Primping for the President : Residents Rush to Prepare for Clinton's Surprise Visit

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The call from the White House came a week ago. President Clinton was coming to Culver City. To tiny Carlson Park. In six days.

Syd Kronenthal, the city's director of human services, was having none of it.

"We get calls from kooks all the time," the 47-year city employee said later. "We thought they were playing games when they said they wanted Carlson Park, that they were going to have 1,500 people and that they were going to give us six days."

Hoping to put a quick end to the prank, Kronenthal asked the caller to fax a list of city facilities the White House was interested in.

The list arrived in 10 minutes.

What followed was a nail-biting logistic odyssey that put Culver City on nationwide display, if only for an hour or so.

Lacking the vast resources of a larger city and woefully inexperienced in hosting the world's most powerful leader, the city bureaucracy, depleted by budget cuts, turned to its strengths: swift, personalized service, short lines of communication and a wellspring of residents eager to help for free.

Throughout the weekend, more than 50 volunteers helped set up steel barricades and prepare the 2.6-acre park for Clinton's Tuesday morning arrival.

A local florist donated mums and ferns for the stage. Sony Entertainment Studios combed its back lot and produced an elegant set of white rattan chairs, upon which Clinton sat alongside top leaders of the American Assn. of Retired Persons.

And that was only the beginning.

City Treasurer Sue McCabe went door to door with White House officials, alerting residents near the park of the impending visit.

Mark Zierten, senior management analyst for the city, was called upon to do everything from finding a Chinese restaurant for the White House advance team to making sure a towel was in place in case the President had to pay a visit to the park's lone restroom.

"I knew the city had a chance to put its best foot forward, and I was going to make sure we took advantage of that," said Zierten, hoarse and exhausted but clearly elated after the visit went off without a hitch.

Security was a main concern and the Police Department assigned extra officers to help with crowds, traffic and whatever else the Secret Service wanted.

Fire Chief Mike Olson had his hands full, too, as a crowd made up largely of retirees filled the park. The senior citizens' well being, not to mention the President's, weighed heavily on Olson, who later admitted, "I said a few prayers to make sure nothing went wrong."

So it was for almost a week as city officials scurried about, unable to push from their minds the obvious: One slip-up, one embarrassing incident or worse, and Culver City could quickly make history for all the wrong reasons.

Such thoughts kept Councilwoman Jozelle Smith looking anxiously at her watch during Clinton's speech.

She described hosting the President as "a very nice, warm, fuzzy thing to do, but it's very nerve-racking. You cross your fingers until things get back to normal."

Local historians and old-timers had to go all the way back to a 1972 visit by Vice President Spiro Agnew--and an unconfirmed visit by President Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s--to find a comparable event in Culver City.

The significance of the moment seemed lost on no one.

Mayor Mike Balkman, a registered Republican, happily put partisanship aside for a chance to be the first person to greet Clinton as he got out of his limo. Balkman described the brief meeting as "a once-in-a-lifetime experience," while his City Council colleague Steve Gourley gushed, "I'm a grizzled old political veteran, but still, to have a President come to your city. . . ."

It's sappy stuff for "The Heart of Screenland," a place where residents have learned to regard Hollywood celebrities with blase indifference.

"It's not real when you see him on television," said Carol Matlow, who pulled her daughter out of school to see the President. "But seeing him there, it was a thrill. He actually does exist."

A few neighbors wished he would exist somewhere else, though.

"You couldn't go out without first checking with the FBI and the Secret Service," said Glen Meyers, who lives next to the park. "They were nice, but it's still a bunch of hooey. They're spending our money like water."

Exactly why the White House chose Culver City in the first place depended on which city official you talked to.

A Police Department spokesman said he was informed by the Secret Service that the city was selected because of its startlingly low crime rate.

Kronenthal credited the excellent variety and condition of city parks.

The most popular explanation was that Culver City in general, and the park in particular, impressed White House advance teams as definitively American.

The park, renamed after a Culver City physician who was killed performing missionary work in the Belgian Congo, is at Motor and Braddock avenues in a quiet neighborhood of middle-class homes.

"It reflected an all-American neighborhood and the kind of environment that they thought the whole country could relate to," said Bob Norquist, assistant to the city's chief administrative officer.

There was one other possible explanation: Like virtually everyone else headed to or from LAX, Clinton first had to pass through Culver City.

"How many times have Presidents gone through our city?" Mayor Balkman wondered aloud. "You can't even count it. For once we got one to stop."

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