Thursday, April 28, 2011

Notable 'Firsts' Highlight Spectacular Olympic Pageantry

04.28.11 - A series of notable "firsts" highlighted the spectacular Pageantry program, which helped make the VIII Olympic Winter Games at Squaw Valley the most successful in the history of this international event.

Squaw Valley's staging of the Winter Games marked the first time the Winter Olympics had ever been held in the West (on the only other occasion that the Games were held in the United States, they were staged at Lake Placid, New York, in 1932).

When the Sacred Olympic Flame was flown from Norway in late January, it was the first time that the flame had been carried air-borne over the North Pole.

In preparing a splendid all-star program of evening stage shows, Walt Disney's Pageantry Committee offered the first in-person entertainment specifically for the benefit of the athletes.

The imposing 16-foot statues used for Squaw Valley's Avenue of the Athletes also marked the first time snow sculptures had ever been used for the Winter Olympics.

To a somewhat lesser degree, there were other "firsts" to be added to this list. These included the use of daytime fireworks for the opening day ceremonies, and the fact that the daily victory ceremonies were regularly held in the main staging area where all the spectators could fully enjoy the occasion (in the past, Winter Olympics' victory ceremonies had been held in almost impromptu fashion in some far-off area, removed from the view of audiences).

Undoubtedly, the Pageantry for the VIII Olympic Winter Games was the most elaborate ever staged, and set new standards for this important occasion on the world's sports calendar.

International sports authorities agree that the Winter Olympics in the past have rated as a poor cousin of the tradition-conscious Summer Olympics, and as a result have been sadly neglected.

It is to the credit of the United States, and to California and its youth in particular, that this situation now has been drastically reversed.

The full behind-the-scenes Pageantry story actually began, of course, when a group of Olympic officials, including Organizing Committee President Prentis Hale, visited the Disney studios in Burbank one day early in 1958.

Following a pleasant discussion over lunch of sports in general, Walt was invited to accept the post of Pageantry Committee Chairman.

"I didn't know then what I was getting into!" says Walt with a laugh.

However, the Burbank moviemaker tackled this assignment with the same enthusiasm that he utilizes so well, and to such advantage, in the making of his great motion pictures and television productions.

He quickly assembled a talented "crew" to handle the various facets of his ambitious Pageantry program.
Committee members included television star Art Linkletter, picked as Vice-President in Charge of Entertainment; Western Air Lines president Terrell Drinkwater, named Vice-Chairman in charge of Budget; Dr. Charles Hirt of the University of Southern California, named as Choral Director; Tommy Walker, former USC football star, and now a Disneyland official, as Pageantry Director; art designer John Hench in charge of Decor; Edsel Curry, Director of Special Projects; Joseph McEveety, Olympic Torch Relay Director; and Ron Miller, assistant director at Disney Studios, as Pageantry Coordinator.

In addition, a committee including Sam Brown, Margaret Herrick, and Lloyd Wright Sr., was formed at Hollywood's Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to select the feature films shown the athletes at the Squaw Valley theatres during the Games.

Inspired by Walt's own enthusiasm, his talented committee members travelled throughout the country in preparing the detailed plans necessary to make the Pageantry program functional.

Hench, for example, crossed the United States to visit Dartmouth College. There, he garnered valuable information regarding the famed Dartmouth ice festival, which features giant ice sculptures.

Numerous trips, of course, were made to Squaw Valley itself throughout the spring and summer of 1959. Every square foot of this scenic valley, nestling in the towering High Sierras, received special attention in considering the ground plans for layout of the Pageantry staging areas.

A few weeks before the Olympic Torch arrived by S.A.S. DC-7 from Oslo, torch relay director McEveety made a trial journey along the 600-mile route chosen for the carrying of the Sacred Flame to its new resting place at Squaw.

The weather on that occasion, of course, was different. It was good. When the actual torch relay was run, the weather proved to be just the opposite!

Dr. Hirt spent weeks visiting the many schools which provided choir students for the program. His tireless efforts contributed in large measure to the fine vocal results achieved that memorable day of the opening ceremonies.

Walt, himself, visited the valley on several occasions, going over every detail of the program fully.

The part to be played by the communications media in helping tell the Pageantry story was not overlooked, either.

A luncheon was held at the Disney studios before Christmas at which wire service, newspaper, television and radio officials, writers and announcers were fully acquainted by Walt of the upcoming Pageantry program.

Following this, periodic Pageantry bulletins were sent out to all program participants, as well as to key members of the press, to keep everyone up-to-date on the fast-breaking developments.

This ambitious news information project was supervised by Card Walker, Vice-President of Walt Disney Productions, and Director of Publicity on the-Pageantry committee.

The news project also helped point up another extremely important facet of the Pageantry: the great pride and enthusiasm demonstrated by California and Nevada youth in their key roles in the program.

Throughout the two states, wherever Walt and his committee members travelled, they encountered a great excitement and enthusiasm among the students.

"I have always said that the spirit of American youth cannot be daunted, and I think this was dramatically proven by their unselfish and wholehearted effort before and during the VIII Olympic Winter Games," said Walt Disney afterwards.

As noted elsewhere in this souvenir brochure, the 4,400 youngsters of the high school choirs and bands, and the CIF athletes, faced many problems in order to fulfill their assignments.

That they came through with flying colors is a tribute to all concerned. There were no "quitters" and there were no complainers. They had a job to do for their school, and for their state and for their country, and they completed this task in noble fashion.

An especial tip of the hat was due for the 125 Explorer Scouts who acted as official flag-raisers, Olympic messengers, and crowd controllers. These young men, aged 15 to 18 and under the leadership of Scoutmaster William King, proved exemplary representatives of one of the world's finest youth organizations.

Congratulations also were in order for Lt. Col. Albert Schoepper and his fine U.S. Marine Band, which lived up to all advance rave notices.

On opening day, when the large scale program was finally activated by Vice-President Nixon, many obstacles had already been overcome. Even so, there were many more met and successfully surmounted during the Games.

In the final analysis, however, the Olympic spirit prevailed throughout, and it was this great personal satisfaction of being an important cog in a really noble enterprise that made everything worthwhile.

Baron Pierre de Coubertin, originator of the modern Olympic Games, pointed out that the important thing in the Games was not to win but to take part. He emphasized the very essence of everyday living.

The youth of California and Nevada took his message to heart—and made us all very proud of them.
From The Pageantry Story, February 1960.

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