Behind the Scenes of the Gershwin Awards at Constitution Hall: Airing on PBS January 2

Written by: Paul Guilderson, Constitution Hall Managing Director
January 2, 2015

One of the many enjoyable things about working in a prominent concert hall in the nation’s capital is that you never know what surprises your day will bring. Numerous first meetings with TV events, movies and HBO specials have brightened otherwise routine days over the years. In 1996 an unscheduled visit from the producers of Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune, on a late Friday afternoon when the entrance doors were being locked, led to four (and counting) instances of hosting the highly rated television shows for two-week remote tapings. In 2001, we received a call to meet with the then Technical Director of the Washington Opera. Numerous meetings and site surveys later, DAR Constitution Hall hosted a year of performances with the Washington Opera that pushed the envelope of technical possibility in Constitution Hall to the limit. In 2003, with the Opera in residence, Constitution Hall was chosen to host the Horatio Alger Awards Gala (now 11 years and counting). The producers of the event were scouting new locations for this event and were aware that the Hall could be reconfigured for large dinner affairs. Despite the large opera set in position during the initial meeting, the Horatio Alger producers had no trouble envisioning an intimate dinner for 1,000 people in the space. Early in 2014, our Event Coordinator, Rose, received a call from the special events department of the Library of Congress. They were looking for a suitable space to hold an awards ceremony. A meeting was arranged with Suzanne and Mary from the Library of Congress to survey Constitution Hall.

The first meeting started with an overview of the show, The Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song. They told us that past awardees include Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney. Suzanne, the Executive in charge of Production for the Library of Congress, explained that they were looking for a larger, elegant building to host the awards show. She was quite taken with Constitution Hall. She liked the look of the building and commented on the regal look of the auditorium with the columns, dome and eagles. Suzanne proved to be a very positive and engaging person. She had everyone in attendance following her vision of the event with excitement and anticipation. It was clear that the event would be special and would flourish in the stately confines of DAR Constitution Hall. Seldom do you get an overwhelmingly positive vibe in a first meeting, but this was one. The next step in the process is one that can be quite challenging for larger events.

After the venue is chosen by the producer it is the responsibility of a large group of people to make the vision of the show a reality. In DAR Constitution Hall one of the first steps is to establish what is possible and what is not. There are limitations inherent in a National Historic Landmark Building built at a time that events did not require 10 tractor trailers full of equipment. The lack of a true load-in door requires some creativity and flexibility when designing scenery and determining the type of equipment needed to present the show. All equipment needed to present the show must be small enough to fit through a double door in the lobby. Another challenge was finding the space to house the performers and 150-plus technicians, producers, production assistants, camera operators and other working staff.

Once the producers were convinced that they would be able to make the show work in Constitution Hall, they had to select dates for the event. They asked for five days in November. It took some juggling of the schedule, but they soon had November 17-21. The show was set for the night of November 20, 2014. The Agreement to Lease was issued and show planning began in earnest. A slight bump in the road occurred a month and a half before the event was to load-in. We were informed that the date of the show night was moved to Wednesday, November 19, 2014. This required a reshuffling of the Hall’s schedule to make the previous Sunday available to start the load-in.

The Library of Congress contracted Bounce AEG to produce the show. They would provide design, direction and supervision of all aspects of the production. It would take several site visits to Constitution Hall and conference calls with the production team to coordinate and plan the five days of the event. The Texas Lone Star Lounge was chosen to house the 40 or so people working in the production office. Once outfitted with tables, chairs, computers and copiers, it made a functional office. There was however, one issue that would plague the inhabitants of the Texas Lounge for the duration of their stay. The production team had planned to use cell phones for communication rather than setting up an office desk phone system. This works in most buildings, but not those with four foot thick reinforced concrete walls, such as Constitution Hall. The lack of a cell signal in the Texas Lounge caused a relay of production personnel running up and down the stairs to the lounge to get a signal in the lobby. A technological solution to this problem is being researched now and will hopefully be in place soon.

