Gearing up for a big finish at Salt Lake

By PAT NASON, UPI Hollywood Reporter  |  Feb. 21, 2002 at 9:04 PM
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LOS ANGELES, Feb. 21 (UPI) -- Christina Aguilera, Bon Jovi, Charlotte Church, Harry Connick Jr., Gloria Estefan, Savion Glover, Earth, Wind & Fire, Moby, 'NSYNC and Dianne Reeves are on the bill for what organizers hope will be a mesmerizing closing ceremony Sunday at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.

The telecast on NBC also will feature appearances by past Olympic medalists Kurt Browning, Dorothy Hamill, Scott Hamilton, Katarina Witt and Kristi Yamaguchi.

Executive producer Don Mischer, a Hollywood veteran with 13 Emmy Awards and 31 nominations, said the closing ceremony can be "one of the most emotional parts" of the Olympics. It will have to go some to top the emotional impact of the opening ceremony on Feb. 8, when a record-setting 45.6 million Americans -- and a worldwide audience that Mischer estimated at close to 4 billion -- tuned in.

Mischer said the opening ceremony -- which he also produced -- was complicated by questions of appropriateness relating to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. But he said the drama of the moment was also enhanced by the context.

"It was hard for us to find the right chord because the Olympics is an international event, covered by Olympic protocol," he said. "We felt we could not go too far with patriotism because it was for the whole world."

He resolved dissonance surrounding the presentation of a tattered flag from the World Trade Center when he assembled a high-profile delegation of world figures to carry the flag into Rice-Eccles Olympic Stadium.

Mischer said the traditional parade of athletes had "much more meaning than it would normally have had" because it was the first gathering of nations since the war on terrorism was launched following the 9-11 attacks.

"It was very cold (in the stadium) and I thought there would be people getting up and trying to warm up during the parade," he said. "I was astounded that no one left their seats. People cheered team after team after team."

The opening ceremony, as usual, contained some suspense -- the question of who would be the last to carry the Olympic flame before the torch was lit at the stadium.

The closing ceremony will include the traditional extinguishing of the Olympic Flame and the lowering of the Olympic Flag, as well as performances by popular entertainment figures. Mischer said producers will stay loose and try to be ready for the unexpected, because history teaches that they can't control closing ceremonies as tightly as they can the opening night pageantry.

At the closing ceremonies in Barcelona in 1992, the athletes stormed the stage -- causing considerable anxiety among Olympic officials.

"The organizers were concerned that the stage would not support the weight," said Mischer.

At the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, he said the athletes were expected to rush the playing field at Olympic Stadium, but they jumped the gun and stormed through a security gate. Mischer said the athletes were well-behaved, but the TV production crew had to think fast.

"So we had them on the field eight minutes before we hoped they would be there," he said. "It's a time of great exuberance and camaraderie."

The near-chaotic nature of closing night ceremonies always poses security challenges, but in a post-Sept. 11 world, Mischer said the challenge is much tougher.

"We're trying to figure out how we can implement that safely," he said.

Kenny Ortega, who is serving as a producer, director and choreographer for the show, said the closing ceremony will feature an "ice and tap challenge" for Glover, the Broadway dancer, and Ilia Kulik, an Olympic gold medallist -- with musical accompaniment by Connick and his swing band. Plans also call for a fireworks spectacular to begin at Rice-Eccles Olympic Stadium and spread throughout the entire city of Salt Lake.

In addition to the all-star lineup, there's also a cast of 2,500 dancers, singers, acrobats and gymnasts, assisted by 1,250 volunteers, mostly from the Salt Lake City area.

Mischer -- who has produced pageants to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Carnegie Hall and the Victoria Harbor ceremony when Britain turned over control of Hong Kong to China in 1997 -- won an Emmy for directing the opening ceremony at the 2000 Olympics in Atlanta.

He was won or been nominated for Emmys for producing or directing the Academy Awards, the Tony Awards, the Kennedy Center Honors and a "Motown Returns to the Apollo" special -- but he says none of those experiences can compare with the opening or closing ceremonies at the Olympics.

"They are in a class by themselves," he said.

The closing ceremony will be broadcast live in 160 countries around the world.

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