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Oscar night in the driver’s seat

ALTHOUGH I HAD plenty of Oscar invites to choose from (pizza at my friend Pauline O’Connor’s house; pizza at home; pizza at a pizza place), there was one I could not turn down. Every year, all of the Academy Awards limo drivers park at the Hollywood Bowl to watch the show. These are people with something truly invested in the outcome of each award -- their tips.

There’s something about seeing almost 1,000 limos next to each other that makes you both proud to live here and ashamed of driving a yellow convertible Mini Cooper. There were acres of black stretch Lincoln Town Cars punctuated by white Rolls-Royces, stretch Cadillacs, stretch Hummers and a small fleet of Priuses. I don’t know which celebrities chose to save our environment by enduring a trip of several miles without the ability to watch their ceiling lights change color, but I salute them.

Inside two giant white tents at the Bowl’s museum, the academy had set up tables, space heaters, five big TVs and a buffet catered by the Patina Group, with a decent penne pomodoro and some awesome brownies. Everyone was very well-dressed, like we were at a Mafia convention. The only thing that kept it from being perfect was that a gathering of limousine drivers has even fewer female guests than the party I threw in high school.

Much like a high school cafeteria, there were cliques. The drivers of studio heads, directors and producers sat together, looking a little more well-heeled. Actors’ drivers seemed, to my surprise, a step down, because they weren’t on the corporate payroll. And then there were the masses of everyone else.

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“There are drivers here I’ve never seen here ever,” said Dennis Johnson, a 32-year veteran driver of studio execs. “I’m sure they do airport runs. But they’re not in our circles.”

As soon as Dennis finished his penne, he headed back to his car. When I tried to get him to watch the rest of the show, he told me he couldn’t -- even though his client wouldn’t need him for hours: “What if someone got sick? What if his wife didn’t feel well? What if someone from home called and said there was a problem with the kids?” Dennis wasn’t the most fun of party guests.

Not only that, he wouldn’t let me print the name of his passenger, who is a famous studio executive. “Confidentiality is extremely important,” he said. “All my wife knows is who I drive. She doesn’t know where we go. Some things I will take to my grave.”

Luckily, Karlo Atienza didn’t feel the same way about confidentiality. Which is particularly surprising considering he was driving Eddie Murphy, whom he has worked with for seven years. Karlo wasn’t having a great night because Murphy lost early. “I’m really sad. I feel sorry. He should have won it,” Karlo said. “But Alan Arkin is good.”

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Karlo, who drives Murphy only when he isn’t needed by Keanu Reeves, Sandra Bullock or Colin Farrell (Reeves and Bullock both needed him last year, so they rode together), said he figured he’d be home by midnight. “He’s not a party animal,” Karlo said. “Last night, he went to two parties, stayed for 45 minutes and went back home.” After the Golden Globes, Murphy went straight home. Even though he won.

Though he was worried about Murphy’s mood, Karlo tried to convince himself that the boss wouldn’t be ornery. “When he got the Golden Globe, he just put it in the car and he was the same Eddie Murphy. So maybe he won’t care.”

Right then, at 6:52 p.m., long before Jennifer Hudson would win her Oscar, Karlo’s cellphone rang. “I have to go right now,” he said. “I have to pick him up.”

As the show got within an hour of ending, a voice over a loudspeaker began to announce the academy-assigned limo numbers being requested at the Kodak Theatre, and the tables of valets began to load into their vans. Which meant that for the first time I could tell, 16-year-old Mark Matthews stopped making out with his girlfriend. You are so horny at 16 that you are not going to be stopped just because your girlfriend is wearing a matching red tuxedo jacket and bowtie.

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Mark, his girlfriend, his parents, his sister, some cousins and several friends of the family had all signed up with Valet Parking Services for the evening, which was surprising because no one valet parks their cars at the Oscars. So they ended up riding along with the limos and opening the doors for celebrities, working from 11 a.m. until past midnight for just $40. When I asked Mark why he did it, he explained the thrill of being close to the world’s biggest awards show. “The people who stand outside watching would much rather have our jobs,” he explained. I should have told him that doing what other people like to watch is a poor way to choose a profession, otherwise we’d all be crashing cars on the freeway for a living.

As I left the Bowl, walking by limos packed with drivers sitting in the back quietly trading stories, I felt as though I was leaving the last place in Los Angeles where gossip isn’t exploited as a commodity. The omerta was so thick, stars should sleep off their hangovers sound in the knowledge that their secrets are safe. Unless you’re Eddie Murphy.

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jstein@latimescolumnists.com

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