Selling Philadelphia, 1976: Behind the Bicentennial

Behind the Bicentennial: A memoir (Part 1)

5 minute read
The Bicentennial celebrations of the Declarations of the Independence and the U.S. Constitution are yellowing shreds of newsprint for all except for those of us who labored in the detritus of American history.

Yes, there may still be fireplugs in faded hues of red, white and blue and scattered through the nation's junior high schools and recreation centers with the burdensome title of "Bicentennial -----." And lest we forget, Philadelphia, the birthplace of the aforementioned documents, was an early entry to become the host of a World's Fair that would bring zillions of tourists, billions of dollars and improved civic amenities in transportation, arts and culture.

We did get a Bicentennial Bell from the Brits, a gracious gesture from our former rulers presented by the queen herself, bless her. It was hung, honored, rung and then doomed to hang silently in Philadelphia's moribund Visitors Center on Third Street.

LBJ's commission

In 1964, when an also doomed President Johnson declared the "Bicentennial Era" and appointed a federal commission to select a site and determine the nature of the 1976 and 1987 celebrations, I was a gung-ho TV and PR guy, ready to spew ideas at any subject within the sound of my voice. Mayor Jim Tate was within range. He appointed a committee of 200 civic leaders to consider whether 1776 should be a national or international event. In so doing, he tapped former Mayor Dilworth's handful of idealistic young lawyers and architects. I wasn't in that group, but I did make the Tate 200's herd— edging out, I believe, a McCall School crossing guard.

To no one's surprise, the Tate 200 punched the World's Fair button and morphed into the 1966-67 Bicentennial Corporation. Its goal: to design a plan that would win approval from the Paris-based Bureau of International Expositions for a Grade 1 international exposition.

Enter the consultants

At this point, whatever reason and logic still existed in William Penn's Greene Countrie Towne departed for beers at Dirty Frank's, as the co- chairmen of the newly formed corporation (a fusty old-line representative of the business community and Jack Kelly, the Rocky of new red-brick money) brought on well-paid veterans of the Seattle and Montreal fairs and considered the new hires' expressed immediate needs for indispensable European consultants.

"Get them before Boston" —our major competitor in the Birth of America celebration— "gets 'em," was the cry.

Now we had a payroll and competition. Let the games— excuse me— let the weekly breakfast meetings in the bowels of the Racquet Club begin.

Location, location, location

If any sense of imagination or insight entered the portals of that hallowed Philadelphia club, it was exorcised by the corporation's suicidal obsession with site, theme, political correctness and the demographics of diversity….. just as long as you avoided program content and becoming too diverse.

Nine task forces were created, and I was selected to chair the Performing Arts Task Force, which also included sports. I don't believe the powers that were knew of my sports background. They did know of my theater involvement and my interest in opera.

I'd been an advocate for small programs that would whet the appetite for a content-rich exposition, building on the cultural emphasis that contributed to the success of the 1967 Montreal Expo. Among those I invited to join my committee were Charles Fuller, a soon-to-be Pulitzer Prize winning playwright; Robert Shayon, a radio/TV editor for Saturday Review and a veteran of CBS's "Hear It Now" and the Edward R. Murrow unit; and Arthur Dudden, author of The American Pacific and chair of Bryn Mawr's History Department.

The need to produce something

Our meetings were spirited, and we requested small sums of $5,000 to $15,000 from the Corporation to initiate public programs with local groups. The projects would begin immediately, and we envisioned them to expand as we moved toward the Bicentennial year. With luck, these community-based projects would become permanent fixtures.

Our argument to the Corporation was: "Gentlemen, your obsession with physical sites and finances are making the Bicentennial a dirty word in the eyes of the press and NIMBY groups. It's time to stop talking and produce." In Strawberry Mansion, where I was raised, if you wanted to play, you had to produce.

Boston declares war

Meanwhile, Boston was building its case on being the hub for the six New England states. Philadelphia responded by inviting New Jersey and Delaware to join us as a tri-state force— a Delaware Valley entry. I saw the need for a "Battle of Trenton" maneuver.

I called Lee Alan Smith, a Native American in Oklahoma City and an executive of WKY TV/radio there. Lee had invested with me in the Broadway musical 1776, which won the 1969 Tony Award for best musical.

"Lee," I said, "we could use Oklahoma's endorsement of Philadelphia as the site for the national 1976 Bicentennial." Within two weeks I received the Oklahoma legislature's official endorsement— two copies.

I confess I made a somewhat dramatic presentation of this endorsement (the Corporation's first action, beyond payroll and meetings). Now I was emboldened to expand my horizon. If I could enlist the Oklahoma legislature as Philadelphia's ally, why not the National Park Service? For that matter, why not the Federal Republic of Germany? ♦

To be continued.

To read the next installment, click here.

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