Up until 8:56 a.m. Friday, four minutes before the band started to play "Pomp and Circumstance," the film-school grads at Cal State Long Beach still didn't believe that Steven Spielberg was actually going to walk with them.
Forget the news reports that Spielberg had completed his degree 34 years after dropping out. Nevermind the media crush waiting outside, or the security force hovering around. They didn't believe it until Spielberg slipped into line dressed in a cap and gown, right there in the breezeway, right there with them, four minutes before commencement.
"Yay, he's walking! He's walking with us!" one of the guys in line shouted. Cheers erupted, handshakes were exchanged, pocket cameras started snapping, and Steven Spielberg--among the most honored filmmakers of Hollywood--became one of 167 graduates of the Department of Film and Electronic Arts.
Spielberg finished the Cal State Long Beach film-school program he abandoned in 1968 by writing term papers, meeting with professors and completing several general education courses, all through independent study.
He registered under a pseudonym to protect his privacy and the film-school director decided that Spielberg deserved to pass out of senior-level filmmaking courses for the body of his professional work. Think "Schindler's List," and "Saving Private Ryan."
Spielberg didn't give a speech and didn't hold a news conference at the ceremony, where he sat on a beige folding chair on the central campus quad with about 500 other graduates from the College of the Arts, which includes music, dance, art and filmmaking.
His wife, actress Kate Capshaw, his mother, Leah Adler, and father, Arnold Spielberg, who had front-row seats, stood on tiptoes and stretched their necks to see him. Finally Adler stepped up on a stage stairway and put her hands to her cheeks, beaming with pride as her 55-year-old graduate marched in, his salt and pepper hair showing under his mortarboard.
Spielberg had said in an earlier statement that he wanted to complete his degree as a thank-you to his parents for giving him the opportunity for an education and career and to set an example for his children.
Earlier, his classmates--while adjusting their caps and posing for photos--talked about the symbolism of Spielberg walking with them, sitting among them. These film-school grads are a small group, almost underdogs compared with the larger classes at better-known cinema schools at USC and UCLA.
"He will give us a sense of validity," said Mikhail Nayfeld.
"If he walks with us, then it will show that there is no barrier between the rich upper class and the lower class," said Nathan Pereau, 21, of Whittier. "If he doesn't, well that's just the way it is."
Up until the moment Spielberg arrived, rumors were flying: He's going to sit on the stage. He's going to sit with us. He's waiting in Brotman Hall. He's waiting in a limo.
After everyone had settled into the ceremony, it was clear Spielberg was just one of the crowd--although half a dozen plainclothes bodyguards tightly surrounded him and his entourage.
Even Cal State Long Beach President Robert C. Maxson referred to the school's most famous alum in his opening remarks: "Mr. Spielberg, your presence is a wonderful statement about honoring commitment, about honoring obligations," he said. "When you graduate with your classmates, you will finish the unfinished."
About an hour later, his name was called, the singular moment no graduate forgets:
"Steven Allen Spielberg." And for him, the orchestra belted out a 15-second rendition of the theme from "Raiders of the Lost Ark." The 6,000 or so in the crowd stood in ovation.
Spielberg, after shaking hands with Maxson, looked out over the crowd and jubilantly raised his hands with clenched fists, then held up two fingers in the victory sign for all to see.
But although Spielberg walked in like a film student, he walked out like the billionaire moviemaker he is. A phalanx of bodyguards swiftly escorted him away, gown flowing behind him, and opened the door to his black Mercedes S-500, which drove off into the 7th Street traffic, followed by a stretch limousine, a BMW and a university police car.