This spring my parents moved from their townhome in Boulder to a nearby retirement community. Culture vulture that I am, I picked over their audiocassettes to find music mixes I’d made for them, beginning forty years ago. I also found more than a dozen recordings of the choir in which Rob Berg and I first met, beginning with Handel’s Messiah, May 6, 1984. But I’d forgotten that it was that same year when, as tenors (I actually was more of a baritone), we were invited to join the Olympic Honor Chorus for the opening ceremony of the 1984 Summer Olympics. There it was, a cassette to prove it, which I’d given my parents.
According to the few records I have, the first rehearsal of the thousand-voice choir was held in April of ’84, at which time college conductors had sent hand-picked SATB choristers. The Tenor numbers having been, let’s say, < 250, evidently the word went out to church choirs. Frank Brownstead, the director of our choir at St. Philip the Apostle Church in Pasadena, came to us asking if we’d be willing to rehearse and perform on July 28. Rob and I agreed.
We might have had sectional rehearsals. Full rehearsals likely took place in college bleachers. “We had a dress rehearsal in the stadium,” Bachelor Rob Berg recalled recently. “Each of us could invite friends and family to see that. It was a carbon copy of the actual ceremony except that the identity of the athlete who would light the cauldron was kept a secret. It was to be Rafer Johnson!” At the 1960 Summer Olympics Johnson won the gold for the decathlon. He was the first athlete of African descent to light the cauldron. He died this past December.
Rob found quite a few statistics from the Wikipedia entry for the ceremony, which are peppered throughout this post, including the attendance: 92,516 souls—the most we ever “played for.”
Taking place in Hollywood, the organizers didn’t hesitate to enlist Tinsel Town’s talent: director David Wolper, composer John Williams (who won a Grammy that year for his “Fanfare Olympique” aka “Olympic Fanfare and Theme”), composer Marvin Hamlisch, choreographer Dee Dee Williams (Mary Poppins, Sound of Music), costumer Ray Aghayan (Lady Sings the Blues, Funny Lady), and more. The first photo in the souvenir program is of that relic of the reels Ronald Reagan, who happened to be president at the time. Interestingly, he was the first American president to open an Olympiad.
The broadcast of the ceremony won an Emmy. And the ceremony set a precedent, presenting the artistic segment before the ceremonial one, a sequencing that’s been used in every Olympic opening ceremony since.
It was hot that day; a high of 86. And everything was white, white, white. The torch cauldron tower and peristyle behind us, our sports visor caps, our pants and skirts, our long-sleeved polo shirts, the better to whiten black and brown skin, if not to protect the white skin. What wasn’t white, oddly enough, was striped in what we’d call today the trans* flag colors of light blue, pink, and… white.
Opening ceremony venue Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum’s profile had been transformed to be more Olympian with said tower and peristyle, not unlike the facelift Paramount Pictures had received for its Melrose gate’s arches (although I can’t find documentation of that). Both seemed to me the perfect made-for-motion-picture façade with nothing grand behind it: the proverbial dumb blond(e). Even our choral music diamonds were shown to be paste, as you’ll see. And the Olympic cauldron was more smokestack than crucible, but as you’ll also see, there was method in that misjudgment.
Our first number was “Welcome,” a song written by Marvin Hamlisch and Dean Pitchford. You’re lucky we couldn’t find it on YouTube because it’s not very good, bidding the audience, “Welcome/ Welcome to the wonder/ Welcome to raaaaaace for vict’ry that’s about to start.” Whereas John Williams’s “Olympic Fanfare and Theme” would have a long life beyond ’84, “Welcome” was bound for history’s circular file. Next was the U.S. National Anthem.
The entertainment began with The Music of America and the Americana Suite, performed by an 800-member marching band culled from every state in the Union—including, it turns out, Scott Jennings, the engineer who has mastered much of our Bachelors Anonymous music of late. This being Hollywood, it was appropriate that “Fanfare for the Common Man” was the first offering, by the still-living Aaron Copland who was a man-loving-man and had been a blacklisted pinko to boot. This was followed by George Gershwin’s “Strike Up the Band” and an “Americana Medley,” arranged by Earl Brown and Tony Fox.
