A national flag once drenched in an Olympic medallist’s sweat, event schedules and pins are just some reminders still cherished by the TT members of the design and production team for the 1996 Olympic Games opening ceremony.
But memories of the mayhem, magic, pride and emotions remain in their hearts and minds 25 years later.
The 1996 Olympic Games marked the 100th anniversary of the first modern Olympic Games. It was held in Atlanta, Georgia, US.
Olympic opening ceremonies are generally a big deal. But what made that year even more special was that masman Peter Minshall was one of the main designers.
He was also an integral part of the ceremonies for the 1992 Games in Barcelona, Spain and the Winter Games at Salt Lake City, Utah in 2002, winning an Emmy award for the latter.
But at Atlanta, Minshall, along with members of his Callaloo Company, showed the world what TT Carnival and mas look like on an even larger scale.
The ceremony had around 3.5 billion viewers globally and there were approximately 85,000 people in the stadium.
There was the countdown, fireworks, a roaring crowd, silence – and the magic of the mas began. Blue, white, gold, silver, black, red and green fabrics and costumes came to life at the Olympic stadium, along with rhythmic drumming.
The dazzling presentation featured Minshall’s iconic “dancing mobiles,” which left the crowd in awe.
He was the costume designer for Call to Nations – where the Olympic rings are formed – and artistic director and costume designer for a later segment, Summertime: Storm and Rebirth.
The team worked with the likes of US filmmaker and choreographer Kenny Ortega – who directed Hocus Pocus and High School Musical – as well as choreographer Judy Chabola, among others.
'The work never stopped'
There was a team in Trinidad and a team in Atlanta. They’d communicate using fax machines and e-mails – and barely got any sleep.
Cecilia Salazar, who was production manager at the Callaloo Company in Chaguaramas, told Sunday Newsday the project was “a mammoth and phenomenal undertaking.”
She said tears of joy filled her eyes when she reviewed the footage last week.
She hailed it as “one of the best openings ever,” saying, “every part of that field was alive.
“Thousands of costumes, alive with flowers and butterflies…and you just think, ‘Wow, it really takes an artist like Minshall to bring that piece of art alive.' It’s almost unbelievable to think we did all of that.”
Around 6,000 of the costume elements were made in Trinidad, then shipped to Atlanta. In total, there were over 1,800 costumes.
Salazar said she was thankful that Minshall and associate artistic director Todd Gulick convinced the organisers to let some of the costumes be created on home soil.
“The Americans were saying, ‘Let’s just make it up here,’ and Todd and Minsh were like, ‘No, no, you all don’t understand…These people in TT know what they’re doing.’ They had to fight for it.
“Sometimes Minshall would just send something he came up with on a Post-It note, and send that by fax and Kathryn Chan (assistant designer) is like, ‘All right, let’s go.’"
Anika Duke, who was a production assistant, remembered, “There was no time where work was not happening at Callaloo Company. It literally was a space and time where the work never stopped. It could be 1 am, 5 am – those doors never closed.”
Many of the team had worked with Minshall before, so were familiar with his style and attention to detail.
But: “This was like Carnival times ten," Duke said.
“It’s a really great thing to look back and realise how many of those things were created in Trinidad. It wasn’t just one container – it was containers every two weeks or every three weeks we were pushing things into...and shipping to Atlanta.”
The containers in the backyard were a “constant visual reminder” that they needed to finish thousands more costumes.
She and Salazar barely got any sleep for months, but they wouldn’t trade the experience for the world.
Salazar recalled, “Those containers would come like 6 am and all 3 pm, 4 pm, (costumes) still not finished, and around 4.30 pm one time, they were just like, ‘Let’s go! Push! Push!’
“After that container finally left, every man jack fall asleep. Who sleeping on top of a bucket, on a piece of cardboard, in a corner…There was this eerie silence. I was the only one who didn’t fall asleep.”
Duke said though people could have left after a certain number of hours of work, they remained, because the entire process was very important to them and they took pride in it.
Late puppet technician Murphy Rudolph Winters lived at School Street, Carenage, not far away from the building. His car was parked in the yard there and he had not moved it in so long that weeds began growing inside.
Duke said when she saw the footage of the opening, she could point out certain parts of the costumes and recall when they were made.
“So I’d say, ‘I remember when we did the mould for that, I remember when there were 60 people at a table and their job for weeks was to put one-cent pieces on strips.’ People at the factory would tell you, ‘I have been sticking circular prismatic stickers on this for a month.’ It sounds like penance,” she said, laughing.
But it was far from that. She said she learnt valuable lessons about commitment and “finishing the things you start with the same energy."
'Mas prepared us for this'
Wendell Manwarren of 3canal, actor, director and, at also, the time, assistant choreographer, said months of pre-planning and hard work went into that ceremony.
“And looking back at it now, it does occur to you that you had such a big experience.
“The other day I was cleaning out and I actually found the book with all the notes and the plot points and all the meetings we had, a couple programmes and stuff.”
He said he feels great whenever he discusses that experience.
“It was a special time. I’ve always felt privileged to be able to impart aspects of our culture to people from other cultures.”
He said the team members in Trinidad were “working their fingers to the bone.
“We accustomed working under pressure, but this was like working on Carnival times three."
His costume was the Thunderbird, whose tail virtually covered the entire stage. It was "the biggest costume I’ve ever played in. About 250 people had to carry that tail. It was an epic scale and a lot of work.”
