Wisconsin’s spring general election — which is also the presidential primary election in years with presidential elections — is on the first Tuesday in April.
In 1980, the spring election was on April 1. That was appropriate in 1980 because of what happened four days before that.
On the bitter cold Friday night of March 28, 1980, outside the State Capitol building in Madison, Wisconsin, the famed film director Francis Ford Coppola produced a 30-minute TV infomercial that effectively ended California Gov. Jerry Brown’s campaign for president.
For Brown, the production was a hideously embarrassing political disaster. It not only crashed his Democratic primary challenge to President Jimmy Carter, but also reinforced his Governor Moonbeam reputation and marked the start of a decade-long decline in his once-meteoric political fortunes.
Titled “The Shape of Things to Come,” the bizarre half-hour show was seen only by Wisconsin viewers who happened to tune in to the statewide broadcast, a pot-hazed crowd of 3,000 who showed for the event and a small group of political reporters who panned it the next day.
Dubbed “Apocalypse Brown,” after Coppola’s Vietnam War epic “Apocalypse Now,” the program has never been seen by most Californians, including even some of Brown’s closest associates. …
We got our DVD copy from TV consultant and Calbuzzer Peter Shaplen, a freelance network news producer who now teaches video journalism at the Art Institute of San Francisco. At the time, he was covering Brown’s campaign as an ABC News producer. As Shaplen recalls:
The governor and I got into a heated argument the following day aboard the campaign plane. He maintained the audience would see beyond the technology snafu and hear his message, respond and vote for him. I suggested that the audience was so busy laughing at the failure of any reasonable communication that it was impossible to listen and respond.
A Francis Ford Coppola Production: Using — or misusing — the technique of chroma key compositing, Coppola projected impressionistic images both on a big screen behind Brown, which was flapping in the strong wind, and in the simultaneous TV broadcast.
The signature moment of the infomercial comes about 11 minutes into it with the sudden appearance over Brown’s right shoulder of an astronaut, clad only in white boxer shorts, doing somersaults, flips and other gymnastic moves inside a space capsule while in a weightless state.
Just. Plain. Weird.
Things were going badly well before that, however.
Right before the broadcast begins, a voice from the crowd says, “America has lost its environmental ethic and also Wisconsin doesn’t grow enough sinsemilla.”
Then the titles go up and someone types on a dateline, which is misspelled “Madisno, Wisci” before being corrected; next an utterly grim looking Brown walks to the stage, wearing a serious trench coat apparently a size too big, and starts orating into a sound system that isn’t working.
“We can’t hear,” a few people yell, whereupon Brown is given a hand-held mic and ad libs: “Even the technology of this age needs some human assistance.”
Not long after, the stage lights go out for a while, as seemingly random images – a steel mill, a rural cabin, an old guy shucking wheat – appear behind Brown, while quadrants of his head mysteriously keep dissolving into gaping gashes of flickering black and white.
How the deal went down: Just three weeks before, Brown had appointed the 40-year Coppola, who’d by then won an Academy Award and produced, directed and written the first two “Godfather” movies, to the state Arts Commission.
Brown’s campaign against a Democratic president never really took off – not least because the late Sen. Edward Kennedy was also challenging the incumbent – but Coppola was doing his bit to help his political patron. …
The Brown manifesto. The following Tuesday, Brown won only 15 percent of the primary vote and dropped out of the race. But the 25-minute speech he delivered during the program, overshadowed by the technical debacle, was framed by many of the ideas and attitudes he still holds – and a few he long ago dumped on the Krusty ash bin of history:
1-Paddle to the right, paddle to the left: Brown’s commentary on global and national political economics, the absolutely humorless tone of which is at odds with the counter-culture crowd on hand, is a case study of how he combines conservative and liberal views in his politics.
His theme was rejuvenating America’s economy, then beset by a crippling combination of high inflation, skyrocketing energy prices and widespread unemployment. He proposed a Japan-like “new economic order,” led by government but including both business and organized labor, that would rebuild the nation’s manufacturing capacity.
