Jack Seifert looks down at a long sheet of a yellow legal pad, on which are schibbled in his own hieroglyphics a list of Things to Do. There are notes in the margin, notes on top of notes, notes in pencil and notes in ink, notes crossed out and new notes scrunched in the corners.
"This is nuts," he says, and grins.
What Seifert, associate producer, and a corps of colleagues are trying to do is put together the official entertainment for China's Vice Premier Teng Hsaio-ping which follows the White House state dinner on Monday. The complicated part is that not only are they putting together the show, they are arranging to televise it, live, on public television. And they've had about three weeks to do it.
This can't be just any show, after all. It is an official ornament of the eight-day ceremonial embrace between the People's Republic of China and the United States, two major powers who have more or less not been speaking to each other for 30 years. It is not an occasion for making blunders, and everyone involved is quite sensitive to that.
"People are sensitive to the political implications of everything," said George Stevens Jr., who is producing the entertainment and the television relay of it. "Everyone is so anxious that everything be perfect."
Even the title of the by-invitation-only event underwent scrupulous examination. Originally it was going to be "An American Entertainment," but that sounded not quite right. The most current version is "A Performance of the American Arts in honor of Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping of the People's Republic of China."
(The State Department spells it "Deng Xiaoping," a slight variation of Teng Hsaio-ping, the spelling originally released. This is all very hard to keep up with.)
The guests watching the entertainment will include the president, vice president, members of the Cabinet, members of Congress, and all the other guests at the official White House dinner. Other invitations -- among the mostly highly sought after in Washington -- have been coordinated by the White House and the National Council for U.S.-China Trade, which is sponsoring the performance but not the television production. The public will get a glimpse of the VIPs on television.
So how do you choose the performers for Teng?
"This is not going to be a mindblowing spectacular," said Stevens. "It's an after-dinner entertainment... Isaac Stern said -- here, I wrote it down -- 'If you could only show our lustiness and gladness to be citizens here.' You can't do everything in one hour. But I think you can communicate a sense of gladness that I think exists in our art and our people, and you can touch a few cultural bases."
There will be probably four acts, of which three have been set -- 15 members of the cast of the current Broadway musical "Eubie," including a tap dancing excerpt, 40 members of the Joffrey Ballet dancing "Rodeo," and pianist Rudolf Serkin.
"I see this more as a social-political event than a performance," he continued. "It's a public celebration. You have to capture the right spirit and tone."
Isaac Stern wanted to do it, Stevens said, but has to be in Vienna on Tuesday. At one point he suggested playing a duet with violinist Pinchas Zukerman, but then Stevens realized that Zukerman was an Israeli citizen... Fragments of conversation heard in and around Stevens' office at the American Film Institute, headquarters for gala planning, include allusions to Johnny Cash, the musical "Annie," and so forth.
"Listen, will there be a Xerox machine available on Sunday?" asks orchestra contractor Elliot Siegel of location coordinator Nick Lombardo. Siegel has collected 54 musicians to form the orchestra, and they'll all need copies of the Chinese National Anthem, which is being arranged by the director of the Marine Band and sent over.
Meanwhile, Seifert is operating out of a conference room near the Ladies Room of the Eisenhower Theater, surrounded by a dozen or so people flown in from Los Angeles, New York and Miami to prepare the event.
One group was worrying about tuxedos. Since this is a black tie event, even the cameramen have to wear tuxedos, which are being rented.
"Do you think we have to measure them before we order the tuxedos?' says one. "Rented tuxedos never fit right anyway," answers another. "Why spend the time measuring?"
Another person has to take care of food. Since the crew can't get into the Opera House until after the performance of "Whoopee," they will be working from 7:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. one day, and from 5 a.m. to 1 a.m. Sunday. this means that food has to be sent in.
"'Whoopee' is now in the Opera House,' Seifert explained. "Our trucks come in Thursday and we lay our cables Friday. But we can only lay cables up to the orchestra pit because of 'Whoopee." So Saturday 'Whoopee' loads out their scenery. So our trucks have to move out so their trucks can get in. All this has to be coordinated. We don't want to lose a lot of time because someone forgot to move a truck."
Trucks carrying electronic equipment are en route from Sacramento, Calif. Why Sacramento? Because the company that is being used has done a show in the Kennedy Center before, and, Seifert explained, the clearance space in the Kennedy Center loading dock is only 6 inches, and since he knows that these trucks have made it before, why take a chance that some new truck would show up and not be able to get in the driveway, for heaven's sake. You just don't need hassles like that.
"We're doing in a few days what we'd normally spend four weeks on." said Seifert, who normally lives in Los Angeles.
Even before these logistical challenges arose, the primary challenge of getting the show televised occupied most of Stevens' energies. Final funding (a $500,000 grant from Atlantic Richfield Co. [ARCO] CAME THROUGH ONLY A WEEK AGO, THE LAST DAY THE PRODUCTION TEAM COULD KEEP THEIR RENTAL OPTION ON ALL THE EQUIPMENT.
"I've decided to switch my credit card from Mobil to ARCO," Seifert said.
Before that, it was a question of getting someone to televise it. The networks were locked into their schedules: NBC is showing the second installment of "Backstairs at the White House," ABC has the Pro-Bowl, and CBS is showing a made-for-TV movie, "The Corn is Green," with Katharine Hepburn.
"PBS said they'd do it if we got the money," Seifert said. Technically, Stevens is producing the show for WETA (Channel 26), where it will air at 9 p.m., and be fed from there to an unknown number of the 279 public television stations in the country. Whether the Chinese will send the show by satellite to their part of the world has not yet been decided; a taped version will be made available to them in any case.
Some of the problems involved in putting on this show are new to the Los Angeles and New York television types -- like having to get security clearance for everyone, including the performers, for example.
Then there is the parking problem. There will be four theaters in use Monday night in the Kennedy Center. Stevens wishes that everyone would arrive an hour early to park, but, as Seifert was telling the director on the telephone the other day, "VIPs don't like to come early and sit around."
The timing of all this will prove to be a delicate tightrope act. If the toasts at the White House don't go on too long, if everyone is seated by 8:45, if it doesn't snow and performers aren't stranded in New York...
The director of the show won't get into Washington until Saturday; video tapes of some of the performances will have been sent to him so that he can plan the shots for the seven cameras planted around the auditorium.
By Monday, someone will have the signs to hang in the Opera House informing the audience that they may appear on television, so that no one can sue the producers later.
The box for an announcer, as yet unchosen, to stand on, will have been made locally from designs flown in by express from California. The red. white and blue drapes will have arrived from Los Angeles, the video truck from Sacramento, and the audio truck from Miami. The 40 dancers, 15 "Eubie" actors, 54 musicians, 40 crew members, the "hair person," the "makeup person," one cue-card person, and the caterer will, presumably, have arrived. Teng Hsaio-ping, or Xiaoping, will have arrived by Sunday for his eight-day "official" visit.
Stevens was asked if he had tried to find out what sort of entertainment Teng likes. He said he had dinner with several members of the Chinese mission, including the ambassador.
Most of them said they had not had a chance to see much of American culture other than a ballet at the Kenedy Center.At one point, he asked the ambassador, through an interpreter, what he thought. "Mission impossible," he replied.
Stevens, fortunately, understood that he meant the project, not the TV show.