Backstage confidential

If you want to hear true awards show dish, ask the stage managers.

They're not in the public eye, their credits go by quickly on-screen, and they're only on camera when things go wrong. But these crucial crew members — a handful of them on smaller shows, a dozen or more on extravaganzas — keep things running onstage and backstage.

Every star, every cue, every win, every gaffe or flub, they're in the thick of it.

When Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty disappeared around the same time that a pair of twin "trophy girls" temporarily went missing many years back, the stage managers took note and laughed about it.

When a demanding diva spotted a tear in her pantyhose and insisted that the hose be removed, they dropped to the ground and started ripping with only seconds to spare.

They've walked into dressing rooms to find Sigourney Weaver stark naked, Audrey Hepburn ironing her gown ("I really do love to iron," she said, refusing help), and Robin Williams causing pandemonium with Billy Crystal.

Over and over, they've calmed nervous movie stars, assured first-timers that everything will be all right, and answered a surprisingly common question asked by female presenters on their way to the stage: "Are my nipples even?"

"We go through the wars together," says Debbie Williams, who, like most members of the squad that's been unofficially dubbed "The A-Team," has been working on awards shows for more than two decades. "We're this little band of gypsies that go from show to show."

For the most part, top stage managers share their war stories only with each other; discretion is as much a part of the job description as efficiency and tirelessness.

But three members of the A-Team — Williams, Dency Nelson and Gary Natoli — recently agreed to talk over lunch, while others participated separately.

Sitting in a Westside deli that names some of its sandwiches after awards shows, Williams, Nelson and Natoli finished each other's sentences and found they had more in common than even they knew.

When Natoli began telling a story about a show on which Frank Sinatra began to perform a second song even though he'd been booked to sing just one, Williams laughed. "The same thing happened to me!" she said. "He finished one song and went, 'One, two, three,' right into the next one. The director was screaming, 'What's he doing?'"

In fact, awards show history often repeats itself. Here are a few recurring themes from the stage managing experience:

GatecrashersAt his first Emmy Awards in 1985, Nelson wound up with his picture in The Times (he was "unidentified technician") when he ran a replacement Emmy out to Betty Thomas, whose statuette had been claimed by a professional gatecrasher.

Thirteen years later, Natoli had to explain to confused singer Shawn Colvin that yes, she had indeed won a Grammy, despite the fact rapper Ol' Dirty Bastard had chosen her moment of triumph to commandeer the microphone. "I just sort of grabbed him and said, 'Okay, that's enough,'" says Natoli, who adds that ODB understood and went quietly.

And Garry Hood, another 20-year veteran of the profession, was standing just offstage at the same Grammy show when performance artist Michael Portnoy, one of the extras hired to be part of a Bob Dylan number, suddenly ripped off his shirt to reveal the words "Soy Bomb" scrawled on his chest.

"I tried to get Bob's attention to see if it was part of the number, but of course Bob never looks anybody in the eye," remembers Hood. "So I got his guitar player's attention, and he just shrugged. He didn't know either."

Handlers and possesA performer's "people" frequent music shows, with rap posses in particular complicating matters. "At the American Music Awards a few years ago, a rap act exited stage right at the Shrine, and as they're coming off we heard a clink," says Nelson. "I looked down, and there's this big stainless steel gun that had fallen out of somebody's coat."

Managers and publicists are generally less well armed, but they're far from harmless. At the Golden Globes one year, remembers Williams, Brad Pitt's publicist didn't like the table to which Pitt had been assigned — so she simply picked up the number designating the table, and switched it with a different table number in a more desirable location.

"[Globes producer] Dick [Clark] went out to her and said, 'Madam, it's fine if you do that, but you have to understand that our cameramen have rehearsed,'" says Williams. "He told her, 'For Brad's nomination, they're going to be shooting the chair at your original table, because they don't know Brad Pitt from Joe Schmoe.' The publicist went, 'Oh,' and put the table numbers back."

Malfunctions, wardrobe and otherwiseSometimes, crises are much simpler and less revealing than Janet Jackson's bared breast. The wrong shoes, for instance, kept Paula Abdul in her dressing room at one show; at another, Natoli remembers singer Anita Baker trying to make a last-minute change of dresses, only to find that the second dress didn't fit.

"I was like a little baby jumping up and down outside her dressing room, yelling," he says. "I actually grabbed a roll of gaffer's tape, barged in and said, 'I don't care if it doesn't fit, you have to go right now!' I was trying to stick the tape on her dress, thinking, this is the end of my career."

