Despite the protests, the terrorism threats, and the unique logistical challenges of staging such a huge event in New York City, the Republican National Convention, held at Madison Square Garden August 30 through September 2, came off pretty much without a hitch. Yes, even the balloons fell on cue.

But from a production perspective, the GOP's event was more difficult in scope than the Democratic convention. The pertinent difference being that the Republican convention culminated by nominating current President George W. Bush. As sound designer Patrick Baltzell of ATK AudioTek (who designed and provided the audio systems for both conventions) explains, “When you have a standing president at the convention, you have all of the White House folks providing input,” he says. “With John Kerry, that wasn't an issue — he was just happy to be there. This was more complicated because one of the ideas they were trying to accomplish was to make Bush look like an Everyman. They had scenarios of him coming through the audience and shaking hands and doing high-fives as just a regular guy. Because of security concerns, that evolved into a separate stage in the middle surrounded by the people.”

Event producer David Nash recruited Baltzell as part of the production team in February. “We did several surveys of Madison Square Garden, and my problem was that the first three days of the convention were all done at a stage on one side of the arena. But Bush was directly in the center underneath the scoreboard — it was absolutely in the round. So after much consideration, I concluded that the only solution was to have two separate sound systems and hang them all from day one.”

Having two systems obviously had both a financial and a labor impact. “That was the only way I could be sure that George Bush would be heard, and that's really what it's all about,” Baltzell says. “Everything else is just foreplay to Bush's acceptance speech. I considered trying to integrate the systems, but I ultimately realized that if there was any serious compromise in the way people heard Bush's speech, either at home or in the venue, then I would have been making a mistake.”

Baltzell's system included 230 JBL Vertec line array speakers, which included a loudspeaker system of 80 additional VT 4889 cabinets in eight arrays — just for Bush's speech. “It looked kind of silly, because some of them were aiming straight at each other,” Baltzell says. “Engineers came in for Brooks and Dunn and Lee Ann Womack [who performed at the event] and said, ‘What kind of a PA system is this?’ Bush's center stage wasn't there until Thursday, so earlier in the week, it just looked to others that I was out of my mind because I had speakers aimed every which way.”

During Bush's speech, Baltzell had to go back and forth between the two systems. “After Bush spoke, I had to go back to the original stage for a performance and then the final prayer and the wrapping up by the Chairman. So that was a bit tricky. I used the same Yamaha PM 5000 console for both systems and Dan Gerhard mixed all the music on the Yamaha PM1D.”

With two weeks to load in, the audio crew did have plenty of time to get everything up in the air. “We started on the 4th and we were up by the 20th,” Baltzell says. “At times we were running ahead of the construction schedule, which was good because our equipment had to be inspected by special Secret Service bomb-sniffing dogs. They could only work certain hours, so it was a big deal to align your schedule with the dogs. If you had to come back in to fix a cable or anything, you had to start all over again.”

SECURE STAGING

PRG's project manager Adam Edelstein, who headed up staging the event, agrees that there were many atypical challenges because of the security concerns. “The coordination with the Secret Service was huge, as the security concerns were obviously paramount,” he says. “They expected most of what we brought in because I brought them [technical security specialists Don McGee and Mark Norberg] up to our facility in New Windsor, NY, to give them a better idea of what we were doing.”

PRG provided all of the staging, mechanics and automation for the main stage, which included a motorized slip stage and hydraulic lift for raising and lowering speaker platforms. Both were controlled by PRG's Stage Command scenic automation system. PRG also built a 30' diameter, 16,000lb. capacity mechanical lift that raised and lowered the artists who performed during the event. “This way they could draw all of the attention to the performers, and reset everything on the main stage for the speaker,” Edelstein says. “We primarily got involved to do the entertainment stage with the mechanical lift. But we ended up doing almost all of the mechanical and structural engineering in house with our engineers.”

PRG was officially contracted for all of the staging only five weeks before the event. “We did do some preliminary fabrication prior to that,” Edelstein says. “But many of the effects and scenery that we provided we only found out about at a late date. So I hired the excellent Tony Menditto as our installation steward. We also had Ed Kish as the primary rigger. Joe Stewart, the primary set designer, was an extraordinary person to work with — and quite flexible. Larry Sedwick was the supervising producer, and Fred Gallo was our supervisor from PRG. It was a great group of people and it happened under an extraordinarily truncated timetable. Of course, the most credit has to go out to the Local One and Local Three members who were there around the clock.”

The most demanding work night began at 12:30 Thursday morning. “We constructed the entire second stage on an overnight work call in between the end of the third night and the beginning of the fourth night,” Edelstein explains. “Most of that scenery wasn't even in the building until the day before because there was no space for it. That day started for me at about 4:30 am when I met those trailers out on Riverside Drive to begin walking them through the three security checkpoints as well as a final sniff by the dogs.”

