What Went Down at the Chrysler Christmas Party - Autoline with John McElroy

I've always loved live theater. The more dramatic the better. And last week I was treated to one of the most enthralling performances I've ever seen. It was officially called The 2007 Chrysler Holiday Media Party.
First, the backdrop to the plot. Just days before the performance was to take place the director, Chrysler PR honcho Jason Vines, quit the company. He stomped off in protest over artistic differences he had with the new producer, Chrysler CEO Bob Nardelli.

Now you have to realize that the audience at this annual event was mainly made up of people from the automotive media, people who have known Jason for years. And while some of them may have had a run-in with Jason at one point or another, he was respected by most. Bright, blunt and always entertaining, Jason brought an intensity to the business seldom seen by others in his field. And we especially looked forward to the raucous comedy skits he'd perform at these gatherings. So his abrupt departure cast a pall on the whole evening.

But the show must go on, and so it did. Yet, it was quite a different performance than if Jason had been directing.
The event was held at the Detroit Science Center, a modern educational facility painted in bright cheerful colors but built to industrial standards with exposed steel girders and ductwork, and polished concrete floors. As a "holiday party" venue it offered all the emotional comfort of a hospital waiting room.

The audience was packed into an atrium comprised of wide carpeted steps set in a big U-shape that almost encircled the podium, creating a theater-in-the-round in the best Shakespearean tradition. As the performance was about to begin, someone dimmed the holiday muzak that had been playing in the background. But they neglected to turn off one of the science displays that was thumping out what sounded like a slow heartbeat. And so that "thump, thump, thump" served as the soundtrack and heightened the sense of drama.

Act One, Scene One opened with the ragged remains of Jason's staff lining up on stage left like the chorus in a Greek tragedy. They were flanked by the new bosses to whom they now report, the Human Resources staff. Shoulder to shoulder, in two rows, they were arrayed in military-like precision, as if someone had drawn a chalk line on the floor. As one who always looks for symbolism in literature, I instantly caught on. They were there to "toe the line."

And there was so much to read into their body language! In the middle of the first line stood Nancy Rae, the senior VP of Human Resources, who now has PR reporting to her. Standing immediately on her right hand side, so close they were touching, was Lori McTavish, a PR veteran, former head of Pubic Relations for K-Mart, and who Michael Moore made into something of a hero in his movie "Bowling For Columbine." Off to the left, one step away, was the affable Dave Barnas, now ostensibly in charge of PR. I say ostensibly because the body language between the two women clearly conveyed the way this hierarchy is headed.

All of a sudden, the persona dramatis himself, Bob Nardelli, strode purposefully to the podium. He welcomed us all, covered some of the company's highlights, swerved off into a sermon about our brave troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, swung back to tell us about the company's philanthropic activities, then talked about how fortunate we all are to live in America. Very emotional issues, but all delivered with absolutely zero emotion. That's not easy to do.

At this point you could sense an unwritten dialog going on in the minds of everyone watching. How fortunate indeed, we mused, to live in a country where one corporate executive can make more money than the other 200 of us in the room put together. And how especially fortunate compared to those 10,000 employees he just axed. I must say I've always enjoyed a drama that uses a touch of irony to make its point.

Nardelli also spoke about Jason, a perfunctory talk that cited his service but carefully avoided praising him, and explained that he left because, "We just don't share the same sense of humor." Brilliant, I thought! Using humor to explain why you don't have a sense of humor. I laughed out loud, but it was an awkward moment. I was the only one who laughed and the people sitting around me turned to look. Oh well, I guess they don't go to the theater much.

Nardelli's speech was over and now it was the sensei-like Vice Chairman Jim Press's turn at the podium. Speaking from the heart, he warmly delivered what seemed like an extemporaneous talk, carefully praised the company's dealers, then seamlessly handed it over to president Tom LaSorda who bounded up to the mike.

"Big news, everybody," LaSorda boomed, "we just got sold again." (Pause). "Whoops, wrong speech," he deadpanned. Big laugh and applause from the audience. Finally, I thought, now we're getting somewhere.

But no such luck. He then carefully read the printed lines in his prepared text and turned the podium back to Nardelli. "Ha-ha Tom," the big boss said, "I see you didn't stick to the script, even after all those rehearsals we did this afternoon." You could hear a pin drop.

The next actor up was a spokesman for the March of Dimes. A fireball of energy, he delivered a soliloquy about how great America is and was about to hit his crescendo when all of a sudden one of the people in the audience fainted dead away and hit the floor with a clunk. "Is there a doctor in the house?" someone shouted. People rushed about. Everyone else was craning their necks trying to see what was going on. "Who is it?" people asked.

The Chrysler people were dumbstruck. They stood helpless at their assigned positions watching the surreal scene swirl around them. No one was prepared for this. All but Jim Press that is. He went over to see if he could help the guy who fainted. My hero!

The poor March of Dimes guy was speechless. He didn't know what to do. He turned this way, then that. He leaned forward, then back. But, like I said, the show must go on. So he punched the palm of his hand and started up his speech again. Right where he left off. And at the same level of intensity. What a pro, I thought!

There were some other quick speeches, and a photo-op with a giant poster-board check for charity, but clearly we had hit the denouement. The guy who fainted had revived and was regaining his senses. This drama was over.

A good time to beat the rush to the parking lot, I thought, and headed for my car. It was a wintry night outside, but it was that kind of cold which instantly clears your head. And very different from the kind of cold that I witnessed inside.


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