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Workers hammer together Oscar night

Even hardened veterans happy to help with Hollywood’s big event
/ Source: The Associated Press

A 26-foot-tall golden Oscar stands backstage at the Kodak Theatre amid a sea of black crates filled with miles of TV cables.

A dance-rehearsal room is now an office for 50 production workers, complete with desks, phones and computers — and, natch, a table topped with coffee, chips and Krispy Kremes.

What was once a hallway is becoming a glamorous green room, designed to look like an old-fashioned movie theater lobby. Posters from this year’s best-picture nominees line the wall, illuminated just so by overhead lights being adjusted by a man with a screwdriver perched precariously on a ladder.

It’s the Oscars countdown.

With less than a week to go before the March 5 Academy Awards, the Kodak Theatre is abuzz with some 1,500 workers. And what’s this? Most of them — even the hardened veterans — are toiling with a fan-like fervor not typically found on Hollywood sets.

Could it be a new contract? A new caterer? Not on a stack of doughnuts. For this happy crew, it’s all about being tabbed to help craft the movie world’s biggest night.

“This is the highlight of the year,” said projectionist Dave Taylor on Saturday. The 17-year Oscar veteran is responsible for all moving pictures on stage.

“It’s the profile of the show, the caliber of the people on the show and all the people watching,” he said. “It’s the biggest and most prestigious show, absolutely.”

‘Best of breed’Many on the Oscar staff work together throughout the year on other big productions. But despite the long hours and the breakneck pace, the Oscars still retain an element of magic for everyone, from artists and writers to the lighting guys and sound technicians.

“It’s the best of the breed,” says Buz Kohan, a writer who has worked on 19 Oscar shows. “It’s just the ambiance of the thing, the people you see in context with each other that you never get to see otherwise, and you’re in the middle of it all.”

Even associate producer Michael Seligman, budget master of the Academy Awards show and veteran of 29 Oscar productions, excitedly snapped photos of the various crews at work.

“This is a show that fulfills dreams,” he says. “Every year is new; every set is different and every year is amazing.”

Sunday, the seats inside the Kodak will be filled with some of the most famous posteriors in town. For now, though, those seats serve as makeshift desks for the art department as it puts the finishing touches on the massive Oscar stage.

“This is the best part,” says assistant art director Joe Celli. Months ago, he built a tiny version of the set out of paper, wood and foam. Now, that vision has been translated into larger-than-life scale.

“For TV, everything stops at 12-feet tall,” he says. “Some of these walls are 30 feet.”

The art deco-inspired stage includes two 18-foot, clear acrylic Oscars meant to look like frosted glass, as well as swirling silver conches, majestic pillars, an old-fashioned movie theater box office and a 65-foot wide grand movie marquee with Oscar written above it in sweeping white letters.

Thirteen-time Oscar producer Gil Cates called the massive marquee “a technological whiz-bang.”

“There’s probably 100 million pixels in the thing,” he says, adding that it was designed to evoke the feeling of a classic movie house, “before they became multiplexes.”

The board will change throughout the show, announcing categories, nominees and winners, he says.

The entire Oscar team will be working almost around the clock until show time. Little changes on the set and tweaks to the script will continue until then, too.

Planning for Stewart’s entranceWhile chatting with a visitor, Cates pauses for a quick brainstorming session with 17-time set designer Roy Christopher.

“I guess we’ll ask (host) Jon Stewart to come out of that (ticket booth),” Cates says.

“We can make a door on the side. There’s one just in the back now,” Christopher says. “I think he needs another door.

“I’d love for that to happen,” he continues. “Otherwise why is there a little ticket booth there?”

“Is it lit?” Cates asks.

“It’ll all be lit and dressed inside. There will be a little sign with the show times. He can at least be standing at it.”

“Buying a ticket,” Cates offers.

Then Christopher heads to the middle of the theater, sits cross-legged on a metal bench and watches the set continue to take shape. Some of the nearly 100 stage hands who work on the show push the pillars and walls back and forth.

Cates says his work gets easier as the program nears.

“If I’ve done my job right, by the time the show goes on the air, I really should have nothing to do,” he says, “except maybe play people (off) who talk too long.”

Stage manager Dency Nelson will be in the wings on Oscar night, handing out statuettes and greeting the winners.

“After 18 years, I still feel very privileged,” he says. “There are many, many awards shows, but this is still the one. Getting an Oscar still means something.”