After a dinner break, the crew began construction. “We took the first set out and swapped the new set in. The areas where we could actually bring things in at that point were very small because there had been a show in there for three days,” Edelstein says. “So a key challenge was manufacturing all of the components so that they could fit through the areas available. There was a mechanical slip stage and a hydraulic scissor lift that raised the podium up into that center platform. The stage was placed exactly dead center in Madison Square Garden; we had to be spot on for camera and lighting angles as well as other concerns. Then we laid the seal, which was a digitally printed low-pile carpet that was chosen because it was the least reflective surface for lighting and television. It was also a softer safer surface than a more slippery material like vinyl.”

PRG also constructed another last-minute addition to the stage in the form of a thick Plexiglas® security wall that surrounded the base stair on the presidential platform. “It didn't show up [on TV] very well, so that worked very well,” Edelstein says. “There was a sort of tensile perimeter around the stage, which was much closer to the podium. It was quite unusual for the Secret Service to allow the president to be in the middle of the arena where they didn't have immediate access to him.”

PRG also constructed motorized traveler tracks for the LED walls, each of which weighed over 1,000lbs., which allowed them to fly vertically and travel laterally.

POLITICAL SCOREBOARD

Scharff Weisberg provided the video portion of the event. “We had a previous working relationship in Madison Square Garden,” explains Josh Weisberg. “One of the things they wanted to do was utilize the center-hung scoreboard, which has an HD video system that we had installed. They wanted to find out the feasibility of upgrading that with current projectors, which we did by installing Digital Projection Lightning 28 SXs. I also worked with them to put together a specification for the LED walls.”

New Jersey-based XL Video supplied the 15×24 panel array of Barco ILite 6 units. This center screen was flanked by two 23'×15' side screens (also ILite panels). On the main stage, the three-segment video screen behind the main podium was about 30' high by 22' wide, and flanked by vertical side panels.

“Having an LED screen that large created some camera positioning issues, but they loved that shot of having it behind the podium,” Weisberg says. “The overall direction came from the White House director of communications, who had very specific ideas about how it should look. We also provided IMAG for a front projection screen that was hung off the back of the stage because the arena was set up as a theatre in the round with this large LED backdrop in an upstage position, which blocked the view for the people seated behind it.”

GARDEN VARIETY

To counteract the LED's screen brightness, lighting designer Bill Klages suggested using a gray RP screen in front of it — it was a gray screen, which was placed 1/4" downstage of the screens. “That gave us a great deal of control over the ambient light,” Klages says. “Though even with the RP screen in front of it, the LED screen ran at 20% brightness.”

Having designed lighting systems for two previous Republican conventions, Klages is no novice at convention design — but he'd never done one in Madison Square Garden. “It's a very difficult venue because of the height and the pitch,” he says. “That was the major problem. Plus we raised the floor to 9' 6”, and the scoreboard is smack in the middle. Also, the roof is convex — it slopes down to the center — so that made for major sightline issues. That was the biggest challenge that we had in lighting, and that was just in the planning. We knew they were going to be there and they never changed position, so that just became another consideration rather than a major problem.

“The biggest problem is Madison Square Garden, in many respects,” he continues. “Loading in is difficult because you're up on the fifth floor, so you can't bring trailers into the place. We knew it would be slow working and that you wouldn't have immediate access due to the extra security measures. The biggest problem I had was that they didn't leave all the escalators on all the time. And there's only one elevator servicing everybody, so that led to some terrible bottlenecks. The lighting itself was very straightforward.”

The lighting system, supplied by PRG, included: 132 Martin MAC 2000 Wash lights, 18 MAC 2000 Profiles, 12 VARI*LITE VL2000 spots, 12 VL2000 wash lights, 44 VL3000 Wash lights, six 2.5k Xenon Gladiator spotlights, an ETC Obsession® II console, and two Flying Pig Systems Wholehog® II consoles. “My electrician was Richie Beck, Sr. and my associate lighting designers were Dave Grill and Dennis Rudge,” Klages says. “Dave ran the Wholehogs and Richie ran the ETC Obsession.”

Spotlights were the primary source on the podiums. “There was basically one followspot for the podium on Monday through Wednesday and one was a backup,” Klages says. “In the Monday-through-Wednesday setup, four followspots were for the band. It was a very simple straightforward set up. What you have to light is pretty rigid, so it doesn't take a great deal of imagination to figure out what's needed. You have the delegate area and then you have where the principals are. Mostly, you're just lighting one person at a podium, so it's not too difficult.”