A look back at Peter Minshall’s Olympic magic

Peter Minshall

The 1996 Olympic Games marked the 100th anniversary of the first modern Olympic Games. It was held in Atlanta, Georgia, US.

Olympic opening ceremonies are generally a big deal. But what made that year even more special was that masman Peter Minshall was one of the main designers.

He was also an integral part of the ceremonies for the 1992 Games in Barcelona, Spain and the Winter Games at Salt Lake City, Utah in 2002, winning an Emmy award for the latter.

But at Atlanta, Minshall, along with members of his Callaloo Company, showed the world what TT Carnival and mas look like on an even larger scale. The ceremony had around 3.5 billion viewers globally and there were approximately 85,000 people in the stadium.

There was the countdown, fireworks, a roaring crowd, silence – and the magic of the mas began. Blue, white, gold, silver, black, red and green fabrics and costumes came to life at the Olympic stadium, along with rhythmic drumming.

Minshall was the costume designer for Call to Nations – where the Olympic rings are formed – and artistic director and costume designer for a later segment, Summertime: Storm and Rebirth.

The team worked with the likes of US filmmaker and choreographer Kenny Ortega – who directed Hocus Pocus and High School Musical – as well as choreographer Judy Chabola, among others.

Cecilia Salazar, who was production manager at the Callaloo Company in Chaguaramas, said that the project was “a mammoth and phenomenal undertaking.”

She hailed it as “one of the best openings ever,” saying, “every part of that field was alive.

“Thousands of costumes, alive with flowers and butterflies…and you just think, ‘Wow, it really takes an artist like Minshall to bring that piece of art alive.’ It’s almost unbelievable to think we did all of that.”

Around 6,000 of the costume elements were made in Trinidad, then shipped to Atlanta. In total, there were over 1,800 costumes.

Salazar said she was thankful that Minshall and associate artistic director Todd Gulick convinced the organisers to let some of the costumes be created on home soil.

“The Americans were saying, ‘Let’s just make it up here,’ and Todd and Minsh were like, ‘No, no, you all don’t understand…These people in TT know what they’re doing.’ They had to fight for it.

“Sometimes Minshall would just send something he came up with on a Post-It note, and send that by fax and Kathryn Chan (assistant designer) is like, ‘All right, let’s go.’”

Anika Duke, who was a production assistant, remembered, “There was no time where work was not happening at Callaloo Company. It literally was a space and time where the work never stopped. It could be 1 am, 5 am – those doors never closed.”

Many of the team had worked with Minshall before, so were familiar with his style and attention to detail. But “This was like Carnival times ten,” Duke said.

“It’s a really great thing to look back and realise how many of those things were created in Trinidad. It wasn’t just one container – it was containers every two weeks or every three weeks we were pushing things into…and shipping to Atlanta.”

Salazar recalled, “Those containers would come like 6 am and all 3 pm, 4 pm, (costumes) still not finished, and around 4.30 pm one time, they were just like, ‘Let’s go! Push! Push!’

Late puppet technician Murphy Rudolph Winters lived at School Street, Carenage, not far away from the building. His car was parked in the yard there and he had not moved it in so long that weeds began growing inside.

Wendell Manwarren of 3canal, actor, director and, at also, the time, assistant choreographer, said months of pre-planning and hard work went into that ceremony.

They didn’t have as many sleepless nights in Atlanta as home, but: “As soon as those containers reached, those last couple weeks was nonstop jamming.

“We knew how to make a little mas camp, cook some food and get the people going. And before you know it, we’ve completed 100 butterfly wings.”

“All the Olympic experiences were very intense and stretched out over a long period of time, and you felt like you were part of something big and had a good spirit to it…There was a lot of collaboration among many people from many different parts of the world. It was a privilege, really.”