January 2013 Issue
Features

The White House Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony Gets a Staging Makeover

John Harrington Photography for Bounce/AEGThe White House Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony. It’s a hallowed national event traditional involving a live audience of 18,000, a televised audience of millions, U.S. park rangers, the White House, scores of Secret Service agents, and the POTUS and his family.

Some of the biggest names in live event are involved: Bounce/AEG, PRG, Mountain Productions and Maryland Sound International (MSI), which has done 10 of the tree lighting events, a 90-year tradition. “The evolution has been dramatic,” says MSI’s Matt Snyder, who has been involved with 23 of the ceremonies. “It went from a simple affair, almost just local, to being a live event for American Forces Radio and Television Service (AFRTS) to having a clip on the evening news to a full-blown TV hour. I don’t think there’s another event quite like it.

White House Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony 2012Entertainers included Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, Ledisi, Jason Mraz, Colbie Caillat, James Taylor and The Fray. (And we must include President Obama himself, who warbled a version of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” along with First Lady Michelle Obama and daughters Malia and Sasha).

A Change in Direction

“For the past decade or so, it’s been done pretty much the same way,” says staging veteran Kent Black. “But this year, they moved the stage 45 degrees to allow for the White House in the picture, and that threw some folks off. who had been doing it the same way for years. Compared to three years ago, in general, they really ramped this show up,” he adds, noting 10 cameras for three stages.

White House Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony 2012Black, staging supervisor for the event, was the first to fly in on Nov. 25. “Then we started putting the stage in four days before [the Dec. 7 event], and it was cold!” he laughs.

Mountain Productions did the staging, decking and roof. “They bought in four guys for setup and another 20 or so the day of the event,” Black continues. CAT did the power, with two big Twin Pack generators. “When you’re doing TV, you gotta have backups. They had 1250 amps per rig, so if one fails, the other picks it up seamlessly.”

The producers were Bounce/AEG with Kristi Foley and Tim Swift at the helm, and Leon Knoles directing. The lighting director was Matt Ford working through his Magic Lantern company. PRG provided the lights. The production designer was Matt Russell and Control Video handled the LED screen duties.

Foley explains that the event is actually a co-production of the National Park Service and the nonprofit National Park Foundation.

White House Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony 2012“This is the first year we were involved with the event, and we suggested moving the stage so the White House was in the picture. It was something everyone was excited about because it created a better dynamic for the show.”

Foley admits that there was hesitation on the part of some of those involved. For example, there is not suppose to be anything blocking the sightline between the White House and the Washington moment, which necessitated careful placement of the FOH tower and I-Mag.

Having the White House so clearly in the picture had many benefits beyond visual — emcee Neil Patrick Harris introduced the event’s highlight by saying, “and it is my pleasure to introduce a family who came all the way here from all the way over there,” pointing to the White House.

Challenges

When you got an event in front of the White House involving the President, you can bet the Secret Service agents are going to need to do their jobs, typical production rituals be damned. “The moment I get there, they were under my nose saying they needed everyone’s name who was involved with event,” Black says. “They needed the truck driver’s information, license numbers, and make and model of the trucks. So we had to hammer everyone involved to come up with that information now, because if a name isn’t on the list, they weren’t getting in. But we were able to stay on top of it.”

White House Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony 2012An 80-ton crane was brought on to put in place bulletproof glass sheets weighing 1,200 pounds each. “They were put in place with a big suction cup, and the Mountain guys had to go under their stage and make sure it could hold all that weight.” The day of the show, they did a rehearsal in the morning, and then at noon, everyone had to leave for three hours for the Secret Service to do a sweep. “I asked if I could take my laptop and they said sure, but they would have to go through it again when I returned, so I just left it.”

Foley, Swift and Knoles had done several White House events, and plenty of big events in places like New York’s Central Park. But Foley says this specific event was their first, and “there’s always a learning curve for a first event. There’s a big audience, a lot of moving parts, but we had an advantage as so many of the other vendors and partners had done it in the past.”

Although the new vendors provided “a fun opportunity to look at everything from a new perspective,” the seasoned crews, such as those from MSI, could be counted upon for keeping everything running smoothly, with Atomic Design supplying the backdrop and Hargrove Scenic on site as well. “Hargrove Scenic has been doing the event practically since the beginning,” Foley says.

White House Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony 2012Lighting the lighting ceremony was a key component, done with deft precision with LD Matt Ford. “The tree needed a lot of lighting, but there was also substantial lighting around the tree, plus individual trees and lighting the audience — he did a marvelous job,” Foley adds.

“The show was great, and it was a pleasure to work with the people at Bounce as they did a great job,” says Snyder. “The talent line up was good, and it was a great kick to be part of it all again.”

“We got some great feedback from our partners and clients,” Foley says. “And the White House was very happy with how it turned out.”


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