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Celebrities plan to flock to inauguration for Obama

Jake Coyle

NEW YORK — The Super Bowl? Forget it. The Oscars? Who cares. The biggest star-studded event on the horizon is President-elect Barack Obama’s inauguration.

The gig of 2009 will take place Jan. 20 on a wintry field in Washington.

“January 20 is going to be ground zero for everyone who wants to be part of this celebration, and that’s going to include boldface names and A-listers from Oprah on down,” said Roxanne Roberts, co-author of the Washington Post’s column “The Reliable Source.” “On that particular weekend, this is where the action is.”

Details on official inauguration events are scant so far, though prominent Obama supporters like Winfrey, Bruce Springsteen and are widely expected to be involved.

In the last century, entertainers have made indelible marks on presidential inaugurations and often helped set a tone for a new era.

Mickey Rooney performed at all four of FDR’s inaugurations. Robert Frost read a poem for John F. Kennedy in 1961. Bill Clinton was ushered in with a parade of performers in 1993, including Maya Angelou.

Any announcements on Obama’s official performers are “a ways down the road,” said Linda Douglas, a spokeswoman for Obama’s Presidential Inaugural Committee, but added: “We want to make it an uplifting and optimistic set of events as much as possible in these trying times.”

Unofficially, a galaxy of stars is expected at parties hosted by MTV, Dionne Warwick and others.

MTV has said it will host and broadcast the “Be the Change Inaugural Ball,” held in conjunction with the volunteerism campaign ServiceNation. The audience will be populated with activist young people in what Stephen Friedman, MTV’s general manager, says will be a “celebration of our audience.”

Of course, a bevy of music stars are also expected to perform.

“We are being inundated,” said Friedman. “It’s great when you have so many artists who are passionate about being a part of this moment.”

The Creative Coalition will hold a gala to be headlined by Elvis Costello. The nonprofit arts and entertainment advocacy group says that attending its party will be Anne Hathaway, Spike Lee, Tim Robbins, Maggie Gyllenhaal and many others.

Dionne Warwick will reportedly host the American Music Inaugural Ball. Lou Gossett Jr. will host the Purple Ball, where Ashley Judd and Patricia Arquette are among the expected guests. And the Human Rights Campaign Foundation will also throw a party with Cyndi Lauper, Melissa Etheridge and others.

“The unofficial balls are probably going to be better than the official ones,” said Roberts. “In this economic environment, it is highly unlikely that there will a lot of dedicated activities for high rollers, as there have been in years past.”

Obama has been measured in terms of his embrace of Hollywood and celebrities. That’s in part because during the election Obama, himself, was compared to Paris Hilton and Britney Spears by his Republican challenger, Sen. John McCain.

Obama argued with the “celebrity” tag and seldom appeared in public with stars. But on Sept. 16, he raised $9 million for his campaign with a single party in Beverly Hills hosted by Barbra Streisand and attended by Leonardo DiCaprio and many others.

It’s unclear whether the Hollywood stigma, or the recession, will put a damper on the evening. Jim Bendat, author of “Democracy’s Big Day: The Inauguration of Our President 1978-2009,” thinks not.

“Based upon past history, my guess is it will not be terribly toned down,” said Bendat. “When the Vietnam War was going on, Nixon had his number of inaugural balls, and of course George W. Bush did the same thing. Generally, the feeling is that for one night, it’s OK to have a big party.”

Beyoncé Knowles earlier announced her eagerness to participate: “I’m there. I can’t wait. I feel like all of us, we’re ready to do whatever we have to do. If they need me to volunteer, they need me to sing, I’m there and I’m ready.”

Angelou, who read her famous “On the Pulse of the Morning” for Bill Clinton, has said she’s writing a poem about Obama’s election. She doesn’t expect to be invited to read it, though, after supporting Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in the primaries.

Bill Clinton’s inaugurations in 1993 and 1997 were glitzy affairs preceded by two days of free concerts on the Mall. Then-hip acts like Hootie and the Blowfish and Sheryl Crow performed. In 1997, the Presidential Gala was held at the USAir Arena, with performances from Stevie Wonder, Kenny Rogers, Yo-Yo Ma and the Broadway casts of “Chicago” and “Bring in ’da Noise, Bring in ’da Funk.”

George W. Bush’s 2001 Inauguration was cast as a return to respectability to the White House. Performers were more traditional, such as the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra and the Guy Lombardo Orchestra. Many country stars played, including Clint Black, Lyle Lovett and Nell Carter.

One of the more contemporary acts at Bush’s inauguration — Ricky Martin — later came to regret it. Years after dancing with Bush in front of the Lincoln Memorial, Martin stuck out his middle finger while singing the president’s name in a concert.

Obama has shown a particular talent for pageantry, most notably when he accepted the Democratic nomination for president in August before 84,000 people at Mile High Stadium in Denver. And, perhaps like the inauguration will be, it wasn’t the celebrities that people remembered.

“The party is just that: the party,” said Bendat. “Some people are fascinated with what celebrities show up and it’s interesting who does show up. But for the majority of people watching around the world, what’s more important is what the president has to say.”

(Associated Press)