Selling Philadelphia, 1976 (Part 2): Romancing the Germans

Behind the Bicentennial, Part 2: The Germans

5 minute read
Second in a series about the selling of Philadelphia's 1976 Bicentennial.

In 1973, in my capacity as a veteran public affairs producer specializing in historical events, I approached Hobart Cawood, the energetic new superintendent of Independence National Park, about an idea: Why not start America's Bicentennial celebration where it all began?

The thought seemed to have a certain logic to it. And as the Broadway musical 1776 had proved, you could entertain and educate at the same time.

I made Hobie an offer I felt he couldn't refuse. In our Society Hill garden on the 200 block of Delancey Street, with a modicum of Bourbon (Hobie) and single malt (Franklin), I proposed to create a one-act drama with music, titled It Happened Here. Together with faculty members of Temple University's respected theater department, we would produce a 20- to 30-minute drama, to be performed in Independence Park three times daily during the summer of 1974.

Now for the offer that Hobie couldn't refuse: the Park's historian would have final approval of the script, and I would take responsibility for raising the thousands of dollars needed to develop the script, costuming, direction, casting and all the salaries and miscellaneous costs associated with the three-month project.

A potential lead funder

A week after Hobie's bourbon-influenced "yes," I approached a potential lead funder: Bill Cashel , then head of Bell of Pennsylvania. When I proposed the "first public event of the 1976 Bicentennial in Philadelphia," Bill too said yes.

It Happened Here scored a happy success at Independence Park in the summer of 1974, entertaining and informing tourists and local residents with Carpenters Hall as its background. That modest triumph led to original productions of It Happened Here at Valley Forge, Morristown and Gettysburg and, ultimately, to an invitation to visit National Park Service headquarters in Washington. The Park Service wanted a program that honored the Bicentennial while simultaneously celebrating all 300 National Park sites nationwide.

The result was We've Come Back for A Little Look Around, a play in which Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain and John Adams return to assess America's progress after 200 years.

I grow bolder

When this show took a pilot tour in 1975, the Park Service was so delighted by the reaction from visitors and the media that it commissioned two touring productions in 1976. As these plays took off, I grew bolder.

The world beyond America's borders, I told myself, realized that something would be happening in the U.S. in 1976. If the Park Service and Bell of Pennsylvania perceived the PR benefits of getting into the Bicentennial act, perhaps foreign democracies could be enticed to join this democracy birthday party as well.

On this hunch, I phoned the German Embassy and suggested a project it might sponsor. A lunch meeting (my treat) was scheduled in New York with Germany's cultural minister, and I boarded the train convinced I could make the sale. After all, I had already sold the Declaration of Independence, the Battle of Gettysburg and Washington's grim winter encampment at Valley Forge. So how could I fail to sell freedom of speech and freedom of the press to the Germans?

My hook seemed obvious

And that was my hook: John Peter Zenger, the New York printer who was jailed for nine months in 1733 for publishing attacks on New York's royal governor, William Cosby, and also for refusing to identify his political supporters— the man whose subsequent acquittal (eloquently championed by the original Philadelphia lawyer, Andrew Hamilton) established for all time the American principle of freedom of the press. This was the Bicentennial prize I proposed to Dr. Haide Russell, the striking blonde cultural minister of the Federal Republic of Germany.

I waited expectantly for her response to my tale of America's treasured contribution to freedom of the press and freedom of speech by a printer who refused to rat on his associates.

"Oh so," Dr. Russell said. "Very interesting. But why have your come to us?"

Uh-oh! Zenger's story, I realized, was unknown to the minister. In my enthusiasm I had neglected to supply a minor but critical detail that seemed obvious to me. I swallowed, looked as innocent as a two-martini lunch would allow, and murmured, "Zenger was German."

"Oh so," came the reply from Dr. Russell. "We'll get back to you."

A check in the mail

Several weeks later I received a check from the Federal Republic of Germany to develop a script. The lunch and train trip had been covered, and I commissioned a talented young writer, David Chambers, who would later help found the noted Manhattan Theatre Club in New York.

That summer of 1975, The Case and Tryal of John Peter Zenger launched its three-a-day performance schedule on the site of the original Zenger trial, Federal Hall in Manhattan. It would subsequently perform for the American Bar Association in both Philadelphia and New York and also for the financial press. Production funds were provided by a consortium of Wall Street firms and the Harris Corporation. More than three decades later it has yet to be performed in Berlin. But I'm an infernal optimist.

To be continued.

To read the previous installment, click here.
To read the third installment, click here.

Sign up for our newsletter

All of the week's new articles, all in one place. Sign up for the free weekly BSR newsletters, and don't miss a conversation.

Join the Conversation