They didn't have as many sleepless nights in Atlanta as home, but: "As soon as those containers reached, those last couple weeks was nonstop jamming.
"Mas prepared us for this.”
He also said it was fun teaching foreigners the concept of a mas camp.
“They couldn’t decorate the wings in Trinidad and ship it, so we decorated the wings there in Atlanta. So they (non-TT nationals) came and worked for some hours and said, ‘Ok, I’m going home now,’ and it’s like, ‘Yo, I thought you come for the night. It’s a mas camp.’
“Eventually they got it and were like, ‘Hey, I like this mas camp thing.’
"We knew how to make a little mas camp, cook some food and get the people going. And before you know it, we’ve completed 100 butterfly wings.”
He said if they'd gone at the foreigners’ pace, they’d probably still be decorating those wings.
Gulick told Sunday Newsday he found the experience a great team effort, likening it to a “Carnival push.”
He was thankful the Atlanta contingent at least got to go home at the end of the night and try to rest, compared to those in Trinidad, who were working almost nonstop.
They non-TT nationals, he recalled, "were used to normal costumes, like clothing. So they had a guy who, if you needed cheerleader or marching-band outfits, he’d be able to produce it.
"But of course, the things Minshall are producing are wings and tails – it was mas. So we had to bring all our prototypes in from Trinidad.”
“All the Olympic experiences were very intense and stretched out over a long period of time, and you felt like you were part of something big and had a good spirit to it…There was a lot of collaboration among many people from many different parts of the world. It was a privilege, really.”
Dominique Inniss, another assistant production manager, said she was fortunate to get the chance to work with “master creatives and craftsmen…performers, the crew – better than any Ivy League master’s degree I could have attained.
“It was immersive and inclusive, the camaraderie akin to and better than most families – dysfunctional or not.”
She said the work was intense and many people were often “fuelled by caffeine, beers and cigarettes,” to create the “magic” seen in Atlanta.
“Our payment was not monetary…Our zeal to continue to make, create, learn, try, and try and try again was rewarded when all was revealed to an unknowing public to oohs, ahs and accolades.”
Alyson Brown, as often in Minshall's mas bands in those days, was the queen of the band – the Southern Spirit.
She told Sunday Newsday, “Two girls came up to me and were like, ‘How did you get to be the star of this show?’
"Well, I didn’t particularly think I was the star of the show, and I couldn’t answer, because I’ve never been a diva…I’ve always just felt privileged to be a part of something. So I said, ‘Uhh, maybe because I know Peter Minshall.’”
She said the music was so loud she could barely hear the reactions of those in the audience.
But she remembered one moment where she saw herself on the big screen.
“I remember thinking, ‘Wait, Trinidad seeing meh, boy. Plenty people seeing meh, boy.'
“I was typical small island, small fish in a big sea, never-see-come-see and very privileged to be there.”
After Gladys Knight sang, she was the first person who had to stand on the same spot.
“I remember going, ‘OMG, I’m standing on holy ground.”
National pride times two
“We have a special and unique culture…People opened up their eyes. Once people got a chance to engage with it, they were always incredibly mystified by it,” Manwarren said.
He said it was great that Minshall was able to convince foreigners to put “a bele queen as the Spirit of the South.”
He said he did not expect to still feel just as proud – and possibly even more proud – 25 years later.
“When you look back at it it’s like, 'Yeah, we really did pull off something that big.' I’m really happy for that period of my life."
He said someone he worked with then contacted him recently via social media, and recalled him as “Thunderbird guy.”
“And he sent pictures of some of the other guys on the crew and we chatted…I guess I’ll always be ‘the Thunderbird guy.'"
Salazar wasn’t originally supposed to go to the Games in Atlanta but: “Todd found an extra ticket so I went, and it was such a thrilling time."
Once the opening was out of the way, they had to rehearse for the closing ceremony.
But that year, TT sprinter and four-time Olympic medallist Ato Boldon competed and won bronze in the men’s 100m and 200m finals – in addition to the pride of having TT’s culture showcased at the opening ceremony.
The team didn’t get to go to many events because of rehearsals, but on July 27, 1996, at 5.30 pm, Manwarren said, “We made it our business to be in that stadium for the men’s 100m final."
Salazar said she still has the programme, which she glanced at “the other day."
“We couldn’t get tickets – they were sold out – but we had stadium passes, so they let us go and sit with the athletes. We went with our flag, and dressed in red, white and black.”
When Boldon completed the race, he did not have a flag to use as he celebrated.
Salazar said, “So Roger (Roberts) had the flag and say,' Cecilia, give it to him!’ and I ran down and I’m like, ‘Ato! Ato!’ and threw it over and he ran around the track with it.”
They all met in the tunnel after and Boldon returned the flag, which is “still hanging in Callaloo Company with Ato’s sweat – we never washed it.”
Gulick said, “We were proud of our little island contributing to this big thing…We did well, and our contribution was meaningful, and we were proud of it.
“I still have one of the pins for the centennial Olympic Games, this little gold pin which I have at the edge of my desk.”
Salazar explained, “When you’re in it, you take it for granted, because you’re working so hard and you’re into it and you’re just trying to get the job done…
"But looking back, I feel so immensely proud. I’m proud because Minshall is a genius. I’m proud because we at Callaloo Company worked so hard and we were creating such phenomenal mas at the time that the whole world now saw.”