Mingle with celebrities by volunteering at awards shows
By Toni Rabani
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to attend a Hollywood awards show...to float among the jeweled, designer-gowned stars, talking and laughing while surrounded by adoring fans, flash bulbs popping? The experience of mingling with Hollywood royalty is exhilarating, and one you can share as an awards show volunteer.
The first time I was invited to work at the American Comedy Awards, six years ago, I was elated - until the panic set in. I was in my 30s, a nail-biter, and the last time I wore a size 6, I was age six. I wondered how I would fit into this rarefied movie-star world as a plus-size woman. But it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so I went for it. The American Comedy Awards, produced by George Schlatter Productions, is a nationally televised awards show created to honor movie and television comedy performers. I knew that, at the very least, I would get to laugh!
On the day of the event, I arrived in my flattering new gown, all polished and perfumed. I decided against a necklace, not daring to compete with celebrities be-jeweled by Harry Winston. Much to my delight the other volunteers in my group were all regular people: short, tall, plus-size, slender, older, younger. I began to relax and enjoy myself.
Soon, I was so involved with my assignment - placing name cards at each guest table - that I was too busy to think about my appearance. I carefully put each celebrity's name card with their partner's and floated from table to table, pretending that all of the stars were attending my own dinner party. All the while, a cacophony of activity was in full swing around me as rehearsals proceeded. Stand-ins rehearsed the presenters' lines, giving the production crew a chance to practice. Camera and sound crews darted around with a smoothness that appeared choreographed. Directions were being shouted and everyone seemed to be talking into their headsets - all at the same time. It was exhilarating, but reminded me that despite the glamour and the fun, show business is first and foremost, a business.
Place cards completed, I quickly moved to my assigned reception table in preparation for the stars' arrival. Before long, I heard a wild burst of cheering and applause from outside the entrance, Dustin Hoffman had arrived in his limousine. Let the show begin! The entourage made its way slowly up the red carpet with Hoffman smiling for the photographers. Strobes of flash bulbs illuminated the night while the fans clapped and screamed. Hoffman ended up right in front of my table! Everyone was talking to him at once, so I handed his wife the tickets and directed her to their table location. She smiled gratefully and coaxed Hoffman and their kids on to their seats.
Suddenly, Tony Curtis leaned over towards me and gazed deeply into my eyes. "Where's my table, Doll?" he asked, smiling at me. I fell immediately and hopelessly in love! I had adored Curtis since childhood, and now, here he was - boyish, charming, and flirting with me. His eyes were locked onto mine while I gave him table directions. Ten minutes later, I heard him use the same line on someone else and I sadly realized that our romance was over - for this was Hollywood and I was already a has-been.
I bravely continued on with my job, knowing that work would numb my pain. Martin Sheen, Lisa Kudrow, Daryl Hannah and a giggling Jennifer Tilly all stopped at my table for seating assignments. Tia and Tamera Mowry, in beautiful gowns, patiently waited their turn. I handed Mike Myers his table tickets, explaining the gift basket procedure that would take place after the show. As he stepped away from my table, reporters engulfed him and photographers clamored for shots. Jolly Rip Taylor hovered over my table, chatting and telling jokes until his exhausted agent retrieved him - twice!
Two hours later, I had totally forgotten about Tony Curtis as the parade of stars past my table continued: Jerry Lewis, Milton Berle, Jenna Elfman, Billy Crystal, Whoopi Goldberg, Robin Williams, Richard Belzer, Tommy Smothers, a strikingly beautiful Daisy Fuentes and a well mannered Martin Short.
Peri Gilpin from Frazier stopped by to ask for directions to the men's room. I must have raised my eyebrows in surprise because she quickly corrected, "It's for my husband, not for me." We both had a good laugh.
Reception duties completed, my fellow volunteers and I were urged to find a seat for the show. The director must fill the house so the camera doesn't film empty seats in the audience, so we rapidly changed careers to fit the bill. As seat fillers, we were directed to various bare spots in the audience, where we quietly sneaked, content to bask in the radiance of the celebrity seated next to us. Sadly, the seat was ours only until the former occupant returned to reclaim their space. At that point the seat filler moves on, to a new, hopefully more exciting location. I was once seated at David Duchovny's table when his name was called as an award winner. Within seconds, five cameras swung around to focus on Duchovny, lighting up our entire table. Watching the show a few weeks later on television (The American Comedy Awards are taped and broadcast at a later date), I saw myself on camera right behind Duchovny. What a thrill!
