They Wait for Chance to Sit and Serve : Seat fillers scramble to occupy the chairs of celebrities at televised awards shows, like tomorrow's Oscar extravaganza

David Wharton is a Times staff writer

People actually do this?

That's often the response when you tell someone about seat fillers. Yes, at every televised awards show from the Oscars to the People's Choice, there are grown men and women whose sole purpose is to wait in the lobby until, say, Richard Gere gets up to receive an award. At that moment, a seat filler scurries down to take his seat. When Gere comes back, the filler retreats.

Why?

That's usually the next question. The answer: Artifice knows no bounds in Hollywood. Television producers hate to have their cameras pan the audience and show empty seats. So, when you watch the Oscars Monday night, not everyone in the first 17 rows, the "power" rows, will indeed be powerful.

Seat fillers--or "bodies"--don't get paid a penny for their efforts. They have to rent a tuxedo or gown and take the afternoon off work. Once the show starts, they move around more quickly than characters in an Ernst Lubitsch comedy, squeezing in and out of seats, hurrying up and down aisles. And that's if they are lucky.

"There's no guarantee you'll even get in," said Lynn Mitchell, a 33-year-old Burbank housewife and veteran of 20 shows. "You could stand outside the whole time."

Betsy Villa worked the Soul Train Awards one year simply because she wanted to see the band New Edition. She got caught in the lobby, waiting, when they took the stage.

"I was ready to cry," the 21-year-old receptionist said.

Yet, there is no shortage of people willing to take this risk. Hundreds of applications pour into Audiences Unlimited, a Universal City company that supplies seat fillers to smaller awards shows. Producers get deluged with volunteers.

"Last year I used 300 for the Emmys, and I turned away at least that many," said Deborah McCormick, a Fox network official. "The Emmys, the Oscars--it's a closed society. This is the only way other people get to go."

And for every sob story, there is a seat filler's triumph. For Beth Anderson, who has worked about a dozen Academy Awards shows, that moment finally arrived last year.

"Madonna did a number at the beginning," Anderson said. "They told me I was going to sit in her seat in the front row. They told me the other seat was for her escort, but I didn't know who that would be.

"Two seconds before the show started, Michael Jackson sat down," the aerospace worker said. "I looked at him. He looked at me."

The two of them ended up chatting for half an hour until Madonna returned.

"He asked me what I thought about this and that," she said. "When Madonna came back to her seat, I got up and she said, 'Hey, thanks for keeping my seat warm.' "

Hollywood's awards season lasts from September to March, encompassing more than a dozen shows that salute everything from soap operas to rap music. Seat fillers are just as varied. They range from college students to retired people, from secretaries to physicians.

Most of them want to see celebrities. "For a poor working girl, getting the chance to rub elbows with stars is a once-in-a-lifetime experience," said Doris Hemphill, a 47-year-old switchboard operator. But some fillers prefer to watch the frantic directors and switching cameras. Others enjoy the performances, especially at the American Music or Soul Train awards.

It's not too difficult to get into the smaller shows. To work the Academy Awards, you have to go through ABC and a gentleman named Joseph DiSante, who has gathered and supervised the fillers for the last 19 Oscar nights.

"Seat filling started with the Oscars. The academy didn't want to see any empty seats," he said. "I like to say that I set the standards for this business."

His standards are rigid: Don't speak to celebrities unless spoken to. No collecting autographs. No photographs. Everyone should be seated when the camera is rolling, so hustle. And, most important: "Always go to your seat facing the people who are sitting down, not with your butt in their faces."

"It all sounds militaristic and tough," he said, "but it has to be."

Stationed in the lobby, DiSante has a list of the presenters and knows precisely when they will go backstage. He scans the crowd, poised to dispatch a minion to fill in for winners or celebrities who get up to use the bathroom.

"The big restroom plunge comes during commercial breaks," he said. "It's almost like poetry. One person's out and a seat filler is in. Here comes Mr. DeNiro. We have to fill his seat. It flows."

