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Celebrating Liberty

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Producer David L. Wolper, who memorably staged the 1984 Olympics in L.A., has a summertime whopper of a party in store again, and everyone is invited. As chief organizer of the July 3-6 superfest to celebrate the 100th birthday (and recent $40 million restoration) of the Statue of Liberty, he has lined up a string of events that defy the usual outdoor-gala superlatives. Dazzling, spectacular, extravagant—such tags somehow just won’t do. For starters, an armada of “tall ships,” modern warships and pleasure boats—an expected 40,000 in all—will cruise New York Harbor. Up to 200 aircraft representing the entire history of aviation from the Wright brothers to the Concorde will fly in review overhead. The largest fireworks display in the history of the U.S. will burst from a “necklace” of 30 barges ringing the tip of Manhattan. (In comparison, the gigantic Bicentennial fire-works display in New York blasted off from only three.)

It’s no wonder that one wag, on first hearing these plans, immediately asked Wolper how many survivors he expected. But the impresario was just warming up. He says some 20,000 performers—including 250 banjo pluckers, a 1,500-member drill team, 1,000 tap dancers, 1,000 violinists, a 500-piece marching band and such superstars as Frank Sinatra, Kenny Rogers and Liz Taylor—will play, sing, strut and strain in nearby Meadowlands stadium, which is expected to be filled with 55,000 spectators for the grand, glitzy finale. Earlier, on Ellis Island, Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger will swear in 22,000 new citizens via a four-city satellite linkup. And, of course, Miss Liberty will be “unveiled” on opening night in a giant light show when President Ronald Reagan pushes a button aboard the carrier U.S.S. John F. Kennedy, anchored off Liberty Island.

Don’t worry if you can’t be among the six million spectators expected to view the events live in New York. The three TV networks and CNN plan about 30 hours of coverage of the four-day extravaganza. President Reagan will star in a centerpiece. On the aircraft carrier flight deck crowded with 3,000 guests and dignitaries, a 100-piece symphony orchestra and a 300-voice choir—along with French President François Mitterrand, whose country gave the Statue of Liberty to the U.S. in 1886—Reagan will present Medals of Liberty to 12 outstanding naturalized citizens chosen by committee from a list of 200 nominees.

Not the least of the celebration’s carrier highpoints will be the reading by the winning youngster of the Christa McAuliffe essay contest, named for the Concord, N.H. teacher who died in January’s space shuttle explosion. (Wolper says the winner will be announced in May.) “I’ve asked every grammar schoolteacher in the nation to have their students write on the meaning of the Statue of Liberty,” declares Wolper, who, as the 1984 Summer Olympics showed, is ever alert to simple, emotional gestures amid the fanfare. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the winning kid got up to the microphone and in front of the world had to dig into a pocket to pull out a crumpled sheet of paper containing the words that would move us all?”

With less than six months to prepare the multimillion dollar Liberty bash—to be paid for through the sale of TV rights and special ticketed events—Wolper, 58, has only recently arrived in New York to begin working out the on-site particulars with a core of 15 staffers whose numbers should balloon to 130 in the weeks ahead. “There are thousands of details to chase down, and I’ve got the top people in the business to do it, from architects and fireworks experts to light and sound men,” explains the man who built his reputation as an award-winning TV producer with a zealous eye for detail. “He’ll pull this off quietly and with style,” says Roots author Alex Haley, who adds that it took Wolper three years to produce 1977’s watershed TV miniseries based on his book. “In all that time I never heard him raise his voice once. I don’t expect he’ll do so now, even though he’s attempting the near impossible.”

Wolper is the first to admit he’s “trying for the moon” on this one. “I’ve got 400 telephone calls I haven’t even returned,” he chuckles. Outside his sparsely furnished corner office in mid-town Manhattan, a floor of mostly empty workrooms awaits the installation of computers, printers and telephone systems. Liberty Weekend logos, New York Harbor maps and spidery blueprints of a 20-tier stage decorate the few occupied offices. Calmly, Wolper eyeballs the red, white and blue sketches of uniforms, blazers, T-shirts and headbands to be ordered for the army of food handlers, ushers, custodians and information guides who will work at the gala’s many sites. Choosing a smart-looking, blue-and-white outfit with small epaulets for ushers, he tells an assistant to supply skirts for the women. “So they’ll have a choice,” he says. “July’s a hot month.” And then to another staffer he repeats, “I want this to be a classy affair, definitely four A’s.”

The grandchild of immigrants from Austria, Wolper tries to keep sight of the event’s significance amid the hoopla. Smoothing a hand over his short white beard, he looks out a window in the direction of the handsome Lady with the Torch. Across the water some workers are finishing the two-and-a-half-year renovation. “I hope we don’t forget what she means,” he muses, then snaps with a laugh, “Hey, but it’s going to be fun—a clean, pretty party. So let’s do it.”