Diana Ross is flying in from Switzerland, Gregory Hines from London. Stevie Wonder caught the red-eye from Los Angeles, and Bob Dylan, Quincy Jones and Eddie Murphy are also en route.
"Yes, it's coming together," says Ewart Abner, executive coproducer (with Wonder) of Monday night's gala birthday and holiday celebration for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. at the Kennedy Center.
"And I think it's going to be a very special evening."
The concert, featuring Wonder, Ross, Murphy, Hines, Dylan, Debbie Allen, Amy Grant, the Pointer Sisters, Judith Jamison, the Alvin Ailey Dancers, Peter, Paul and Mary and others, will cap a week of King tributes and the first official celebration of the new national holiday in King's memory.
It will also mark the resolution of a highly personal five-year campaign by Wonder to help establish that holiday.
The campaign began in 1980 with a dedication on Wonder's "Hotter Than July" album, which produced the exuberant anthem "Happy Birthday." It continued with a series of Washington marches and rallies until the legislation passed in 1983.
For 14 years, bills to make King's birthday a holiday had been introduced in Congress and rejected. Recalls Abner, "After the second march in 1982 , someone asked Stevie how many years he was going to march. He said, 'Probably next year will be the last one.' He knew that, he believed that."
Monday brings the public celebration, televised coast to coast.
The Washington concert is scheduled to end at about 8 p.m., in sync with similar and simultaneous all-star concerts in New York and Atlanta -- with dozens of stars on each stage singing "Happy Birthday" and thousands of concert goers waving luminous sticks in the air.
From a phalanx of trucks in the basement of the Kennedy Center, veteran director and producer Marty Pasetta will be taking satellite feeds from all three locations, editing the highlights (in stereo, to boot) and splicing together the package.
The tapes will then be transmitted by satellite to New York for integration of commercials, with broadcast time at 9 p.m. Unlike, say, the recent Kennedy Center Honors program, there will be no time for sweetening, and no margin for error. The end of the telecast will link all three cities on a split screen via satellite, birthday lights held aloft.
"Worry?" says Abner. "It's a wonderful worry!"
The concert is an outgrowth of the Federal Holiday Commission, which created legislation enacting the third Monday in January as the official King national holiday. That legislation also created a 31-person commission, with Coretta Scott King as chairman, and including Sens. Robert Dole, Charles McC. Mathias and Edward Kennedy and Gov. James Thompson of Illinois.
Wonder was a member, as well as chairman of the committee on entertainment, which decided there should be a television special. Wonder undertook that project himself, with his Wonder Foundation negotiating the NBC contract, engaging the Wonder Production Co. (his television company).
There have been some problems with the Washington show, which wasn't announced until mid-December. As a benefit for the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta, ticket prices are high, ranging from $35 to $750, with half in the $400 range. As of yesterday, the concert here was only 75 percent sold out, though producers expect a 100 percent sale. The New York concert, with more seats and a high of $1,000 a seat, is sold out, while the Atlanta show, with more seats and a much lower price, is also sold out.
Although the King holiday has been locked in for two years, information about the concert, confirmation of performers and invitations were slow in developing. The 9,000 invitations did not go out until Jan. 2.
"We started very late because we hadn't secured the lineup," Abner says. "Finally we got it but we were late. Ticket sales are going good now, but it was scary in that first week."
More than 300 letters were sent to Washington corporations and unions asking them to purchase blocks of tickets for senior citizens, youth and King holiday march volunteers. So far, 300 seats have been underwritten, by Occidental Petroleum, Motown Records, The Washington Post Co., Salomon Brothers, Ernst and Whinney, Woodward & Lothrop, Smith Barney, W.R. Lazard and Co., Dan Bell Group, and Peoples Drugs, as well as two private donors, Mr. and Mrs. William Cafritz and Mr. and Mrs. Marvin Kay. (Cafritz and Kay are both prominent Washington builders.) The Service Employees International Union also has contributed funds.
Other firms have contributed services, including the Ritz-Carlton, which has provided free suites for the stars and their entourages, and the Guest Quarters and River Inn, which have reduced their rates for the production crews. Coors Beer and Coca-Cola also have contributed their products. Sponsorship of the NBC special is sold out, with Procter & Gamble and the United Auto Workers buying half the 28 spots. As with Live Aid, several of the corporate messages, including those from McDonald's and Coca-Cola, have been especially created for the event.
