With 21 Bakersfield Business Conferences of stories to tell about world leaders, A-list entertainers and sports legends, George Martin is the dream dinner companion. There was the time Jesse Ventura, Martin’s pick for all-time worst guest, nearly poked Nancy Reagan in the eye with a cigar. Or the on-stage water fight that broke out between Jay Leno and the dapper but apparently-game-for-anything Peter Jennings. Or the year that Martin tricked Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin — not particularly a chummy trio, he said — into appearing together and reminiscing about the first moon landing.
Come Saturday at the tent city his crew is building at Cal State Bakersfield, Martin hopes to add more anecdotes to what, if he ever decides to write it, would be a fascinating look at the backstage back-slapping, and occasional backbiting, of the Bakersfield Business Conference, which started inauspiciously enough in 1985 with satirist and eternal presidential candidate Pat Paulsen as the big name but has grown light years in prestige to attract the world’s greatest talents, thinkers and egos. An astonishing claim to fame for Bakersfield, yes, but why qualify it? It’s an astonishing claim to fame for any city.
“There are lots of people who contact us about being involved,” Martin said Monday. “They offer to do it for nothing.”
But Martin, an attorney when he’s not channeling PT Barnum, acknowledged the 30-plus speakers at the 2016 Bakersfield Business Conference do not have the marquee names of the past. There are no Obamas or Bushes among the speakers, just distant also-rans in the presidential demolition derby. Vicente Fox was going to come, and presumably talk about the wall a certain presidential candidate wants his country to pay for, but then a family obligation forced him to cancel. And there will be no astronauts, Apollo or otherwise, though depending on your politics, some of the cable news regulars may appear a little spacey in their soothsaying.
Being an election year, and one for the books at that, the elephant in the room won’t just be the 9-foot styrofoam pachyderm Martin commissioned to welcome guests (along with the slightly smaller donkey — this is conservative Bakersfield). Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, though they will not be there themselves, should be the hot topic.
“It does seem overly political this year. We didn’t go for history. We went for current speakers. We knew we’d have a smaller footprint this year because it’s an election year,” Martin acknowledged, and with an overwhelming ratio of conservatives-to-liberals, awfully right-leaning.
“That’s by design. The audience is much more conservative,” noted Martin, a conservative himself, who said he chooses speakers based on their ability to provoke, inspire or amuse, irrespective of their leanings. In fact, he brings back liberal firebrand James Carville conference after conference because Martin finds him so entertaining (this year, Carville will match wits with conservative provocateur Ann Coulter).
“We try to offer balance by having a second tent so you can go listen to someone of the persuasion you want.”
And while the cachet of the speakers relative to years past can be debated, Martin has sold out another conference (though because of the new dorms, there were far fewer tickets available this year — just 6,000 compared to the 10,000 at the last conference, in 2010).
But the smaller crowd — 6,000 people is still 6,000 people — was cold comfort to Linda Hartman, Martin’s capable general on the ground for every conference. Wearing a T-shirt that said “I Got This,” Hartman exuded cool command at CSUB on Monday, running her crew on the soccer fields at the northeast end of the campus.
Before she could make a getaway in her golf cart, a Pensinger rep stopped her outside her temporary headquarters to sign about a half dozen forms — apparently even the trailers need trailers. Eventually she made a break for it, zooming off to check on generators, tents and subcontractors, all the time worrying her eternal worry: Will the grass be green enough for Martin, “the lawn Nazi,” his crew affectionately calls him.
“George hates to see the grass not looking great, but there used to be nothing but dust and those winds would come up,” she said, remembering the first business conferences at CSUB.
There is grass now — acres of it — but that’s pretty much where the amenities end. The power is distributed through “miles of cable” from seven generators “to where it needs to go,” said Los Angeles-based power contractor Zev Hertzberg, bending Hartman’s ear about the rising number of trailers that need juice.
Also troubleshooting Monday was Tom Bollard of MSI Production Services out of San Diego. Bollard is a Garces grad who has helped Martin with electrical needs, lighting, sound and video for 12 conferences. He acts as Martin’s shadow backstage and has never once seen the boss lose it, even when speakers go rogue and ignore the red light that tells them their time on stage has expired.
“We’ve never had a calamity, ever,” Bollard said, though he recalled that rascal Ventura once told him what he could do with his red light.
“Sometimes you just have a minute where you look around and you’re backstage with George Bush Senior and General Schwarzkopf and Colin Powell just standing there,” Bollard marveled. “I told Goldie Hawn, ‘I put a tie on just for you,’ and she kissed me on the lips.”
Bollard and Hartman described a brutally efficient system of stopwatches, headsets, green, yellow and red lights, employed for the purpose of keeping the conference on schedule, an urgency that extends even to the caterer — this year it’s Mossman’s — who must get 6,000 people through a lunch line in under 29 minutes.
A tech crew of about 30 run the “big tent,” “big” being an inadequate descriptor: The massive enclosure is 860 feet by 164 feet and can sit all 6,000 attendees, if they’re not distracted by the conference’s other attractions, like the 800-seat political tent, the sports tent, the book tent, the music tent, the ice cream and popcorn, the carousel — there’s even a picket-fence-encircled fountain flanked by benches and potted plants, a patch of peace should the speechifying overwhelm guests.
The budget for this city on the soccer field — plus the speaker fees — is $2.5 million, Martin said. Sponsors help, as do ticket sales; the cheap tickets were nearly $300.
But every conference loses money, the organizer said, and as he’s done with all of them, Martin will reach into his pocket to make up the difference. He considers it his way of giving back to Bakersfield.
“We choose to put on a first-class event and we do,” said Martin, 72. “We could cut down on the amount of speakers, venues, all that and that would save money. But we want this event to have people’s heads spinning by the end of the day, and that costs money.”