The American Comedy Awards is unique in giving the home viewing audience a chance to peek behind the scenes via four continuous camera feeds during their Webcast. Viewers can choose to voyeuristically watch, on their home computers, the action in the Green Room, backstage, the press area or the control room. My husband was so fascinated with the Webcast that he spent the entire awards show at his computer, missing the action onstage entirely!
The backstage area at an awards show is a fascinating place for the many volunteers who find themselves on duty backstage. Numerous television monitors backstage ensure that the crew will always know what's happening onstage. The Green Room, set up like a cozy living room with furniture and refreshments, is where celebrities await their turn to go onstage. When called, the stars go up a small flight of steps to the stage where they await their cue to enter.
Most celebrities, though, are seated in the audience until they win, at which time they proceed to the stage to receive their award and make their acceptance speech. They then exit backstage where they are "led to press" for photos and interviews.
The press has a very strong presence backstage, with each network setting up its own interview area. E! Entertainment Network, Entertainment Tonight and Access Hollywood each custom-design a tented area, complete with colorful and exotic furniture. In these settings, hosts like Leeza Gibbons and Mary Hart get cozy with the winners as they emerge from the stage for their interviews. Award winners are led from tent to tent, giving up to ten interviews during the next two hours.
While watching the comedians interact backstage, I was warmed by their genuine respect for each other. They share the bond of laughter, and they celebrate their craft by honoring their roots. Despite his ongoing battle with Multiple Sclerosis, Richard Pryor has attended almost every one of the American Comedy Awards. Comedy veterans like Billy Crystal, Norman Lear, Carl Reiner and most recently, Steve Martin have all been honored as Career Achievement Award winners.
Awards shows are like family reunions for many stars who may not get a chance to see each other during hectic filming schedules. These shows are partially social venues for the stars to relax, to celebrate their profession and to reminisce. I was present once when Goldie Hawn and Walter Matthau exited backstage. I watched as they chatted, seemingly oblivious to the popping flashbulbs. Hawn, whose floaty gown (though only a wisp of fabric) was beautiful, managed to coax a few shy grins from Matthau. For awards show volunteers, these unguarded moments provide a chance to see the real person behind the celebrity exterior.
If you're interested in rubbing elbows with the glitterati, Talent/Check-In Coordinators Joe Lozano and Dan Bodak readily share their advice and insights. Lozano and Bodak, who have worked the Grammys, Emmys, People's Choice Awards and SAG Awards, supervise and train volunteers for the American Comedy Awards. Bodak says he primarily looks for well-groomed, well-dressed volunteers with pleasing dispositions. Lozano adds that prior experience working at events is helpful, but that he considers reliability to be the most critical requirement, emphasizing that the successful volunteer should always arrive on time.
Bodak cautions that volunteers should not get overly nervous, freeze or panic when interacting with celebrities. Lozano laughingly recalls, "We had some difficulty with a volunteer at one of the reception check-in tables. She was a lawyer who absolutely turned into a giddy fan when she saw the celebrities. She kept jumping up and leaving her post, saying things like "I just love Kelsey Grammer, I have to hug him." Bodak sympathizes, adding, "You have to have someone who is not overtly starstruck. They can be privately starstruck, but they can't show it - volunteers need to have low-key, calm exteriors."
According to Lozano and Bodak, of the best entry-level positions for event volunteers is that of seat filler. Gathered into a holding area, seat fillers are called into service as they are needed, most often during commercial breaks, when there is a flurry of activity as celebrities leave their seats to make phone calls or use the restroom. Seat fillers are quickly rushed in before the cameras resume filming. The downside is that sometimes you can be on your feet for hours before being assigned. Lozano cautions, "You've got to listen to direction, move fast and be settled in when the cameras come back on. If you make a good name for yourself, if you are reliable, you will get called back, perhaps for higher positions the next time"
The next rung up the volunteer ladder is the position of talent escort. Talent escorts accompany a performer throughout the entire event, making sure that the celebrity stays on schedule and gets to stage on time. "We were recently talent escorts for Boyz II Men" says Bodak. "We worked really hard to keep the group together, to keep them from wandering off - we had to be firm in getting them to the stage and to rehearsal on time." He adds, "You have a lot of responsibility when you are a talent escort. The entire production runs on a tight schedule and pulling all of the performers together at the right time is critical."
While volunteering at an awards show does require focus, there is also a tremendous opportunity for enjoyment, concludes Bodak. "I really don't want to be in show business, but volunteering at awards shows is a great way to get all of the glory of stardom without any of the stress."
So, the next time you watch a televised awards show with your friends, you might get your chance to take a moment and just mention, casually, "There I am, sitting next to Billy Crystal" and watch their mouths drop open!
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