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Birthday bash for Golden Gate gets Bay Bridge boost

Move over, Lady Liberty! Another national birthday bash is in the making, this time for that crown jewel of the Pacific Coast - the Golden Gate Bridge. If West Coast planners have their way, the bridge's 50th-anniversary celebration next May will compare with this year's extravaganza for the Statue of Liberty. Plans call for celebrity entertainment, a reenactment of opening day for the bridge, visiting dignitaries, the lighting of the bridge's two 746-foot towers, and a fireworks spectacular to rival the one for Lady Liberty - all to be broadcast on national television.

Why all that for a bridge? To Terry Sellards, who is spearheading planning for the $6 million birthday party, the bridge - which spans the Golden Gate, the strait between San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean - ``is more than just a bridge.'' It is a national symbol, a gateway to America, a West Coast version of the Statue of Liberty.

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Hundreds of thousands of Asian immigrants sailed under the Golden Gate to their adopted homeland, he says, and ``it was a major symbol of homecoming to veterans, many of whom vividly remember what it felt like to sail under that bridge after World War II.''

The celebration will also be a tribute to the visionaries of the depression years who defied skeptics who said, according to Sellards, that ``it would fall in the bay if they went ahead and tried to build it.''

Raising the funds for the festivities may prove to be as daunting a feat as building the bridge.

Initial reports that the birthday bash would cost $22 million provoked critics to denounce the entire effort as a ludicrous waste of money - and led potential corporate sponsors to remain aloof in the face of all the negative publicity.

But an unexpected hero has come to the rescue of the Golden Gate - none other than the region's ``other'' bridge, the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.

The Bay Bridge celebrated its 50th birthday last week amid an outpouring of public support for the old workhorse. The Bay Bridge's celebration was carried off for a relatively paltry $70,000 (not counting a $120,000 donation for a fireworks display).

``It was a low-cost, modest party, in keeping with the Bay Bridge's image as the dowager of bridges on the Bay,'' says Robert Halligan, vice-chairman of the Bay Bridge birthday committee.

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But the ``dowager,'' temporarily bedecked in a string of lights to dress her up for the festivities, has captured the imagination of the local public. Suddenly, the local media started up a campaign to make the bridge's necklace of light a permanent fixture on the skyline.

The ``Light Up the Bridge'' campaign has grossed $31,600 so far, and two-thirds of the letters that came pouring in haven't even been opened yet, Mr. Halligan says. He is predicting the necklace will stay.

For the Friends of the Golden Gate Bridge, ``the Bay Bridge is the best thing to happen to us,'' Sellards says: ``It set the mood.''

Although the group has raised only $250,000 of the $4 million it says it needs to pull off a national celebration, Sellards says corporations are knocking on his door offering to pitch in. ($1 million worth of equipment and services also is being donated.)

Finished within six months of each other, the two bridges have very different ``personalities.'' The single graceful span of the Golden Gate arches north, carrying some 135,000 vehicles a day. The double-decked Bay Bridge carries almost twice that number, linking San Francisco to the vast East Bay area.

The Golden Gate Bridge is a national symbol, familiar to 99 percent of the American public, according to a survey for the birthday committee. Sellards has ``no doubt'' the May 24 party will come off as planned.

``The magic of the bridge can do it,'' he says.

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