The King Center will realize at least $200,000 from the Kennedy Center event and from television fees -- more if it is a sellout. No figures were available from the other two concerts.
The King Center will be the major beneficiary of the galas, which, says Abner, is right. "The King Center is the keeper of the flame, the repository of the archives. It's the one institution in the country responsible for keeping the dream alive, for making certain that his teachings and the things he stood for are not just hallmarks in history, but are a living entity."
Some people have expressed reservations about the limited rehearsal time -- the musical underscoring for the show was begun yesterday at Omega Studios in Rockville and the first cast rehearsals start tonight. But Abner isn't worried.
"We're really dealing with superstars and professionals . . . And we know who these artists are and where they're coming from in terms of their belief and feeling."
There will be some special moments at the Opera House on Monday. Gregory Hines will be dancing to documentary footage from King's life and times Dylan and Wonder will perform Wonder's "The Bell for Freedom Still Rings," an antiapartheid song first performed by Wonder at the United Nations last May. And Dylan and Wonder will join with Peter, Paul and Mary for "Blowin' in the Wind." It will be the first time these performers have sung that '60s anthem together.
Debbie Allen and choreographer Michael Peters, through dance, will portray Coretta King and Martin Luther King Jr. in their roles as husband and wife and parents of four children. Eddie Murphy will perform "Party All the Time," and may even do his famous Wonder impersonation. "Eddie thinks he does Stevie better than Stevie," Abner laughs. "They extemporaneously do things, but that's very hard on this show because everything has to be so timed."
"This is probably the most complex show I've ever been involved in," says a genial Pasetta. Pasetta's been in the business for 35 years, and he's produced and directed 15 Academy Awards shows, but his ridiculously relaxed manner three days before show time is surprising.
"I'll go like this right through the show," Pasetta promises, while taking a momentary break in a Kennedy Center rehearsal hall. The space is cluttered with newly constructed modules for different aspects of the program, and the room has a feel halfway between command center and riot control. The show's bible -- a thick, thoroughly blocked-out schedule of events -- sits on a table in front of him.
"This gray hair is real. I've been around a long time and I'm used to live shows and complex shows. But it's like we're doing four shows -- three live shows in New York, Atlanta and here, two hours each. That's six hours, and then I'm doing a fourth show, taking the six hours and cutting it to an hour and 40 minutes as a television show.
"We'll do the cutting and pasting and assemblage of it here," he adds. "We have vans and vans and vans pulling all this together," he says of his home basement. Pasetta is used to quick turnaround -- he did the Carter and the first Reagan inaugurations -- "but not like this."
There will be more than 300 people working on Monday's production in Washington, with another 200 in each of the other locations. According to Pasetta, there are satellite links "up and down all over the place." Each concert will have eight cameras and 18 videotape machines. "When a performer works on one of the live shows, they'll do four or five numbers, but there's only one that we will use . . . Everybody will know that's the hot one, the one we're going for."
As those hot numbers come into the editing bays, they'll be computer logged and culled out for the master tape. The only sweetening will be the applause bridging the edits "because an audience in one city won't sound like an audience in another city," Pasetta says.
He could have taken the easy way out, he adds, "cutting from city to city at 10-minute intervals, but it would have been a very boring show. We've designed it so that all three venues are constantly interspersed from the first moment to the last moment. Which will make our lives extremely complex here."
Pasetta and writer Buz Kohan have perversely constructed several biographical segments so that the same two or three pages of dialogue are read simultaneously in all three cities. "That way we can have cuts between paragraphs in different cities to show everybody is telling the unified story of that portion of King's life."
Not surprisingly, there will be a full dress and tech rehearsal in all three concert locations Monday afternoon. "We've got to rehearse this editing to see if it can happen."
And what if it can't? "I make it happen. I'm not a novice at this. Anything can happen, that's true, but I've got some very handpicked people with me. My backup? Fast thinking."
The only "cheating" will be Wonder's opening introductions of guests from all three concert locations, which will be taped in the morning run-through. "I could never fly and attempt that," Pasetta says. "I try to protect me from myself as much as I can.
"It's going to be much harder than the Oscars, where I don't have to be off the air on time; here I've got to be off the air on time. I have no leeway with the network.
"We're not doing 'Solid Gold' and there's no politics involved in the show. It is a birthday celebration. There's going to be a lot of shows on the air about Dr. King and Stevie felt that this should be a happy finish to the holiday weekend."