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The Grass Is Always Greener At Commencement

By Ryan W. Chew

By the morning of Commencement, Tercentenary Theater will be carpeted with plush grass, lined with orderly rows of thousands of chairs and equipped with a sound system comparable to that of the Boston Garden. But the ostensibly simple and elegant organization belies the hectic planning and preparation that has strained many of Harvard's resources in past months.

The 25 members of the Harvard Planning Group have been meeting since early March to detail the preparations needed in Harvard Yard and the houses for the Commencement ceremonies. The main ceremony for the college and the graduate schools takes place at Tercentenary Theater, followed by smaller ceremonies for undergraduates at their respective houses.

The Commencement planners must transform the mud flats of late winter Tercentenary Theater into grassy lush meadows, collect huge quantities of chairs to seat thousands of guests, and install an infallible sound system to accommodate even the most hard-of-hearing alumnus.

In the weeks before graduation, the bare spots of the Yard are covered with $15,000 worth of a goopy green compound which looks like astro--turf ore waiting to be refined. According to Administrative Director of Operations Thomas E. Vautin, who assists in the organization, the compound is actually hydroseed--a mixture of grass seed, fertilizer, and pesticide. Though seeding is sufficient for most of the Yard and the houses, much-traveled spots like the lawn in front of Lamont Library require sod, which is more expensive, Vautin says.

In early June after the grass has thickened, crews of students begin hauling in the chairs that will destroy the well-tended grass again. Harvard can supply itself with only a fraction of the 69,700 chairs that Commencement requires. Since even the largest contractor who rents chairs locally maintains an inventory of a mere 40,000, Harvard must rely on four different contractors for seats, says Robert Dwyer, a buyer in the purchasing department.

The Yard takes the largest share of the chairs--30,000--including the 18,700 which will seat degree candidates and their guests in Tercentenary Theater, Dwyer says. Vying for the coveted seats are more than 22,000 ticket-holders who line up outside the gates of the Yard hours before the ceremony begins.

The University allows each of the 1,700 seniors four tickets, says Janiel Strong of the University Marshal's Office. The graduate schools receive two-and-a-half tickets, per student, which they allot as they see fit, she says. Some, like the Education School, use a lottery, while others simply honor first requests.


To protect participants from the elements--presumably from the sun, since legend has it that it never rains on Harvard's Commencement--grounds crews will raise 65 tents of various sizes in the yard, at the houses and the graduate schools, Dwyer says.

Harvard rents most of these tents from local suppliers, frustrating the hosts of weddings and bar mitzvahs for miles around. The school owns only the main white canopy covering the speaker's platform in Tercentenary Theater. The 175-foot tent was designed specially for its location in preparation for Harvard's 350th anniversary celebration, Dwyer says.

Like the speaker's canopy, the Commencement sound and light systems are used only during these first weeks of summer break. The two systems together are worth approximately $60,000, says Pete Clancy, director of Harvard Technical Services, but the greatest costs come from the labor required to install them. Since it takes five technicians three weeks to set up the equipment, it is too inconvenient to use for anything other than Commencement, he says.

But Clancy says the time and expense is justified because with so many people, "if the sound system does not function, nothing else can go on."

The systems require special attention because they are designed to provide sound and light of broadcast quality, Clancy says. The sophisticated stage lighting directed at the speaker's platform can flood Tercentenary Theater with 50,000 watts of light, he says, more than enough to waken dozing dignitaries.

The sound system is extremely redundant, with two mikes at every position, to ensure reliability. "In fact," Clancy says, "It's almost two separate systems, with only one on line. It's basically fail-safe."

In addition to reliability, flexibility is also important, he says. In the past, the crew has had to provide sound for simultaneous translations of speeches and for dubbing of pre-recorded material, Clancy says, but "this year's ceremony is pretty straightforward."

With such high quality sound--suitable for FM radio broadcast--Harvard provides feeds to stations who cover the event, eliminating the need for the clutter of microphones often seen at press conferences, Clancy says.

WGBX-TV has been covering Commencement live annually since 1977. The public station's coverage began several years before in an agreement to show the ceremonies in the event of rain, says Robert DesMaisons '67, director of Harvard Video Services (HVS). Spectators could watch the speeches and events either on large screens in the Science Center linked to the University cable system or on their own TV on Channel 44, he says.

Television coverage has developed a long way from its beginnings as a contingency for bad weather. In addition to the Science Center links, this year HVS is installing screens in Wadsworth House, Fay House at Radcliffe Yard, and the alumni information center, so latecomers seeking directions to Tercentenary Theater can see how much they have missed.

The most ambitious plans of HVS involve the videotaping of the ceremonies. In the past, DesMaisons says, word of mouth and unsolicited requests from parents resulted in sales of about 300 videotapes of Commencement.

This year, HVS dropped flyers in the mailboxes of graduate students and sent a brochure to the parents of undergraduates, DesMaisons says, adding that, "Parents seem to be more interested in recording the graduation than the graduates them selves." He says he hopes to sell as many as 1000 copies.

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