“A call to arms, not for war, but for peace – we can re-industrialize this country,” he said.
Among the left-liberal elements of this policy: a “coupon rationing method” for gasoline; a “ban on import of foreign oil by private companies” in favor of a government-run “U.S. Oil Buying Authority,” and new mandatory conservation policies to curtail “profligate, scandalous, unnecessary” energy consumption.
At the same, however, he sounded fiscally conservative themes: stop the government “printing press” of inflationary monetary policy; “balance the budget” by ending “fiscal gimmickry, borrowing from the future (and) huge deficits.” He also called for private-public sector cooperation to sell “re-industrialization bonds (and to) double research efforts into information technologies.”
2-The value of service: Brown’s remarks about himself and his reasons for pursuing elected office echo across three decades.
He recounted growing up in a household dominated by the career of his father, the late Gov. Pat Brown, and his revulsion at what he considered the demeaning nature of much political interaction – “the political language we hear is debased.” He said this led him to his time in the Jesuit seminary.
“I didn’t like politics…I wanted to find God,” he said, an experience that resulted in “development (of) a commitment to be of service.” Railing against “consumerism,” he said that as president he would manifest this idea, which remains a central thread of his politics today, by creating a “domestic Peace Corps” to channel young people into “voluntary service.”
3-The vision thing: Brown’s 1980 speech is also notable for how much it foresees mega economic and political trends that were just then forming.
Speaking of how we all live in “a very small global village,” for example, he foresaw globalization and trade policies a generation into the future, calling for a “North American Economic Community” including the U.S., Canada and Mexico, and enthusiastically describing the possibilities of “co-generation, solar, photo-voltaic” energy sources, as well as the need for “mass transit, bullet trains, fuel efficient cars.” …
“I have the skill, the know-how, the commitment,” for high office, he said at one point; when a woman asked him what he will do to assure the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, he presaged his get-them-all-in-a-room plan for solving the current budget deficit: “I’ll bring recalcitrant legislators to Washington and keep them there until they change their mind.”
Somewhat awkwardly, Brown concluded his remarks by reciting the Pledge of Allegiance – without inviting the crowd to join him. Then he left the stage, unaware that the technical meltdown of the program within a few hours would lead to widespread mockery of the event.
The Wisconsin State Journal’s Doug Moe starts by picking up the story after the “Ashtar” of live political TV:
On the cab ride from the Park Motor Inn to Four Lakes Aviation, where his private plane was waiting, the most celebrated film director in the world did not feel like celebrating.
It was close to midnight in Madison, March 28, 1980.
The cab driver studied the director in the rearview mirror, and said, “You know, this event tonight started out to be pretty interesting, but then something went wrong.”
“You’re telling me,” the director said. “It was a disaster. Just a disaster.”
Thirty-five years ago this week, Francis Ford Coppola, director of two revered “Godfather” movies, and with another film, “Apocalypse Now,” recently released amid great controversy and melodrama that only added to his legend, came to Madison to direct a live half-hour television show for his friend, California Gov. Jerry Brown, who was running for president in the Democratic primary in Wisconsin.
In the years since, the 30-minute program has itself become legendary. The events played out across three days in Madison. Coppola visited West High School and ate at local restaurants, even as technicians ensconced on the state Capitol lawn raced against the clock to ready the live production.
“I have no experience in this kind of thing,” Coppola announced cheerfully, during his time at West High. Later, anyone looking for a title for the extravaganza had one on a platter: “Apocalypse Brown.”
“There was a lot of hoopla building up to it,” Chuck Martin, a former State Journal journalist who covered the event, said this week.
When Jerry Brown decided to challenge incumbent President Jimmy Carter for the 1980 Democratic nomination, he first asked Coppola — whom Brown had appointed to the California Arts Council — to create some traditional, short television commercials for the campaign.
