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Bridge to the future is theme of inaugural festivities along Mall Bitter weather fails to deter thousands from tent displays

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON -- The man getting screamed at by an animated bug doesn't seem to notice that Al Gore has just walked into the tent. Neither does the kid flailing in front of a virtual reality soccer goal, nor the boy staring at a computer picture of the White House.

At the Technology Playground tent on the mall yesterday, not everyone crowded around the vice president during his brief visit. It's not that they don't like him. It's just that he doesn't do anything if you point and click at him.

The future was the theme of the day in this tent and six others in the first major celebration of the inaugural weekend. Thousands of people from around the country battled the bitter cold and joined in the free festivities, which culminated in fireworks displays around the city.

"We're talking about the bridge to the 21st century -- well, the bridge is built," said Jay Cadmus, a spokesman for IBM who was in the technology tent displaying computer programs. "All you have to do is decide whether you want to cross."

The activities on the Mall, which continue from 10: 30 a.m. to 4: 30 p.m. today, are meant to be more educational than those at the 1993 Clinton inaugural, which offered mostly music and food.

This event features many programs for children (Elmo was booked for two gigs), hands-on exhibits on American history and talks by famous thinkers and other celebrities.

The program aims to cover all the bases.

Today, actress Whoopi Goldberg will appear in the American Journey tent, while Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel lectures at the U.S. Holocaust Museum across the Mall. They are among dozens of speakers and performers on tap today.

Yesterday, though, it didn't seem to matter who was talking. Folks were dodging into any lecture just to get warm.

As the U.S. Army Brass Quintet played an operatic death aria, Sheila Ali and Gary Penta huddled by a yellow exhaust tube as it blew slightly less freezing, but not actually warm, air into the American Journey tent.

"Every five minutes, you've got to duck in somewhere," said a shivering Penta, an Air Force officer from Georgia. "But there was no way we were going to miss this. It's a once-in-a-lifetime thing."

The word on the Mall: You can see your breath in the Millennium Schoolhouse. The American Kitchen is better, because of all the cooking, but the Technology Playground is by far the warmest.

Still, to get inside the Technology Playground was an effort. Folks battled the cold for at least 15 minutes outside this tent -- the only one with a line.

Inside were large-screen televisions and virtual reality games. The tent, which features displays by everyone from IBM to Yahoo!, had the look and feel of a high-tech trade show.

The biggest difference here was that vendors weren't allowed to officially sell anything. Officially. Of course, though, they couldn't resist a quick pitch.

"DVD technology. The quality is three times as good as VHS," said Craig Eggers, who sells the video disc digital screen technology for Toshiba.

"It never wears out. You can listen to a movie in nine different languages. You can have 32 subtitles in one disc -- imagine the learning capabilities! You can get nine different camera angles."

Whoa! Slow down, Craig. Leave some room for someone else -- such as IBM, which hired an 11-year-old to gush about software in a fake living room.

"Grandma says our family is bridging the 21st century at home and at school," said Taryn Davis as she stood in pink overalls, speaking into a microphone under an IBM sign. "Oh, and don't forget to visit all the stuff I told you about in the IBM booths!"

Since the next generation was a big focus, the Clinton inaugural team assembled lots of children to perform. Ashley Ballard, a 10-year-old from Los Angeles, sang at the Millennium Schoolhouse, a tent designed expressly for kids' entertainment.

"She's only 10, but she sounds like she's 30," said her uncle and manager, Louis Valentino, who sat front row center as Ashley performed in a spangled vest and hat. "She is a Celine Dion, Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey all in one -- plus she has her own style."

A member of Ashley's management team, Karen Kahlil, said Ashley wants to cut a record. "And she wants to change the world," she added.

Other children just wanted to see Elmo, or maybe Barney. Tina Sandelin and her husband, Martin, were hoping to cram their children into those shows.

"There is so much to see -- plus, this is the first time the kids have ever been to D.C.," said their mother. The Sandelins, a family from Finland who now live in Dallas, kept updating their friends in Helsinki from the Mall with their red-white-and-blue cell phone.

"We're so excited," said Martin Sandelin. "We just want everyone from home to know we're here."

Plenty more enthusiastic Clinton supporters -- and even some grudging Dole tag-alongs -- crowded the souvenir tent. On sale, for $2 each, were several varieties of Clinton, Gore, Hillary and Tipper pins.

From a vendor not sanctioned by the Inaugural Committee: Pins reading "Inhale to the Chief" over a hippie Clinton and a "Hillary Rodman Clinton" button showing the first lady with green hair, like basketball star Dennis Rodman.

While the brisk weather prompted big sales of the $45 inaugural wool blanket and the array of Clinton-Gore sweat shirts, some items still weren't moving too well. Clinton's book, "Between Hope and History," was sitting shrink-wrapped in large piles by the register.

"That one's only selling so-so," said Amy Smith, a souvenir seller.

Oh well, Mr. President. Perhaps it will do better in the 21st century.

Pub Date: 1/19/97

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