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Setting a stage on neutral ground

The 2,000-seat Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg, shown during the 1996 vice presidential debate, has a European opera-house look. [Times files: Bill Serne]

By JOHN FLEMING, Times Performing Arts Critic

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 18, 1998

Cebates are a form of political theater, and this week's televised debates between Florida's Senate and gubernatorial candidates will have many of the behind-the-scenes ingredients of a stage show or a concert at the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg.

"It's put together more like a rock 'n' roll tour than it is anything, because it's a short turnaround in terms of getting it into the theater and ready to go," said John Hodges, one of the owners of TSA Inc., which built the set for the debate.

The debates between Democratic U.S. Sen. Bob Graham and his challenger, Republican Charlie Crist, and gubernatorial candidates Buddy MacKay, a Democrat, and Republican Jeb Bush will take place on the same set that has been used by presidential and vice presidential candidates since 1988. Owned by the federal Commission on Presidential Debates and stored at TSA's headquarters in Lorton, Va., it will be hauled to St. Petersburg in a 45-foot semitrailer truck and loaded into the theater today.

Hodges spent a lot of time at Mahaffey two years ago when it was the site of the vice presidential debate between Al Gore and Jack Kemp. "Mahaffey is one of the nicest facilities we've been in," he said.

Mahaffey is part of the Bayfront Center, a city-owned theater and arena complex. It is named after the Mahaffey family, owners of an apartment development company, who donated $1-million to a $25-million refurbishment completed in 1988.

The 2,000-seat theater has a European opera-house look, with red Italian marble floors in the lobby and a dazzling view of Tampa Bay. The Florida Orchestra has been one of its most frequent users through the years.

The debate set, designed by onetime CBS producer Hugh Raisky, is about 40 feet wide and 30 feet deep and fills the Mahaffey stage. Two lecterns stand at a 22-degree angle to center stage, and the moderator's desk is on a forestage, set a foot below the main stage so as to be out of view of cameras fixed on the candidates.

Neutrality was the theme of the set design. "The focus on any television talking head show -- and this is basically a talking head show -- is the person talking," said Hodges, whose company has built sets for the Jim Lehrer News Hour on PBS, ESPN's Sports Center and numerous local newscasts, as well as the Munchkinland set for The Wizard of Oz tour.

"The key to all television design today is you want to create something interesting but not so interesting that it takes away the focus from the talking head. Since this is the kind of ultimate talking head, it needs the least amount of interference in terms of a background."

Built of wood, the set is covered with blue upholstery fabric. "The blue creates a really nice background to have a head and face stand out," Hodges said. "Consistency is everything. Candidates, when they get into a debate situation, don't want the other candidate to have any kind of obvious advantage."

The candidates' wardrobe choices tend to be limited. "There are not too many politicians who will wear anything but a dark suit and usually a white shirt," Hodges said. "Ties -- they've run the gamut on that. It's the only color they wear."

Air conditioning is an important issue under the television camera lights. Candidates remember Richard Nixon, upper-lip sweating, losing to cool, calm and collected John F. Kennedy in 1960's first-ever televised presidential debate.

Seven cameras will be used in the debates at Mahaffey, and lighting will be provided by the theater's system.

During the 1996 vice presidential debate, a special lighting rig was installed that made the theater so hot that an extra cooling duct was installed above the stage, never to be used again.

"It was ice cold back here," said Todd Beatty, production manager at Mahaffey and the Bayfront arena. "This time, the candidates are asking for 60 to 62 degrees, and we shouldn't have any problem with that."

What the people involved with the debate's production lose sleep over is the possibility of equipment failures, such as the 1976 power outage that brought the Gerald Ford-Jimmy Carter debate in Philadelphia to a halt. The candidates stood mute on stage for 20 minutes.

"It is live television, so you never know what can happen," said Geoff Cortelyou, production manager at WFLA-Ch. 8 in Tampa, who will direct the debate telecasts from a production truck in the Mahaffey parking lot. "The tricky part is to see that each candidate gets equal time."

Using the same set as in the vice presidential debate should help the production go smoothly. "It makes our job a lot easier when the background looks good," said Julie Jarvis, a regional producer for the NBC News Channel based in Tampa and executive producer of the debates.

Two years ago, when Mahaffey was the site of the Gore-Kemp debate, thousands of media operatives were on the scene. Heavy rainfall from Tropical Storm Josephine added to the pressure on backstage workers to keep the event on track.

"Myself and the house crew went for days without sleep to get it all done," Beatty said. "This one isn't looking so stressful as the vice presidential debate was."


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