The inauguration as an entertainment spectacle really began in 1961, after the swearing in of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, said presidential historian Michael Beschloss.
“There were inaugural balls going back to the beginning, but that’s different,” Beschloss said. “That was just a big room with an orchestra. In ’61, Kennedy got his good friend Frank Sinatra to organize what was called an inaugural gala. Sinatra put together a glittering guest list, with all the Rat Pack, Peter Lawford. Juliet Prowse was there I believe. Janet Leigh.
“Basically every big name in the entertainment business at that time was there. That was the first show of its kind.”
Americans have absorbed a dizzying slide show of entertainment excess since those black-and-white images of Camelot and Hollywood royalty, not all of which are restricted to inaugurals. Whether it be the Oscars, Emmys, Golden Globes or Grammys; the Summer and Winter Olympics; or even just the Super Bowl halftime show, the American palette for pageantry has been whetted with increasingly rich visual delicacies.
The most recent example is the Beijing Olympics. The four-hour Opening Ceremonies featured more than 15,000 performers and came in at a cost of over $100 million. Estimates on the global television audience for that event vary widely, from one billion to more than four billion.
The Closing Ceremonies represented another tightly choreographed hallucinogenic dreamscape that included guitarist Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin performing “Whole Lotta Love” with singer Leona Lewis to trumpet the London Games in 2012. That also was viewed by an audience estimated at well over a billion.
But just because the bar continues to be raised on such events doesn’t mean the Obama inaugural will be the show to end all shows.
“On one side, what is arguably from the primaries through the latter part of the election through the euphoria of election night through the images of Obama depicted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is the sense that ratings have been broken for all coverage of the conventions and all the great speeches,” noted Robert J. Thompson, professor at the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. “In that sense, there is a question of whether this will be the inauguration to end all inaugurations. Of course it has to compete with the Olympic opening and closing ceremonies. On one level, there’s a real call for this to be a symbolic ceremony of what is supposedly this new Utopia.
“On the other hand, it’s happening in the middle of a sorry economic state. It’s one thing for the Olympic ceremonies or other awards shows to forget all this and to give us some escape. It’s another to have a symbol of a new government in the midst of what’s happening to many Americans and to show a lavish celebration.
“There’s really two powerful cultural forces going on here. It’s a tough call how to balance those.”
It would be difficult anyway for this inaugural to top Beijing, just because of the nature of the event. Most of the entertainment leading up to the swearing in, and during that evening, will take place at balls. Just prior to the actual solemn occasion of hand-raising and oath-taking by Obama, there will be a musical selection featuring composer John Williams, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, violinist Itzhak Perlman, pianist Gabriela Montero, and clarinet player Anthony McGill. After the oath, there will be a parade. There won’t be any opportunity for the equivalent of Chinese acrobats.
But there will be events all weekend, and it’s the totality of that entertainment experience and the magnitude of the occasion that will add up to one extravaganza in the minds of viewers and attendees.
“As you know, one of our events will be held at the Lincoln Memorial (on Sunday, Jan. 18), one of the most beautiful and majestic sites in this country,” said Linda Douglass, chief spokesperson for the Presidential Inaugural Committee 2009. “You don’t need to add to that to make it a spectacular location.”
Douglass said the entertainment will be tailored to the event. “The entertainment will not be lavish,” she said. “It will be appropriate for the times we live in and the message of the President and Vice President-elect, which is that we are all in this together with common goals and shared aspirations, and we are stronger when we are unified.
“The goal of this inauguration is to be accessible and inclusive. I would describe the tone as ‘hopeful.’”
You can forgive George Schlatter if initially he had no goals for the 2000 inauguration, simply because he wasn’t expecting to be involved. The veteran Hollywood producer, who founded the American Comedy Awards and whose credits include the classic “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In,” got a call out of the blue one day.
“I was an unusual choice,” explained Schlatter, who also produced the entertainment for the 2004 inauguration. “My comedy has always been anti-establishment. But they called me. I didn’t know anybody. I had no Republican contacts. They didn’t know they won the election until Christmas. I got a call while I was skiing.
“I said, ‘You’re putting me on.’ Then the calls got heavier and heavier, so I went to Washington.”
He recalled his first meeting in the nation’s capital to discuss the inaugural festivities. “I walked into the room and there was no persons of color and no Jews,” he said. “I said, ‘We need a half a dozen brothers and some yarmulkes.’ A fresh-faced kid said to me, ‘Mr. Schlatter, how do you spell ‘yarmulke’?’
Rounding up entertainment for that one was difficult, Schlatter said, because at the time the Republicans had few Hollywood contacts. “We had to grovel,” he said. He ended up with mainstream and country acts like Clint Black, Lyle Lovett and the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra.
“This time,” Schlatter said of the Obama inaugural, “everybody wants to be involved.”
And sometimes weather conditions have a say in the matter. For Bush’s second inaugural, it was 3 degrees outside. “The spit valves on all the instruments froze,” Schlatter remembered.
But as far as the planning of entertainment, the conflict will be between the forces of splurge and scrimp.
“There is a sense with the Olympics of looking at the last Olympic city and trying to put on a bigger show than the last one,” Thompson said. “In that case, if there happen to be bad economic times it’s not as dicey. Often in bad economic times people want the opposite of that. They want some excess. When it comes to awards ceremonies, Super Bowls, excess is forgiven because there’s an appetite for it.
“This is different. This is the ceremonial opening of a new government regime. The messages sent are different than other messages. There are messages that will be sent by excess that may not be the right tone for an administration of change.”
Beschloss said Americans will be following it all with preconceived ideas of what will transpire on the stages. “A lot of people expect the inauguration to be professionally done with first-rate entertainment,” he said.
But he referred to a previous inauguration spectacle as a reference point for this one and others since.
“When Reagan came in, that was the best example,” he said. “There were a lot of comments at a tough economic time that there were too many furs and jewels and limos,” he said. “Any president since then has been sensitive to that.
“I would be very surprised for this inauguration if there is any degree of conspicuous consumption.”