Brown’s team was happy with the spots, but the campaign itself, by mid-March, was foundering. They needed something dramatic to happen and figured the primary on April 1 in Wisconsin — a state with a history of appreciating mavericks — might be the place.
The idea for a half-hour event, to air live a few days before the primary, came from Coppola and was put together in just a few weeks, according to the production manager, quoted in Martin’s State Journal story.
The show was to be titled, “The Shape of Things to Come,” from an H.G. Wells futuristic short story.
Speaking of the director, a Brown staff member told a reporter from New York City’s Village Voice, “I have no idea what he’s going to do. All I know is that Coppola intends this thing to be one of the collector’s items of his career.”
Coppola arrived in Madison on March 26, a Wednesday. The show was set to air statewide on eight stations at 7 p.m. Friday. Wednesday night, Coppola spoke to students at West High.
Walt Trott covered the West High appearance for The Capital Times and quoted the director in the next day’s paper:
“We’ll center ourselves by the Capitol building,” Coppola said, “where we’ll put up this immense television set and we’re going to go on TV live with the governor making a statement that he wants to make. I’ll be in a truck where I can make a live mix, making any combination of things.”
Thursday morning, Coppola spoke at Russell Merritt’s film history class at UW-Madison. Throughout his time in the city, the director talked about evolving technology and how a new process, called chroma-key, would allow him to flash relevant images on a screen behind Brown as the governor spoke.
Thursday night, a Village Voice reporter was at the Capitol observing the frenzied crew trying to ready generators, search lights, and TV cameras, while Coppola gave Jerry Brown a tour of the set.
“After this,” Coppola said, “you’ll be the movie star and I’ll run for governor.”
Friday evening was chilly and damp. Fires burning in garbage cans provided heat on the Capitol lawn. Search lights pierced the sky. A young woman in the crowd of 3,000 told the Cap Times, “This is the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen.”
It got weirder. Eventually Brown, in a trench coat, took the stage. Not much went right after that. The chroma-key technology failed, even as the candidate talked about the need to re-industrialize and invest in new technologies. Images broke apart on screen. At one point an image of a Skylab astronaut doing weightless somersaults in his underwear appeared behind Brown.
Later, in a suite at the Park Motor Inn, Coppola and rock music promoter Bill Graham drank red wine and waited for Coppola’s cab driver. When he arrived, Graham offered some wine. “Even at Union,” Stuart Levitan said, “we’re not supposed to drink with the passengers.”
Yes, Coppola’s cab driver was Levitan, the Madison journalist and historian.
Levitan viewed the show from the Capitol lawn, and this week recalled how strange it was to watch “the most innovative politician of our generation self-destruct before our eyes.”
Additional technological insight comes from Greg Buzzell on the Facebook “If You Grew Up in Madison You Remember” page:
I was Chief Engineer at the time at WMTV channel 15. We were the station picked to do the state wide live feed of the show. From the outset we knew the program was in trouble. They had to borrow cable from us, because they did not bring enough. They were trying to do a chroma key outside in the wind, we knew that would not work. Everything was live, and being on headset with Coppola, it was evident he had never done anything live before. The chroma key wasn’t working, the graphics did not work, and we were struggling at the station to input live names into our character generator for lower thirds. After a few minutes in Coppola had lost his cool and started yelling at everyone which only made thing worse. Eventually he just took his headset off, and just left the set, and let the assistant director finish the show. It was a great embarrassment for Governor Brown, but also an embarrassment for the station. But we all learned that you can be a great movie director, and not be able to do something live. Obviously in live TV there are no do overs as there are in film.
So what did this TV train wreck look like?
While the debacle certainly ended Brown’s 1980 run for president (the winner was Brown’s predecessor as governor, Ronald Reagan), it didn’t end Brown’s political career. Brown didn’t run for reelection in 1982, but a decade later he ran for president again. Even more unpredictably, he is again governor of California.