I went to the Century Plaza Hotel Tuesday evening looking for reaction from showbiz types to this historic presidential election. I didn't find much of that there, but what I did encounter makes for a better story and an experience that I'll never forget.
The reaction from non-pros who were heavily invested in seeing Democrat Barack Obama win this election was beyond intense, and well beyond any kind of collective sense of feeling that I've experienced in a crowd setting. The 10,000-plus who packed into the Century Plaza's Los Angeles Ballroom were a microcosm of the coalition that sent him well over the top in the battle with Republican John McCain.
The revelers were a diverse group from all walks of life, race, ethnicity, gender, social strata and age range -- many of them donors to and volunteers for the Obama campaign. Union members wore shirts boasting of "700,000 Calls" made in battleground states in support of Barack Obama. The high percentage of younger folks (18-34 demo) in the crowd was immediately noticeable. Their engagement and excitement about the prospects for the post-Bush II years was eye-opening. The election returns will tell the tale in the next few weeks, but anecdotally it sure seems like the Obama campaign has finally stirred the sleeping giant of the young adult vote. One measure of the intensity of the campaign was the decibel level in the ballroom as the TV monitors around the room, tuned to CNN and MSNBC, flashed more and more states moving into the Obama win column.
When CNN declared Obama the winner in Virginia, I thought my ears were going to bleed from the volume of the screaming, which had my eardrums vibrating. Only a few minutes later, my head was throbbing as NBC News and CNN in short order called the election for Obama.
Although the emotional current ran throughout the crowd, there was a palpable feeling of shock mixed with pride and perhaps a sense of justice served at long last among many of the black partygoers. "Barack Obama elected president! Barack Obama elected president!" one young woman said over and over as she jumped up and down and hugged her companions. "I never thought I'd see this happen in my lifetime" was a sentiment shared by seemingly everyone in the room.
David Alan Grier had not a trace of comedian-snark in his voice as he tried to impress on the crowd the magnitude of Obama's win. "You have to understand -- When I was a young kid, I marched with my family with Martin Luther King. I never, ever thought I would live to see this day," Grier said.
Brad Garrett wasn't on stage -- he was hanging out in the back of the room with a date, soaking it all up as a civilian. "What a night to be white," he said. "Next to the birth of my kids this is the best thing that ever happened in my lifetime. I'm just glad I lived to see it. Barack Obama has what this country needs -- vision, a plan and the ability to inspire people in a way that I've never seen. I feel fortunate to be here tonight."
For sure, the ballroom levitated for a few minutes after Obama was declared the victor. Local pols like L.A. City Councilman Eric Garcetti, California Lieutenant Gov. John Garamendi and Sen. Barbara Boxer took turns trying to speak at the podium but they could barely be heard (Garcetti was able to briefly lead the room in a chant of "O-ba-ma" and "Yes, we did.")
About an hour later, when Obama took the stage at Grant Park in Chi for his victory speech, the room was much quieter. Some were overcome with tears, while others hugged and spooned standing up as Obama intoned: "America, we have come so far."
Later on, as the celebratory mood picked up (and the DJ spun uptempo Kool and the Gang and Stevie Wonder tunes that prompted sing-alongs), there was still such an overpowering sense of purpose in the air. People were saying "thank you" and "we did it" to strangers as they elbowed their way around the packed room. A few of those tributes came my way, which made me feel 10 feet tall.
On the way out, as my Variety colleague Patrick Frater and I made one more spin around the ballroom as it began to thin out, I grabbed a balloon off of the confetti-strewn floor, as a memento for my daughter who was so eager to come to the polling place with her father and me this morning. The balloon won't last, of course, but the feeling will.