The Music of America included a generous helping of Black music with nods to its originators (Bessie Smith, W. C. Handy, Louis Armstrong) as well as its imitators. The second subsection was titled The Pioneer Spirit, which, much like Rick Santorum of late, considered Native Americans to have been irrelevant if not nonexistent (relegated to the international music celebration near the ceremonies’ end, as if they were immigrants). And much like women, who appear only as the interpreters of men’s work: not a single woman’s composition was considered worthy of inclusion save Valerie Simpson’s, which she wrote with her husband Nick Ashford. The only women pictured in the production credits are the aforementioned Dee Dee Wood and Valerie Simpson, and drill team director Kay Crawford.
John Williams’s aforementioned “Fanfare and Theme” was performed under the baton of the composer. It would be played at all medal award presentations during the Olympiad.
My clearest memory is of the athletes of the world entering the field, marching in file—that is, until Team USA appeared. They acted as if they’d never seen a stadium full of people and wandered and dawdled gawking at the crowd: American exceptionalism personified.
The Olympic flag was paraded in and raised, to our strains of “The Olympic Hymn” followed by our singing Philip Glass’s “The Olympian,” subtitled “The Lighting of the Torch.” Of course the torch already had been lit and at that moment was being carried into the arena by Jesse Owens’s granddaughter Gina Hemphill, who was literally mobbed by the athletes, requiring the runner’s equivalent of a pace car before her. (One athlete got through to her, however: during that Olympiad she met husband-to-be, boxer Henry Tillman, who won the gold.) Because none of us in the arena knew who would set flame to the cauldron, those on the field were going berserk. Not only would she be the first person of African descent to do so, but the first Black woman.
Hemphill, of course, handed Rafer Johnson the torch and it was he who ascended the ninety-nine steps that split our ranks as choristers—stairs fringed in rainbow hues (!). Aside from the athletes on the field, it was we who came the closest to that last light-bearer. He strode toward the same cauldron that was used in the 1932 Summer Games. We stood and applauded as the sun fell and a hidden staircase rose, drawbridge-like, which Johnson climbed, turning to the assembled masses. The method of ignition was ingenious.
Only later would we choir members learn that our live voices were superimposed by prerecorded tracks. But viewing the video today, what we considered kind of an inside joke actually was more practical. There’s no way we could have kept our place as Rafer Johnson, The Olympian, strode those stairs.
The next event was The Assembly of the National Flags, accompanied by a march, “Conquest,” which Alfred Newman composed for the 1947 Henry King film Captain from Castile, filmed in Michoacán, Mexico. It’s a curious choice, of course, not least because of the international history of colonialism. I’m personally intrigued today because the film, which I hadn’t seen before, begins with Tyrone Power’s protagonist aiding a slave taken from the New World. A couple of years after the ’84 Olympics I became a student of interactions between Native Americans and some Spanish conquistadors, namely Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca, who became an advocate, more or less, for the native people with whom he’d lived. Power’s character aligned himself with Hernán Cortés: the genesis of genocide.
The Olympic Oath was administered in silence.
The aforementioned International Music Celebration began with the Beethoven/Schiller “Ode to Joy,” which we sung with, well…, joy. Followed by Vicki McClure singing Ashford and Simpson’s augmented Diana Ross debut solo single, “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)” with these lyrics:
Reach out and touch
Make this world and better place
If you can
For our trouble we received a white longsleeved polo shirt (why didn’t I pack that in mothballs?), a white sports visor cap (ditto), sheet music, a commemorative medal and certificate, the book-sized souvenir program, and a copy of the slimmer opening ceremonies program.
Such is the honor of being admitted to the Olympic Honor Chorus, that each performer was invited to join the Olympic Alumni Organization and be listed in the O.A.O. Membership Directory. Lest we needed seducing, the organization’s first “bash” was to march as a contingent in the famous Doo-Dah Parade in Pasadena—limited to “250 courageous souls.” The two rehearsals for Doo-Dah likely dampened my enthusiasm. (Years later Rob and I would march in the parade as a member of San Andreas and his Doorjamb Dancers.)
Three years later we had the chance to participate in another world-class event, the Mass conducted at Dodger Stadium by Pope John Paul II, but we declined. By that time the disdain shown by the Church and the People’s Pope towards same-sexers in the flock was palpable.