Donkeys and Elephants at the Cow Palace
BY DOROTHY A. SCHECTER
In this summer of political conventions, the flyer reproduced on our cover proved irresistible. It seemed a wonderful coincidence that Mark Ohmann sent this memento from the archives of his family radio service business at just this time. And how could we ignore the urge to find out what the "Big Event" was?
The wheels of research began to turn. First, a surf of the Web confirmed that the building was San Francisco's Cow Palace (your editor thought he remembered the shape). Then, it was on to the very cooperative staff of the Palace itself. A copy of an appropriate section of a book entitled Cow Palace Great Moments by Edward Diran, longtime manager of the Palace, soon arrived in the mail. We were amazed to find that this cavernous site of rodeos, horse and stock shows has hosted everything from the Beatles and Elvis concerts to political rallies and conventions.
Given the information in this book and the fact that the Ohmann radio shop in Albany, Minnesota, was a Philco dealer in the 1950s, we have concluded that the "Big Event" was the 1956 Republican National Convention. However, this event was preceded by a 1952 rally for Eisenhower as the Republican Presidential candidate -- the first event of its kind for the Palace.
A week later in 1952, the Democrats also gathered at the Palace, intent on a bigger and better rally for their candidate Adlai Stevenson, former Governor of Illinois. Apparently they succeeded, as 22,000 people, far more than at the Republican rally, attended. Both rallies are described as unique compared to those of the 1960s and 1970s, as they were without disruptive, rowdy demonstrations.
The Cow Palace
First Complete TV Coverage
The story goes that Ike was so pleased with the Palace rally that he expressed a desire to have the 1956 G.O.P. convention held there. On February 14, 1955, San Francisco Mayor Elmer Robinson set off for Washington, D.C., armed with a propaganda package to sell the Palace to the Republican Site Selection Committee. He succeeded, and suddenly, the Palace became nationally known and the focus of the news media and the tourists. The Palace administrative staff had to meet not only the immediate demand for printed material and photos, but also the challenge of reconstruction for the first national convention to be televised from beginning to end.
In February, five months before the convention in July, the transformation began. Three television networks took over the entire North Hall where they constructed studios and offices. TV and radio engineers came from New York to oversee the work. A huge telephone center occupied the South Hall where over 1,000 newspaper writers were to be housed. This area alone had the capacity for 25,000 people.
The wiring system became an incredible maze of thousands of feet of wire and over 100 microphones. The state government kicked in $150,000 to improve the acoustics with 1,000 "glass" pads, each 3' x 6', suspended from the ceiling. Needless to say, riggers willing to perform this precarious task were hard to find.
This was the first convention for Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, subsequently a renowned newscasting team. Veteran radio and TV commentator H.V. Kaltenborn, then at the end of his illustrious career, also joined them, though the impression was that it was not a happy union. Seasoned performers Betty Furness and George Gobel waited in the wings to do their respective live commercials for Westinghouse and Xerox.
The 1956 Republican National Convention paved the way to the biggest rally of all at the Palace -- the 1960 Democratic rally when John Kennedy captured the imagination of the country. Then came the last major political event for the Cow Palace -- the 1964 Republican Convention where the cantankerous Barry Goldwater's nomination, was seconded by Ronald Reagan, at the start of his journey from B-movies to the White House. The voices of the news were Walter Cronkite and Mike Wallace.
Big hotels and convention centers have taken over the Palace's role in political events, which no longer generate the excitement of those early TV times. As Edward Diran says in his book, "My, that was another world, another time!"
Diran, Edward. Cow Palace Great Moments. San Mateo, Cal., Western Book/Journal Press, 1991.
(Dorothy Schecter, c/o A.R.C., Box 2, Carlisle, MA 01741)