Producer had two weeks to prepare for event

Don Mischer has produced Olympic ceremonies, award shows and political conventions, but nothing was quite like the kickoff of Barack Obama’s inaugural festivities on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

He and exec producer George Stevens had just two weeks to prepare for the event, one of the biggest recent displays of performers and politicos.

“This was without a doubt the most challenging given the time constraints,” Mischer said of the events he’s put together.

“I am a glass half empty kind of guy. I worry. Many times I would wake up in the middle of the night and think, The odds are against us. But that is our job. We were going to get it done.”

One trouble spot was the weather. The temperature was about 10 degrees colder in rehearsals on Friday and Saturday, and some guitar players were risking frostbite. They never had a chance to rehearse all the way through.

Mixing history with Hollywood, the ceremony was themed around such topics as service, equality and working men and women. Artists mixed genres; actors stretched beyond the personas for which they’re known. Steve Carell, for instance, quoted Thomas Jefferson, and Jack Black cleared his throat, then said something serious.

“The first challenge was to make the music meaningful,” Mischer said. “We knew we couldn’t ask the artists to come up and sing their greatest hits.”

He added that the tone of the show was designed to be “reverential,” not necessarily because of the state of the economy but because of the event’s setting. The show included clips of past inaugurals, including Franklin D. Roosevelt telling the crowd in 1933, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

“It was a good thing to remind people that the American people have faced these challenges before, and we have persevered before,” Mischer said.

The stars and musicians had to pay their own way — a function of their limited budget, Mischer said. Obama’s inaugural committee paid some expenses through private donations. The amount that Obama’s team reaped for TV rights for events overall wasn’t as much as they might have gotten before the ad market went south.

“The amazing thing was (the talent) really had to want to be here,” he said. “In this instance it was absolutely bare bones, but no one turned us down.”

There were a few glitches — open mics that caught extraneous comments, for example. “In a live event, viewers kind of understand that,” Mischer said.

There also were some technical tricks. U2’s performance was followed by a display of two bald eagles. It was needed to give time for stagehands to set up a specially-designed steel podium where Obama delivered his remarks.

Mischer was heading out on Sunday to begin preparing for halftime ceremonies at the Super Bowl.

Even though he is an old pro at live events, he admits that he and his staff did get onstage a half hour before the show. As harried as the moment was, they wanted to see the throng, stretched to the Washington Monument.

“It was electrifying,” he said. “I got here early in the morning, and there even were streams of people at that hour, ready to be part of this.”

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