As I ascend the long red stair case of the Dolby Theater the stair is covered with women in flowing, elegant gowns, some live streaming from their phones, some posing for photos to capture the moment. It felt like I was in a movie.
I’m on the red carpet of the Oscars in Hollywood, California, to share messages of support from the stars for the U.S. military for American Forces Network (AFN) television. AFN broadcasts to American service members and their families serving overseas.
Right now I have to be back in our section of the media gauntlet before 1 p.m. so I’m scurrying like Cinderella trying to find essentials like water and a bathroom.
When I get back my coworkers are taking photos on the red carpet. Everyone is excited. We lose track of time until one of the elegantly dressed women approaches us. “We need you in your place.”
As we gather in our corner of the media gauntlet it starts to rain onto the transparent tarp covering our heads. The tarp slopes down behind us into to the street but in places the water gets trapped and starts to pool menacingly above a row of very electric lights.
People start pointing it at with concern on their faces. This crowd has seen too many movies and it doesn’t look good.
Before long men and woman, dressed to the nines, approach the tarp with walkie-talkies, like secret agents. “Bring a pole.”
Men run up carrying long black poles and start trying to push the water from the tarp, causing it to roll into the streets below.
Somewhere in the distance a loud speaker announces an arrival and they start to trickle in. Before long we’ve managed to attract a few stars. For some their handlers introduce us, approaching us with a sign listing their movie and occupation, as if they’re trying to sell us a sound mixer or a short form documentary. Others we call out to them, ourselves: “A quick shout out for the troops?”
“Of course for the troops!”
From the back of the platform, I can angle my still camera straight while we interview them, shooting over the top of a team mate’s video camera.
From the back of the platform I can frame their faces nicely while I watch them give their interview. It’s like I’m watching them on TV with the volume slightly down and I can get lost in the expressions on their faces, putting them in perfect boxes, clickety clickety click, taking easy, perfect shots.
As the night progresses I realize I’m missing something. The photos are good but the sound is muted and I remember I’m not just taking pictures, I also have a story to write. For the story I’ll have to turn up the audio.
Confident I already have some good shots to work with, I make my way back down to the stanchion where my angle is poorer but I can capture better action.
And as if my movement triggered some magic, the bigger stars start to flow in.
Janelle Monáe, who not only sings but more recently acted in movies Moonlight and Hidden Figures, is clothed in a hooded silver dress that glows like an armored knight. Camera operators in black flow with her as if she’s parting the darkness with the light reflecting from it.
Kelly Marie Tran, the previously unknown actress, who broke out in the new Star Wars movies, approaches our Disney neighbors with her characteristically expressive face, which I’ve seen in red carpet photos before. After finishing with Disney she has time for a shout out to the troops!
She’s gone before I know it, but other faces appear in the crowd. My mind becomes a name drop machine. Margo Robbie, Mindy Kaling, Maya Rudolph. Antonio Banderas, Keanu Reeves, Adam Driver!
The first big interview we get is Al Pacino and he speaks of us fondly, “I support you 100%. Hang in there, you’re doing a great job!”
Harvey Keitel a former Marine himself, and a staple of Quentin Tarantino movies points to my shipmate running the camera “Thanks for getting us there to do the job!”
He also gives a Hoorah to his fellow Marines and thanks us for our service.
More stars arrive and my head is buzzing. I’ve easily forgotten the fact that I needed to go to the bathroom more than an hour ago. We call out to stars and some their agents promise they will return to us. Some do and some don’t but everything is well.
They say hi and send greetings to the troops watching from overseas, speaking fondly of their many relatives who have served.
“My father was in the Air Force for 35 glorious years. He was a Tuskegee Airman,” says Robin Roberts of Good Morning America with pride in her eyes.
“We know who the true heroes are. Not the people walking the red carpet. They are,” she says pointing to the camera and AFN’s military audience.
Some of the biggest names arrive fashionably late. Leo and Brad march in like kings, many in the crowd in awe of their presence. Renee Zellweger who I would later watch accept the award for Best Actress on TV tells us about her time in the USO and says “Not a day goes by that we don’t think of you.”
Scarlett Johansson greets us warmly: “My favorite network!”
“I’ve been really fortunate to do two USO tours now. It’s so great to meet all of you guys and bring you guys whatever little kind of show we can scrape together,” she says with a self-depreciating smile.
Before long they’re all inside the theater and Tamron Hall, who had been interviewing actors for ABC, comes over to us with a big smile on her face, her neck encased in pearls “American Forces Network! My dad was in the army for 30 years, thank you for your service!”
And then before we know it, it’s time to leave. The movie, as if only a dream is over.