Fielding the setup for papal event

The Baltimore Sun

Even though he's planned events for presidential inaugurations and managed rock tours for the likes of the B-52s, and even though his company is known for staging hooplas like official election night parties and museum anniversaries, there are still some things beyond Ajay Patil's considerable multitasking, detail-wrangling skills.

"Our single biggest concern was the weather. That's been taken care of," said Patil, event planner to the stars and now to a pope, as the sun shone on his efforts. "By a higher power."

Showcall, a Halethorpe-based company founded by Patil and Blayne Candy, was behind the logistics, lighting, audio-visuals, entertainment and the myriad other moving parts involved in transforming the new Washington Nationals ballpark into a temporary cathedral for Pope Benedict XVI to celebrate Mass before a crowd of 47,000 people yesterday.

It was quite a leap for the University of Maryland grad who got his start in the business by booking musical acts for a club in College Park. "This takes it to a whole new dimension," said Patil, 40.

Overseeing yesterday's event was like putting on your basic stadium rock concert -- but under the watchful eyes of the Secret Service (responsible for 30 "protectees" in attendance), the Washington Diocese and Vatican officialdom (concerned that the Mass retain its sanctity despite the stadium setting) and, perhaps most vigilantly, the Nats' groundskeeping crew (worried that the temporary flooring, stages and wiring would damage the turf of their just-opened ballpark).

"It's, pardon the wording, their hallowed ground," Patil said with a grimace as he walked, lightly it seemed, over the plastic flooring ventilated with holes so that the outfield grass could breathe. "You can't just come in and kill their field."

Patil has spent just about all his waking hours at the ballpark since 6 a.m. Monday, when his company began preparing the field to accommodate the Mass. The staff of about 500 hired for the event had to wait until the Nationals left on a road trip after Sunday's game before it could begin hauling in 32 tractor-trailers filled with equipment, laying miles of cable and wiring, erecting the canopy under which the pope said the Mass, testing entertainment segments on the scoreboard screen and accommodating the hundreds of media representatives with credentials to cover the event.

Perhaps it's true: God really is in the details.

Showcall, which Patil and Candy started after working for other events companies, was hired in November. It wasn't much time for planning such a large event, particularly one in a brand-new stadium that had not previously hosted anything but baseball games, Patil said. But then, part of his company's reputation is its ability to get the job done quickly, he said.

Patil recalls having less than three weeks to plan events for Bush's first inauguration.

"Because of the Florida recount, there really wasn't the usual amount of time," he said. "Usually, a lot of companies will bid on something like that, but there wasn't time. I remember [Bush's representatives] came in and they didn't even sit down. They said, 'We know you, you're doing it.' We did 19 different events, and we had 18 days to do it."

Patil's work with rock bands led him into the special-events field. A Republican, he planned events for the 1996 Dole-Kemp campaign and went on to do advance work for President Bush and others. He keeps his hand in the entertainment business, though. Showcall has done the lighting for concerts at Pier Six and Merriweather Post, and for the annual Virgin Festival at Pimlico.

He had eased off the music tours as a way of getting off the road and spending more time with his family -- he and his wife have four children and live west of Frederick -- but his political and now papal work similarly keep him on a hectic pace. With the demands of planning the Mass, not to mention the middle-of-the-night needs of the youngest child, who is 10 months old, he hasn't had much sleep lately.

Patil spent Wednesday managing the last-minute details for the papal Mass. The 70-foot-high canopy had been erected in center field, the ivory-and-gold fabric billowing in the breeze as crew members, wearing rock tour-like T-shirts but with a Pope Benedict logo, arranged chairs on the stage. They labored to the soaring, live sounds of opera great Placido Domingo rehearsing "Panis Angelicus."

"There are a lot of the same elements as for stadium concerts -- everyone has to hear, and hear well, everyone has to see," Patil said. "But concerts don't have as much security. And with a concert, even if it's the Rolling Stones and they come in with 20 semi-trucks, they've done the show before, everything is in place. This is designed for one time and one time only. And there's no practice run."

Patil is armed to the hilt -- holsters for a cell phone, Blackberry and walkie-talkie compete for belt space, and another communication device dangles from a lanyard around his neck, all of them alternately beeping, vibrating, squawking or otherwise competing for his attention. Other staff members approach with more questions: Does he have a seating chart? Will the pope stand or sit for his "speaking roles" during the Mass?

"You have this jigsaw puzzle; you have to fit everything in," Patil said. "It's like playing a complex game of Tetris."

Whether it's his natural discretion or a necessary trait for someone whose work involves managing details for rock stars, politicians and corporate tycoons, Patil doesn't complain about his clients' demands or whims, particularly this one. A churchgoing Catholic himself, Patil said he is thrilled, beyond professional reasons, to have worked on this event.

"I have to pinch myself," Patil said, "and take a moment to realize I'm at a Mass with the pope."

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad