Tales from an RNC veteran
From the outside looking in you can never understand it. From the inside looking out you can never explain it.
SUN CITY CENTER — The Republican National Convention will take place in Tampa and surrounding communities next week. After months of news coverage in anticipation of the event, replete with warnings about traffic, closed freeways and a tight security zone downtown, most people are probably ready for it to be over. Until cardiac surgery intervened, Nick Christy of Sun City Center had thoughts of entering the maelstrom of the convention, not as a delegate, he doesn’t wear his political affiliation on his sleeve, but rather as a supplier. Christy is an RNC veteran — he literally fed the 1980 RNC in Detroit. It was a very big deal. An oft-used quote by an unknown author is, “From the outside looking in you can never understand it. From the inside looking out you can never explain it.” Despite thousands of words written and spoken from Tampa Bay area news outlets, perhaps only a few really do understand what the convention is like. Christy is one of them.
For all of the hype and build-up for the national conventions, the nominees for both parties are a foregone conclusion. Everyone already knows who the presidential and vice-presidential candidates will be. At the 1980 RNC in Detroit, that was not the case. Ronald Reagan was the presumed Republican candidate, but the vice-presidential candidate was technically unknown. Former President Gerald Ford was in the running for that position, described by some as a possible “co-presidency”, and his inclusion included bringing back Henry Kissinger as Secretary of State. A deal, however, was not made and George H.W. Bush became the vice-presidential candidate during the convention, creating a ticket that took the White House in a landslide.
Nick and Pat Christy, now a warm and youthful-looking couple living in Sun City Center, were there for it all. They catered the entire event, feeding the candidates and their wives, the delegates and the volunteers. Nothing was spared, no request was too trivial or bizarre to ignore. Christy’s daughter squeezed fresh oranges each morning for Nancy Reagan’s orange juice. Pat’s mother catered to Elizabeth Taylor during the convention. Nick met and fed Frank Sinatra.
“Large crowds never really scared me,” Christy said. He took the task of providing service to 15,000 people in stride. He also catered Gran Prix events in Detroit and St. Petersburg. He knows how to feed both the Regals and the Everyday Joes. Except upon specific instructions from his clients (Regals got the really good scotch and the Joe’s got beer), Christy doesn’t differentiate between them. He wants to give everyone great service. It was important to him back then, and it still is today.
Arriving for an interview at the Christy home one recent morning, the table was set with rolls and sliced fruit. Nick made me a fresh cup of coffee, not a pot but a cup made to order. “You can’t come to my home and not have something,” he said.
He enjoys serving people. He and Pat do it very well. Certainly, Sinatra was happy, which says a lot. Nick found him to be a good and charming man who cared about his employees and friends.
The Greeks’ fierce pride in their heritage has kept the basic culture intact. Whether a slave under Roman rule, a captive under Turkish domination, or a newly arrived immigrant, the Greek is always aware that he is the direct descendant of men like Plato, Homer, Aristotle, Demosthenes, Aristophanes.
Author Theresa Yianilos wrote those words in The Complete Greek Cookbook. She should have added the words of Greek philosopher Epiceteus who said, “Bear in mind that you should conduct yourself in life as at a feast.” Nick Christy is descended from those men and he has certainly conducted a lot of feasts in his life.
Security was not taken for granted, even in the pre-9/11 days of the Detroit RNC. All of the food brought into the arena and into Nick’s kitchen was x-rayed. Secret Service agents were omnipresent throughout the arena and inside of the kitchen. Nick and all of his many employees had extensive background checks (which one employee did not pass for reasons previously unbeknownst to Nick). They were issued ID tags that dictated where they could go within the arena. Nick, of course, had full access — he was feeding the leaders and the stars. The arena was locked down a week before the convention began and construction on the still unfinished building was stopped. The Secret Service sealed off any room that was not completed.
In all, he served 30 suites with VIPs, an executive lounge with a capacity of 400 people, a conference room with a capacity of 800 people and 40 other rooms that had to be served continually. He fed everyone from the top of the ladder to the bottom.
“The food service companies gave me refrigerated semi-trucks and we filled them with everything,” he said. “I had 300 culinary students helping us and chefs on hand for food that could never run out. When the heavyweights came in, we went from roast beef to Beef Wellington. I couldn’t tell you how many thousands of pounds of shrimp we went through. Each person had their own personal requirements.”
Like today, television played a huge role in the convention in Detroit. Nick fed the anchors as well, including news legend Walter Cronkite, Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings and Barbara Walters (“She was very fussy about her diet.” Nick met her requirements). Nick assigned trusted staff to head up each room and venue. He also fed the local television and print media reporters.
“The television network booths were works of art,” he said. They basically built 1,200 square foot homes inside the arena.”
Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush were the stars of the convention, but there were many other stars in the arena including Donny and Marie Osmond, Dorothy Hamill, Wayne Newton, Tanya Tucker, Pat Boone, Tony Orlando, Glenn Campbell, Chad Everett, Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., and, of course, Old Blue Eyes. Nick fed them all and fed thousands of delegates and volunteers, and all the while maintained hospitality tables throughout the arena with banners, brochures, pins, and food and beverages for everyone the entire time the convention was in progress.
Next week in Tampa, three food service vendors will be doing the job that Nick once did in Detroit. He has a pretty good idea of what they are thinking — and worrying about — right now. He was once on the inside looking out.
Nick and Pat Christy survived the 1980 Republican National Convention, of course, just as everyone in Tampa will survive it. A week that will no doubt be filled with traffic headaches and long lines in restaurants as delegates, volunteers and media fill hotels across the Tampa Bay area, including Little Harbor Resort in Ruskin, will eventually end just as it ended for the Christy’s.
After the 1980 convention, the Christy’s catering business, Detroit Olympia Catering, thrived and they went on to serve more large crowds and prominent events. They were successful to the degree that they were able to retire at a relatively young age. Nick and Pat left the big city of Detroit and moved to a small, rural town in Michigan. Shortly after settling in, Nick bought a banquet hall.