Ken Ehrlich produced his final Grammy telecast Jan. 26 … and, through the sad fluke of Kobe Bryant dying the day of the show, there was a direct segue to the first live broadcast of Ehrlich’s post-Grammys career, when his company was asked to assist with the Kobe Bryant memorial Feb. 24.
The veteran is quick to point out that Monday’s service was by no means “a Ken Ehrlich production,” and he gives Vanessa Bryant nearly sole credit for what a classy, moving and, yes, well-produced live TV event it turned out to be. But there’s no mistaking how singular Ehrlich remains as someone to pass the ball to, as it were, in a situation that demands a combination of efficiency, superstar access and emotional sensitivity. Variety got in touch with him to talk about the logistics as well as deep sentiment of presenting memorable musical performances by Beyoncé, Alicia Keys and Christina Aguilera, and why this felt substantially different than any other program Ehrlich has worked on.
VARIETY: To have Beyoncé at the top of the service was a little bit surprising. People might have assumed she would be the climax, but there she was, first up.
EHRLICH: My first instinct was to close with Beyoncé. But even though, as I’m sure you saw, there was nothing really complicated production-wise, Beyoncé actually had the most number of musicians on stage, because she had the strings and the choir. So in the situation that we were in, in the round, where it was not easy to load in and load out… As I’ve said before, I’ll never let the physical limitations of the show dictate the structure of the show. But in this case it worked out to open with Beyoncé, because then we could strike some of the equipment that we have for her so that both Alicia and Christina were pretty stripped down. They were easier to do. It’s always easier to take away than it is to set up. So we started with the most complicated setup.
But as it turned out, programmatically, it worked. It really did. Sometimes you just are lucky. When you think about it, the way that the program played out with the speakers, Beyoncé set the tone for Vanessa Bryant. Alicia basically then brought the story of the love that they had for each other back, right in the middle of the show. And then the one religious aspect of the show, “Ave Maria,” was like the closing prayer. So it all fit together. Sometimes it’s just the way the way things lay out. I’d love to say that we were smart enough to figure that out, but the reality is, it was kind of dictated by what we could do in that rather confined space.
What was it like when Beyoncé came in to rehearse?
I haven’t seen her in a while now, because I think she came to the Grammys a couple of years ago and it was not a good night for her, and she declined our invitation to come this year. … But when I saw her, she said to me, “We’ve known each other 20 years.” It was very nice to see her, but I could see how emotional she was, particularly during rehearsal when she first came in.
One thing she kind of had to understand — and to her credit, she did — was that because this thing was late in coming together technically, I didn’t have all the bells and whistles that I have on a show that I usually do with her, whether it’s the Grammys or other shows we’ve done, like when we did her in Central Park a few years ago for Global Citizens Festival. There was a basketball game coming in four or five hours later. I didn’t have all the lighting support that I needed. We were basically using a sports truck, rather than bringing in our own video truck— and we accepted all of that. When they asked us, ‘Can you do it this way?’ We said, ‘Yeah, we can do it this way.’ It had nothing to do with money. They were very generous in terms of making sure that everything was covered. Obviously we didn’t take any fees. But just the logistics of moving in the same day that they were doing a Clippers game that night… and we couldn’t rehearse anything on Sunday, either because they had two games in there on Sunday: a Clippers game and a Kings game. I still don’t know how they do that!
With Beyoncé, was there any talk about which songs she would do and what would be appropriate?
I had one conversation, not with her, but with Yvette (Noel-Schure), and I think I said, “I assume she’ll want to do ‘Halo.’” But I didn’t know about “XO” and how important a song that was to the Bryants, that that was a song that they (Kobe and Vanessa) both loved.
You said Beyoncé was emotional when she first came in, but these three artists are such pros it seems unlikely any of them would finally let emotion get the best of them.
Well, she was close. I’ve seen her in a lot of different circumstances and I’ve watched her grow up, and there’s no question she’s grown up, and how. But she’s deeply emotional. She feels things — she always did, whenever we would do something that touched her. I remember one year when we were doing something for Katie Couric’s cancer charity in New York, I think, and I asked her to sing “Somewhere” from “West Side Story.” And she sang the song and told the story about how her mother used to play that or sing that to her every night before she went to bed. During rehearsal or whatever, she had a tough time getting through it, because she felt it so deeply.
Were you involved at all with Jimmy Kimmel?
Not much. He didn’t need much from me. He knew what he was going to do. I didn’t know how close he was to the family, which obviously was very close. I really like him. I always thought he was really appropriate. He’s emotional, and he was certainly emotional on Monday. I did go over to him a couple of times during the event just to make sure he was okay and if he needed anything, but he had it. When they told me that they had him to do it, that he was going to do it, the first thing I thought about was that night on his show where he talked about what had happened with his son and he started crying on television. He’s real. I love working with people that are real.
Did Alicia already know what she intended to do?
Yeah, and that didn’t come from us. That was already ordained (before Ehrlich’s company came on to help with the show). When I first talked to Alicia, she said, “I’m going to do ‘Moonlight Sonata’.” And I thought — to myself! — “Well, that’s kind of a rather strange choice.” And then we found out the story about Kobe, that he had tried to learn it. So I guess that if there’s a lesson to be learned for an old producer, it’s don’t ever think you know more than the principals do.
With Christina, were you hunting around for who could actually sing “Ave Maria”?
No, it was because Vanessa Bryant really loves Christina Aguilera and asked if we could get her to come and do something. And then when we talked it through a little bit, that was what she wanted to do, and everybody was happy with that. Christina is another one: She’s incredibly emotional. I mean, all three of the performers have, number one, inner strength, and number two, the ability to bring something from a different place.
