Big stage, no balloons

Barack Obama will accept the Democratic presidential nomination at Denver’s football stadium Aug. 28, the anniversary of the day Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech (1963) and Sen. Strom Thurmond began his 24-hour, 18-minute filibuster against civil rights (1957).

So OK, there will be grandeur, there will be historical resonance, and fine, it’s a fabulous photo-op, but how are they going to do the big balloon-drop finale in a stadium?

You’ve gotta have the balloons. It isn’t a convention without the balloons. The TV producers will bust a gut if there aren’t any balloons.

The Denver convention hall where Democrats will nominate Obama holds maybe 20,000 people -- fat cats, delegates and party muckety-mucks. But the stadium where he’ll be accepting the nomination seats at least 76,000 people. Come one, come all! Obama-mia! Obamamania! Obamarama!


It’s a bold move, expecting one man speechifying to fill every seat in the place. It usually requires 22 men bashing at one another -- the Broncos and whoever they’re playing -- to fill the elliptical stadium referred to by the people who bought its naming rights as “the diaphragm.” And it’s an act of extreme faith to believe that security checks will move so briskly and efficiently that some of those thousands of ardent Democrats will not still be waiting in line when Obama has left the building.

I’ve covered a few political conventions, and I will be agog with admiration if the Dems pull this off, visually and logistically, and make Obama look powerful, commanding and vastly more magisterial than, say, Phil Collins at a Super Bowl halftime show.

In the confines of the arenas where candidates usually accept nominations, event producers can work the space to make the nominee the focus of every unswerving eye. In a stadium, people can be futzing and ditzing and distracted by anything: Oh look, somebody’s skywriting. I wonder how long the bathroom lines are? I can’t find my BlackBerry, again. Wow, is that Scarlett Johansson?

Obama wasn’t even conceived when a candidate last took his party vows in a stadium. John F. Kennedy gave his acceptance speech in the L.A. Coliseum in July 1960.


Some history bears repeating; some should be severely ignored. In 1960, JFK’s speech at the Coliseum, in the heart of the entertainment capital of the world, was preceded by more than two hours of warm-up acts, most of which could have been staged by the Keokuk Chamber of Commerce at an Iowa Little League field.

In 1960, about 90,000 of the 100,000 tickets went free to schoolteachers, parents and students, and working men and women, all of whom could have chosen to stay home and watch the Dodgers play the Giants on TV (the Dodgers won, 5-3). By some accounts, the Coliseum never did fill up.

And in the pummeling July heat, those who did come to the party sat through a Virgin Islands steel band, John Boudreau and his convention band with the “Demoettes”, Burdick’s Buccaneers (whoever they were), the Maryknoll Japanese girls drum corps, the LAPD motorcycle drill team, and floats to honor the new states of Alaska and Hawaii.

In no conceivable universe can I imagine the Demoettes sharing a bill with comic Mort Sahl, but mordant Mort delivered himself of a few modest zingers as the afternoon waned. He read a fake telegram from Richard Nixon to JFK’s father: “You haven’t lost a son; you’ve gained a country.” As I said, it really was dreadfully hot.

VP nominee Lyndon Johnson’s wife, sister and daughters circled the Coliseum track, waving from a white convertible like homecoming princesses, and JFK’s mother and sisters followed in a red ragtop. Please, please, DNC -- whatever you do, give the Obama ladies a victory lap!

Obama can summon more star power than JFK, whose Coliseum headliners were Frank Sinatra and Vincent Price, but that would be unwise. The Hollywood-liberal label isn’t the vibe you want in the heart of the Rockies. Keep a few celebs visible to give the cameras something to zoom in on besides -- maybe, possibly -- empty seats.

Do not invite some petulant, over-feted diva to sing the national anthem. Instead, find a symbolic someone, perhaps an Iraq war veteran with pipes like Pavarotti’s, to solo the straightforward Wonder Bread version -- no riffs, no rapping.

And do not even try to get the crowd to beat the Bronco fans’ record for noise. Almost eight years ago, they created the world’s loudest roar, according to Guinness. It lasted for 10 seconds, and it crossed the ear’s pain threshold at 128.74 decibels.


About the balloons. I made a call, and I have it on excellent authority that it is very likely there will be no balloon drop -- repeat, no balloon drop. So I’m just asking: Is this change we can believe in?