Obamas Called On Chicago Vendors for State Dinner Decor, Stage, and Lighting

By Courtney Thompson December 2, 2009, 3:09 PM EST

The state dinner in set-up phase

Photo: Courtesy of Heffernan Morgan

The Obamas turned to hometown Chicago vendors for last week's state dinner for Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, calling in production firm Heffernan Morgan Designs to handle the evening's decor and design, Custom Design to construct the stage, and Frost to light the tent. Local Washington-area vendors included U.S. Event Structures, which provided the tent, and White House florist Laura Dowling.

The White House contacted Heffernan Morgan roughly six weeks before the event, asking them to consult on everything from the tent to the decor and flowers. “While we’ve done larger events and events that have been as detailed, the emotional stature of this was just really big,” Heffernan president and technical director Robert Mertzlufft said. “It was such an amazing opportunity for our staffers to be on siteit was very humbling, just cool to be there.” While Heffernan Morgan has produced events in Chicago that the Obamas have attended, the company has never worked for the couple, though White House social secretary Desirée Rogers has been a client in the past.

From Mertzlufft's first encounter with the White House team, a tent, and not the traditional East Room, was the venue of choice. “The White House, despite its stature in the world, isn't the biggest place on earth,” he said. “In order to host 320 guests along with functioning service, lighting, sound, and entertainment, it was obvious from the onset that this was going to be done in a tent on the lawn. Being in a tent was also a nice subtle nod to Indian culture.”

U.S. Event Structures began erecting its 82- by 164-foot clear stand tent six days before the state dinner. The structure had floor-to-ceiling glass walls, a clear top, beige carpeting, and a 110-foot-long marquee leading guests in from the East Wing. According to company founder Doug Remsberg, the tent was atop an elevated floor that was even with the ground closest to the White House, and was nine feet high on the south end of the lawn, thanks to the sloping terrain. 

In terms of decor, the White House was looking for a mix of classic American elements with Indian influences, which Mertzlufft, Heffernan Morgan creative director Bill Heffernan, and operations manager Byron Boone channeled through colors and materials. The purple and green hues, for example, were respectful nods to the Indian head of state, while magnoliaswhich grow both in the U.S. and Indiain oversize urns atop five-foot-tall pedestals lining the perimeter of the tent provided a common thread.

Having last worked with Obama on an Indiana rally during the campaign, Frost Chicago's president David Kelly oversaw the lighting and audio for the evening, with the Washington office supplying the 12 ivy-woven electric chandeliers with lampshadesranging from five to eight feet in diameterthat hung from the tent ceiling. For stage lighting, Kelly rigged 72 conventional fixtures for the National Symphony Orchestra's performance and 24 automated fixtures for performances by Jennifer Hudson, Kurt Elling, and A.R. Rahman. Washington branch president Fred Elting, who supplied the White House with paper lanterns on July 4, also provided lavender-hued tin beam spotlighting on the 34 tables to “bring out the purple centerpieces,” he said.

Custom Design president Frank Pagura, who worked on Obama's election night rally in Grant Park, oversaw the construction of the tent's 60-foot-wide stage, which included four tiers, set apart in eight-inch increments. “We typically have all of our pieces made ahead of time, and this event was no exception,” Pagura said. “But our specs had the stage set at 56 feet wide, and when we arrived we quickly realized it needed to be 60 feet. We had the extra material to create that though, so it was fine.”

Custom Design also created a floor-to-celing velvet drape that followed the angle of tent and covered three walls, including the stage portion of the tent. “When the guests arrived, they assumed [the velvet curtains] marked the end of the tent, but really there was another 80 feet of space with a stage behind there,” Pagura said. Thanks to the clear tent top and gabled tent sides, however, the White House was in full view throughout the evening.

After dinner, the curtains at the far end of the tent parted, revealing the stage and views of the Washington Monument, the Jefferson Memorial, and the White House fountain.

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