The load in of the equipment and personnel proceeded slowly, but steadily, beginning on Sunday November 16. Space was divided and claimed by the various departments as their equipment was offloaded from the many trucks lining up on D Street. The quality of the assembled team was evident by the way surprises were dealt with and territorial disputes were settled with little drama. Events of this size can sometimes become unpleasant as they find ways to fit into the building. It takes experienced, confident and understanding professionals to keep everyone on an even keel. Kristi, Producer and COO of Bounce AEG, met every challenge with a smile and a solution. In one case a piece of sound equipment ran out of cabling ten feet short of its intended resting place in the D Street lobby. With no alternative placement possible it was necessary to close an exit from the Tiers. Kristi gathered the appropriate people to discuss a solution and quickly had an acceptable plan that would relocate some seats and allow for the necessary emergency egress.

During rehearsals on the afternoon before the show day it became very apparent that the Gershwin Award for Popular Song had more stars than we had rooms. Ten performers, eight band members and a dance troupe of 16 were sharing six dressing rooms. All other space in the building was taken by producer offices, show equipment, vendors or DAR staff. In an extraordinary show of cooperation from the Treasurer General’s office the Business Office, located in the Administration Building just outside the door of Constitution Hall, became Tony Bennett’s dressing room on the night of the show. In order to facilitate Mr. Bennett’s passage to the room, Rose, the Hall’s Event Coordinator, became an elevator operator due to the need to have someone with a security card available to open the doors. Shortly before show time Mr. Bennett called the security guard at his door and asked him to deliver a signed photo to Rose to thank her for getting him around the building.

Actor Kevin Spacey was on hand to introduce some of the artists and to start the all-cast finale singing “Piano Man.” He also played the harmonica on this song, a talent he reportedly honed on breaks in the Pennsylvania Foyer a month earlier when he was at DAR to do some filming for his show House of Cards. Billy Joel took the stage for the last five songs after receiving the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song from Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. He seemed to be enjoying himself as much as the roughly 3,300 people in the audience.

There was a reception in the O’Byrne Gallery and DAR Library following the taping. In order to get the 400 lucky invitation holders to the reception it was necessary to send them out the C Street exit doors and down C Street to the stairs of the C Street Portico. There were Library of Congress Gershwin Prize medallions affixed to the sidewalk leading the way and a food truck parked at the curb dispensing New York fare in honor of the award winner.

While the reception continued on one end of the block, the elements of the production in Constitution Hall slowly began to disappear. The cameras and television recording trucks were the first to pack up and leave. The remaining equipment was removed through the night and until about 4:00 p.m. the next day.

Two weeks after the taping of the show a meeting was arranged to review this year’s show and discuss the possibilities of doing it again next year. Suzanne and Mary from the Library of Congress and Tim, the CEO and Executive Producer from Bounce AEG commented on how wonderful the Hall looked on camera. Tim had just come from final editing and he really liked the way the show turned out. Tim remarked on the extraordinary cooperation from everyone at DAR starting with the President General and on down the line. Suzanne made a similar comment and expressed an interest in doing it all again. In fact, at the urging of the President General, Suzanne is now a DAR member.

The results of all of this hard work can be seen nationwide on January 2, 2015 on PBS stations at 9:00 p.m. Look for the telltale blue carpet with gold stars as the cameras sweep overhead on their way to the stage.


Photo by Shawn Miller\Library of Congress

Photo by Shawn Miller\Library of Congress

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Photo by Shawn Miller\Library of Congress

Photo by Shawn Miller\Library of Congress

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Photo by Shawn Miller\Library of Congress

Photo by Shawn Miller\Library of Congress

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Photo by Amanda Reynolds

Photo by Amanda Reynolds

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Photo by Amanda Reynolds

Photo by Amanda Reynolds

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Photo by Amanda Reynolds

Photo by Amanda Reynolds

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