Forget Barack Obama’s mock Greek temple at Invesco Field. Last week in Denver, a little over a mile away, MSNBC erected a temple to house their own pantheon of gods. Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews sat some twenty feet aloft behind a second floor balustrade. Below them, lesser deities (Buchanan, O’Donnell, Robinson) made their home in a space reserved for the commentator’s panel, framed by red-white-and-blue-wrapped columns. Above it all, a roofline hinted at a classical triangular pediment.
But last Wednesday, the real god, by acclamation of the devoted crowd, was Rachel Maddow.
When she appeared on screen, the crowd would roar. When she joined the panel, they’d scream and wave. When she made a strong point, you could hear cries like “Go get’em Rachel!” or “We love you Rachel.”
It was, as old McCain hand and newly-minted NBC analyst Mike Murphy complained after being shouted down, a “partisan, one-note crowd.” But as much political love as the live audience may have had for Obama, there was plently left over for MSNBC.
“Vote for Keith!” the crowd chanted.
A man bore a hand lettered poster reading “Chuck Todd for Prez.”
From time to time, the audience, separated from the panel by crowd fencing and unthreatening, khaki-panted security, chanted the names of the panel in turn, not yielding until their chant was acknowledged. Eugene Robinson gave a hearty over-the-head wave. Pat Buchanan, who had stone-facedly taken his seat to boos at the broadcast’s start, now rose, turned to the audience, and gave a quick bow while holding his hands aloft in Nixonian victory signs.
All this adulation was brought to you by the channel’s decision to build its Democratic National Convention broadcast stage at 16th and Wewatta, in a barren parking lot hardly a block away from Denver’s Union Station.
“For us it’s a great location, because it’s not inside the security perimeter, which is where CNN and Fox are set up,” said Alana Russo from MSNBC’s PR staff. “So you get actual people to come here.”
Throughout the week, donkey and elephant costume-wearing Segway operators prowled the sidewalks of lower Denver, handing out promotional palm cards to gin-up a crowd. And come they did, like moths to a light.
They were rewarded with a Ryder’s worth of MSNBC branded trinkets. (Literally—Russo gamely pointed out “our big truck of MSNBC schwag,” parked alongside a backstage fence, with its roll-up door raised to reveal raided boxes.) The audience beat MSNBC thundersticks, donned MSNBC visors and stryrofoam boaters, pinned-on MSNBC buttons, wore MSNBC t-shirts, and cooled themselves with MSNBC hand fans.
Erecting and operating a set in the middle of a parking lot on the northwest edge of downtown Denver is no simple task.
“Infrastructure. Infrastructure. A parking lot. No running water. No telephones. No power,” said Vernard Gantt, MSNBC’s manager of production operations for the conventions, describing what needed to be done to make a set out of Denver’s thin air.
The network spent thousands to lease 150 parking spaces from the nearby Gates corporation (which makes hoses, belts and hydraulic parts) and, starting at one o’clock in the morning the Wednesday before the convention started, assembled an elaborate series of trailers, trucks, and other equipment. “It’s like a jigsaw,” Gantt, who estimates he spent around three months planning the convention logistics, said.
“Now the reason we like doing stuff at oh-God-thirty in the morning is because you don’t have to worry about traffic,” said Gantt, seated on the steps of a production trailer in a gold golf shirt.
The first to arrive, in the dead of Wednesday’s night, was the stage. At seven the next morning, a dozen staffers were on hand to unfold the two-story set, rig it for power, and erect the lights. On Thursday, trailers were brought in to house make-up, hair, and catering. On Saturday, a production truck with a control room arrived at six in the morning.
“I’ve got 116, 130, people working in this compound right now,” says Gannt. “We’re catering two, three, four, meals a day.”