Certainly Alicia — I don’t know if you Tivoed or DVR-ed the thing, if you still have it, but if you look at the end of her performance… This was a sports crew. And I’m not saying they’re not as good as the crews that we work with, because they are, but it’s a different discipline. And the director got it. There’s a shot at the end of Alicia’s performance where he’s on a medium close-up, and she lifts her face heavenward, and you’re transcendent. She’s transcendent. So they all felt it. All three of them, when they finished, I went out for, just to make sure everything was okay. And when all three of them finished, you could tell they were in a different place.
How quickly did all of this come together?
I in no way want to take credit for doing anything other than helping them out. I’m not sure when they started planning this, but the thing that you need to understand is this was really all a product of Vanessa Bryant. She enlisted the help of the Lakers organization and AEG to help do it, so we were brought in by the Lakers after it was a reality and going to happen. We came in maybe a little over two weeks ago, and it started frankly with booking. They had reached out to Alicia, so it wasn’t us that started (talking) with her, but obviously very quickly we became a part of that conversation. And then we helped them with the other bookings, with Christina and with Beyoncé. Beyoncé made it very clear to me when I saw her at the rehearsal Monday morning that this was really important to her because of their relationship with the family. We got involved with laying out the show and the structure of it. We didn’t handle much of the television production, because it was really Spectrum there basically to cover a game later that day.
Did you deal directly with Vanessa?
No. There were two people that were working with her that we spoke with. And by the way, none of that bothered me. I mean, to think about what this woman was going through and how she was dealing with it, why should she have to be introduced to something new when she was already dealing with an overwhelming tragedy in her life? So I wanted to be sensitive to that, and I never asked. I knew these two women were going back to her. But with the bookings, we wanted to make sure that I didn’t go ahead and contact anyone until I had it cleared from them. With Beyonce, we didn’t know for sure till the middle of last week. Christina was kind of a late add, because we knew we wanted a third artist. I waited to get some guidance from the Vanessa side, and ultimately, late in the week, they settled in on really wanting Christina.
From my side, (working on the memorial) was important to me because I’ve always been a Laker fan since I moved out here, and a huge Kobe fan, but also, there was something about the fact that that Sunday (of the Grammys) kind of, in a way, forever connected us. And then we had done the Michael (Jackson) memorial service in 2009, so we had experience. This was very different from Michael’s service; it was a much smaller and personal kind of a group to work with.
This was a case where you’ve got basically pretty much the entire city in mourning. So maybe it’s not as difficult as it might otherwise be to get people to drop what they’re doing and come through quickly with what you need?
I never assume that. In this particular case, you’re probably right. For the 40-some years that I’ve been here, I have not seen many moments that do bring people together so universally. This city has been touched in an incredibly emotional way ever since that day. And I’m not even sure that some of us who have been touched by it realized the depth of what it was going to be. Now, you could probably, maybe a few years in the future, look back at it and maybe look and see what else was going on in this country right now, and think that maybe people were looking for something good… or sad. Mobilizing is not the word, but it brought people together because of their common love of this man. I’ve been out here since ‘76. Have you seen anything quite like this over these years that has just touched so many different pockets of people?
The Michael (Jackson) service that we did was also incredibly emotional. But it was more of a show. This was not a show. This was an outpouring of love, respect and admiration. And the other difference is that when people were mourning Michael, they were mourning Michael the entertainer, Michael the star, Michael the musical artist. You can’t generalize, but this was different because they were mourning Kobe the family man, and the tragic circumstance that he died taking his daughter and her friends to a basketball clinic, and how his life changed after he retired.
I think we would have done this if we’d been asked anyway. But the connection that was made that Sunday (of the Grammys), that’ll always be with me. There are things that have happened that changed the show over the years… But even Whitney (Houston dying in 2012) was the day before, so we had time to kind of recover a little bit from that. But in this case, we were 45 minutes into the dress… (The weight of it) has at least something to do with the building. Staples has been kind of my home for the last 20 years of doing these shows, and always walking past the Laker locker room, and looking up and seeing the jerseys and looking up and seeing the banners and realizing that this was the home of the Lakers, first. Maybe if this had happened a month or so removed from the Grammys and we hadn’t been down there, it might not have been quite so vivid for me — although I think it probably would have been. But being back there, and then knowing that Alicia was going to be a part of this service, it kind of extended our little journey together. I talked to her about what it was like being back there a month later, under these circumstances, but connected. She said it was tough.
The memorial felt like it hit a sweet spot in so many ways — it wasn’t an epic event where you trotted out 25 performers and had a million speakers, but it seemed just right terms in everything from who was there to how long it was.
To me, the credit for what you just said is all Vanessa Bryan. She knew instinctively, probably, how long it should be. And as you said, there would be no shortage of people that would want to get up there and talk about Kobe. But the fact that those two young female basketball players were there, the fact that that coach from UConn was there, and just how emotional and real Rob Pelinka was… This was just not “let’s get someone up there to say beautiful things about a beautiful person.” This was very deeply felt by everybody, and that came across. It doesn’t always come across. Sometimes I wonder whether or not what I’m feeling in the room, because it’s the place that I love the most anyway, is really going home. But from what I heard afterward, this did.
After it was over, I just went upstairs for a couple of minutes and saw some people that I wanted to see, including one of my real heroes, Bill Russell. And then I had a 3:00 endocrinologist appointment! He’d never seen me in a suit before. And I had that little Kobe pin on, and he said, were you there? I said, yeah, we were involved. And the whole office wanted to know what it was like. It brought all kinds of people together. And these last few days, it’s lasted.