The ultimate technical snafu, though, has to be Madonna's Oscar appearance in 1991. She'd exhaustively rehearsed her "Dick Tracy" song "Sooner or Later," which was choreographed to include a hidden pop-up microphone emerging from beneath the stage at the right moment.

The night of the show, though, the technician in charge of her pop-up mike fell asleep in his box, isolated from the rest of the crew. "I was throwing stuff at him, but we never could wake him up," says Hood. "So [stage manager] Rac Clark had to tell her that we were going to use a stand mike, and she just exploded."

Madonna grabbed Clark by the neck and launched into a torrent of profanity that ended only when the platform on which she was standing began its ascent to the stage.

Nerves"Working on a movie or a television show is one thing," says Williams. "Coming onstage as yourself at an awards show is something else. And the moment (these people) have to do that, they are at their most vulnerable."

She shakes her head. "Sometimes you go to the green room to get them, and the look they give you, it's like you're the grim reaper."

The situation is worst, she says, at the Golden Globes, because as the first big televised show of the season, it often books presenters in their first flush of fame. Orlando Bloom clung to her in the wings the first time he appeared on the Globes; Minnie Driver was terrified the year she appeared, after starring in "Good Will Hunting."

"She was shaking," says Williams. "I asked if she was all right, and she said, 'I've never done one of these before.' I said, 'It's okay. I've had a lot of virgins.'"

Old-timersSometimes, though, the veterans are as problematic as the newcomers — though in the end, all the stage managers say that classic Hollywood stars manage to come through. Williams and Nelson remember Bob Hope, Dorothy Lamour and Barbara Stanwyck so frail backstage that the stage managers doubted the stars could walk the few feet onto the stage — but when the introduction came and the cameras were on, all three stars suddenly made confident entrances.

"You see them in the wings and wonder how they'll be able to do it," says Williams. "And then you look at the monitor, and it's like a totally different person."

Hood remembers a hard-living, macho star from the '40s and '50s being so drunk backstage that nobody thought he had a prayer of negotiating an onstage staircase. "We had to carry him up the stairs," he says, "but when he got to the top he saw the camera and straightened up, and on the way down you never would have known anything was wrong."

Divas and dollsNobody wants to come out and blast performers who are uncooperative; they'd rather praise the likes of Tom Hanks, Garth Brooks, Carol Burnett and Steve Martin, all of them legendary for their ease and professionalism.

Still, the stage managers will admit to some run-ins. Williams had a notable spat with the late singer Luther Vandross one year, while Natoli says he more recently had to put his foot down with singer Fred Durst and Sean "Diddy" Combs.

(Barbra Streisand, meanwhile, is in a class of her own — not that you'll hear many stories about her, since she's the one star who occasionally requires crew members to sign confidentiality agreements.)

"I rank them by categories, from the easiest down to the bottom," says Natoli with a laugh. "Country music artists are at the top. Then theater people, then soap opera people. Then you usually get TV stars and movie stars. And then you get rock stars. And then you get hip-hop."

And then there are the Jacksons…Sometimes — not often, but sometimes — you get a convergence of celebrity and weirdness that still leaves a mark a decade later. For Nelson, the ultimate sideshow was the Jackson Family Honors, a 1994 show that lost producer Smith-Hemion Productions more than $1.6 million and resulted in lawsuits in two states.

That night, remembers Nelson, was surreal. "Some people paid a fortune to be there, but the rest of the house was empty, so they let people in for free. And the only reason anybody was there was because they thought Michael Jackson was going to perform."

The two recipients of the newly created Jackson Family Honor were Michael's pal Elizabeth Taylor and Motown Records chief Berry Gordy Jr. Backstage, says Nelson, an ailing Taylor was being pushed around in a wheelchair, all in lavender with a little white dog in her lap. Onstage, the podium was enormous — "almost like an altar" — and on it were a pair of huge, gaudy ceramic urns, the awards themselves.

"By the end of the show," Nelson says, "the audience was getting restless, because they realized that Michael wasn't going to perform. Elizabeth was up there on the altar, and Michael was standing to the side, and people started booing. Michael was sort of tittering, and Elizabeth was saying, 'Oh, "boo, boo," that's such a ugly sound.'

"Meanwhile, we had a hundred high school kids in long gowns to be the chorus for the final song, and we're getting ready to move the podium for the finale. Finally, I crawled out to Vince Poxon, one of the other stage managers, who was behind the podium. I said, 'Vince, this is a moment we're not going to forget.'"

Nelson laughs. "And he turned to me and said, 'Fellini, from his grave, is saying, 'I already did this.'"

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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