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‘Daisy,’ opening at Stage Left, looks into little political ad that made big waves

Cast members in a scene from Stage Left Theater’s “Daisy.” (Collin Muncey)
Cast members in a scene from Stage Left Theater’s “Daisy.” (Collin Muncey)

The ad opens on a young girl, about 3 years old, standing in a field of daisies.

One by one, the girl begins to pluck each petal off the daisy in her hand, counting out loud as she goes.

“One, two, three, four, five, seven, six, six, eight, nine, nine.”

We then hear a male voice beginning a countdown from 10 as the camera zooms in on the young girl’s eye.

As the man reaches zero, we hear and see the blast from a nuclear explosion

President Lyndon B. Johnson begins to speak.

“These are the stakes. To make a world in which all of God’s children can live or to go into the dark. We must either love each other or we must die.”

The ad ends with a call to action from sportscaster Chris Schenkel, as the same words appear on screen.

“Vote for President Johnson on November 3rd. The stakes are too high for you to stay home.”

This commercial, referred to as “Daisy,” aired only once before being pulled by the campaign, but it aired in its entirety on the nightly news and during talk shows.

Though his name is not mentioned, “Daisy” was believed by many to be an attack ad against Johnson’s opponent Barry Goldwater.

“It’s very much a subliminal image-type ad that was meant to pull out what was already there,” director Chris Hansen said. “In the very first forms, it’s not meant to directly attack anyone and yet it was taken as such.”

The 1964 ad was the work of the Doyle Dane Bernbach ad agency and sound designer and media consultant Tony Schwartz.

“Daisy,” the play, gives a behind the scenes look at the making of the unnerving commercial, which changed the landscape of the political ad and led to the attack ad-heavy campaigns of today.

“Daisy,” written by Sean Devine, opens Friday at Stage Left Theater and runs through Dec. 2.

Before the “Daisy” ad, Hansen said, political ads were rudimentary.

One shown during the play, for example, shows President Dwight D. Eisenhower simply reading off cue cards.

And though “Daisy” only aired once before being pulled, the contrasting image of a young child and a nuclear explosion made a big impact, with people writing in letters for and against the ad.

“(President Johnson) reacted in front of his friends, saying ‘This isn’t what I wanted’ and things like that,” Hansen said. “Then there was also the feeling of ‘Well, it did do what we wanted.’ It was interesting.”

The play stars Eli Drushella (Schwartz), Samuel Peters (Sid Myers), Caryn Hougland (Louise Brown), Edward Casto (Clifford Lewis), Ron Ford (Bill Bernbach) and Jeffrey Ridlington (Aaron Ehrlich).

Hansen believes you could also count the play’s many audio and video clips as a character.

“We’re utilizing projection and so the audience will be required to have a little bit of a suspension of disbelief because, of course, utilizing today’s technology for the projection and them trying to think back to other things,” he said. “There is an actual reel to reel onstage that will work, that Tony Schwartz used and recorded on.”

Working on this show while the midterm election ads were in full swing changed the way Hansen looked at campaign ads.

Raised to weigh each option and pick the best person for the position, not necessarily choosing based on party, he realized now it’s harder for that to be an option.

“ ‘If you just vote for this, then that means you’re against that,’ ” Hansen said. “It seems to push people around. This show, to me, brings back that discourse and re-educates people to say ‘Look, we can talk with anyone, and it’s not hard’.”

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