It turned out to be minor and was quickly repaired. An hour to go. No more rehearsals. The next flight of this complicated Flying Taco, as it was now called by the ceremonies group, would be for real.

Everything had to work and it did -- perfectly. To the crowd in the Coliseum and the billions of television viewers around the world, it was a magical moment of sheer wonderment.

Now, 25 years later, people still ask me, "How did you get the spaceship to fly?" Well, finally here's the secret.

First, we had a giant military helicopter that was painted black and flew with no lights of any kind. Against the night sky it was invisible.

Attached to the helicopter on a 100-foot black cable was the spaceship. The spaceship was reasonably light since it was not solid. It had lights in the outline shape of a spaceship with hollow areas between. Against a black sky, the naked eye perceived it as solid.

It featured multicolored flashing lights and a giant spotlight that was powered by a small generator inside the spaceship. The light show was operated by remote control from the big helicopter.

We had two smaller helicopters hovering around the spaceship seeming to escort it to the Coliseum, but they were really there to cover up the sound of the big helicopter carrying the spaceship.

Since no one could see or hear the giant helicopter or see the black cable attached to the spaceship, it looked as if it were flying in on its own power.

I'm sure there were some flying saucer addicts who wanted to believe it was real. I hope they did; it would prove that we successfully accomplished our grand illusion.

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David L. Wolper, an award-winning television and film producer, was producer of the opening and closing ceremonies of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.

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