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Inaugural Planners Promise Serious Fun on the Mall

By Roxanne Roberts and Doug Struck
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, January 4, 1997; Page A01

Construction has officially started. The program is nearly set. And maybe the weather will cooperate — although heaters are being installed in the tents, just in case.

The Presidential Inaugural Committee, holding forth on an unseasonably balmy afternoon, detailed its plans yesterday for "An American Journey," a free, two-day public celebration on the Mall to mark Bill Clinton's second inauguration.

The events, scheduled for the weekend before Clinton's Jan. 20 inauguration, will be in seven huge tents that will offer musical performances, interactive technology, U.S. leaders telling their personal stories and children's entertainment. There also will be lots of food, ranging from southern-fried to California nouveau.

What was originally envisioned as separate programs — one day of music and one day of lectures — has been combined into a weekend of music, speakers and high-tech play. It will be "a two-day celebration of our individual and collective journeys as Americans," Terence McAuliffe, a committee co-chairman, said at a news conference on the Mall.

The tone of the two-day program is much more serious than the tone of 1993's inaugural festivities, according to organizers.

"The first time was a celebration," said Quint Davis, producer of the Mall events. This time, he said, inaugural planners decided to focus on America's history and future: "Let's be educational. Let's be informative. Let's bring some vision and purpose to this. It's a little more presidential, if you will."

Names of performers and speakers won't be officially announced until next week. But the Mall festivities, among the few inaugural events open to the general public, will include household names from the entertainment and business worlds.

A long list of celebrities came to Washington for Clinton's first inauguration, and it looks as if this year's will be just as star-studded. Confirmed but not announced participants in the invitation-only Presidential Gala at USAir Arena on Jan. 19 include singers Stevie Wonder, Kenny Rogers, Trisha Yearwood and Bernadette Peters, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, actors Michael Douglas and Whoopi Goldberg and the Broadway casts of "Chicago" and "Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk."

The seven tents, which can hold a total of about 28,000 people at any one time, will be set up on the Mall between Seventh and 14th streets. In addition, lecturers and performers will appear at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and at several Smithsonian museums. Programs planned for the tents include:

    Harmony Hall and Heritage Hall. These two tents, each holding several thousand people, will be devoted to musical performances. A different artist or group will be featured every hour, with programs spotlighting jazz, country, gospel and folk music.

    The American Journey. This tent is earmarked for speakers from the entertainment and business world, who will tell their life stories and answer questions from the audience. Inaugural planners call the programs "empowerment dialogues" and say they may include panel discussions and performers depicting Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and other historical figures.

    The Millennium Schoolhouse. This tent will be dedicated to children and will feature favorite entertainers and programs for the young, including a review of three centuries of American music.

    The Technology Playground. Organizers say this will be a multimedia center for all age groups, underscoring Clinton's "bridge to the 21st century" campaign theme. More than 20 technology companies will be involved in setting up the programs. Bryan Maizlish, of Digital Evolution, one of the participating technology companies, said the playground for 1,500 people will offer things that "the general public has never seen before."

    Maizlish said there will be virtual reality machines, Web sites, Web browsers and other Internet technology, satellite communication and some technology "that really pushes the envelope."

    American Kitchen. There will be two food tents with multiethnic food and with seating in each for about 1,000 people.

Most of the events on the Mall will run from 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

The public events for Saturday, Jan. 18, will end with a citywide fireworks display at dusk, with fireworks set off from seven sites in the District.

The specific locations will be announced after fire marshals give final approval.

The Mall program for Sunday, Jan. 19, will conclude with a special tribute to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

The official celebration of the slain civil rights leader's birthday falls on Inauguration Day, Jan. 20, this year.

District officials have said King will be honored during the inaugural events and on another day — yet to be picked — after the inauguration.

Pulling together a public celebration for several hundred thousand people is a massive undertaking, said Debbie Willhite, the inauguration's co-executive director.

Working with the National Park Service, organizers have to find tents big enough to hold performers and their audiences, run power lines to the tents, protect the grass on the Mall, keep traffic from collapsing into gridlock and provide heaters, in case the weather turns bitter.

And someone has to calculate how many bathrooms is really enough.

"I'm a nut about Porta Pottis," Willhite said.

Security is much more complicated this time than for the first Clinton inauguration. After the bomb blast at the Summer Olympics, more thought has been given to safety of the crowds on the Mall. The Secret Service also has more rules this time about protecting the Clintons and the Gores. "It's different for a sitting president than for a president-elect," Willhite said.

All this before booking a single performer.

Willhite said about 80 percent of the musical acts performing on the Mall have been confirmed. The innovation this time -- interesting thinkers and speakers addressing important issues for our country -- has proved to be more difficult.

"Putting that piece together has taken more time than if you're booking music acts," Willhite said. "The first thing they say is, `A tent?' "

After she explains to prospective speakers that this is not, in fact, a carnival sideshow, Willhite has to talk about how each speaker could tell his or her story in keeping with the inaugural theme and focus.

Now that his new Cabinet choices have been made, Clinton himself has weighed in on the programs, especially the selection of topics and speakers for the weekend on the Mall.

"The president has very strong feelings about this," Willhite said. "He's very excited about this inaugural."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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