Fillers wear brightly colored badges that read: "I am temporarily filling this seat for camera purposes." DiSante's biggest headache comes from the occasional volunteer who, once seated, stuffs the badge in a pocket and tries to blend in with the crowd.

"One year, Geraldine Page came in and there were two people in her seats. These two smart alecks didn't have their badges on and wouldn't get up," he said. "We were three minutes to air and Miss Page was yelling. I spotted them and went nuts. I said, 'You two out, out, out.' "

It's the oldest trick in the book.

"We always find them," he said. "Then we throw them out."

As the years go by, DiSante prefers more and more to use ABC employees because he knows he'll see them the next day at work. Max Terronez doesn't have that advantage.

Terronez heads the seat filler department at Audiences Unlimited. His rules are almost as strict as DiSante's, and his volunteers can be just as unruly.

During a recent program, Terronez seated three people near the middle of a row. One of the stars came back, but none of the fillers wanted to leave. They improvised.

"When the cameras came on, we had one seat filler sitting on another one's lap," Terronez said.

In an attempt to weed out the star-struck and irresponsible, he requires applicants to submit a resume and a letter stating why they want to volunteer.

"The aggressiveness of some people is unbelievable," he said. "When people have to send in resumes, they realize they have to be serious about this."

Lynne Mulling, an advertising executive, worked the Oscars last year. She admitted feeling a bit silly.

"You think, 'Here I am, a grown person. I could be doing something more productive than this,' " Mulling said.

But she'll do it again Monday night.

For whatever reason, fillers are willing to brave the bruised shins that result from shimmying across rows of seats. They put up with hands gone sore from applauding every few minutes--at a four-hour awards show, that can be a lot of clapping. They risk humiliation.

"I sat next to Whitney Houston once. She was looking at me like, 'Who is this?' " said Dana Collins, a 23-year-old pharmacy technician from Agoura. "She must have been wondering how I got in the front row. Then I had to get up and she knew that I wasn't anybody important. It was kind of embarrassing."

At the American Music Awards, Belinda Bean was ordered to vacate her seat at an inopportune moment. Because the cameras were rolling at the back of the auditorium, neither she nor the people in her row could stand up.

"I had to crawl across Evander Holyfield's lap and then Travis Tritt," the 25-year-old dance instructor said. "If you watched on TV, you could see my blond bob bouncing across the bottom of the screen. One of my nails broke and it was dripping blood. I'm not joking. It was awful."

But she came back a year later to do the Soap Opera Awards.

"I got to sit next to Donald Trump for 45 minutes," she said. 'I bumped his knee under the table because I wanted to touch him."

Several tables away, near the stage, Monay Granado was enduring her version of seat filler's hell.

"The actress came back to her seat three seconds before air time," said Granado, a phone company clerk. "I had nowhere to go. I had to duck down against the stage."

A cameraman began backing toward her. Granado didn't have time to worry about the expensive dress she was wearing. She had to get out of the way.

"I had to duck under the stage. I got caught under there," she said. "When we went to a commercial break, the cameraman helped me get out. He was laughing."

The Academy Awards signal the pinnacle and the close of the seat-filling season. DiSante has been gearing up for weeks, as have his fillers.

Doris Hemphill, for example, knows exactly what she will wear: a royal blue and gold sequined dress, gold shoes and a blue-fox cape.

"I can't really compete with the stars, but I'm going to try," she said.

Lynn Mitchell will be at Dorothy Chandler Pavilion too. The Oscars aren't her favorite show--everyone is too tense, she says--but it isn't to be missed.

"There are a lot of people who would give their eyeteeth to be there," she said.

And the queen of seat fillers, Anderson, will make another Oscar appearance. Chances are, she won't get the front row next to Michael Jackson again. But if she is stuck in the lobby, Anderson knows enough to check the bar.

"The stars get bored and hang around down there," she said.

Like being inside a bottle of Champagne--that's how Anderson describes being at the Oscars.

"The whole effervescence of the evening," she said. "Every year I say I'm not going to do it. I say I'm going stay home and watch on television. But then I think about it.

"And the smell. The perfumes of some of these stars, I couldn't afford them in my dreams. It smells gorgeous."

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