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THE OSCARS

Almost Famous: An Award Show Seat-Filler

The job can bring anyone near the lap of luxury. But only connections get you into the Academy Awards.

March 24, 2001|DANA CALVO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The value of a warm body simply cannot be underestimated in this town.

As the number of televised awards shows continues to grow, producers can't afford to stage an event that looks about as A-list as a city council meeting.

"There's a consensus--among people who do these kinds of events for television--that empty seats don't look good," said Don Cornelius, who has produced the Soul Train Music Awards telecast for the past 15 years. "Any awards show that had the benefit of a network time period--the Emmys or the Grammys or the American Music Awards--if they want to keep that time period, the show has to deliver ratings."

So it should come as no surprise that the city that refined style over content has cultivated a booming seat-filler industry, populated by volunteers who cut out of work for several days, don formal wear and wait outside the auditorium for hours.

Just to reinforce Hollywood's caste system of stars and drones, the seat-filler companies present the responsibility with an effective combination of enthusiasm and neglect.

"Women are strongly encouraged to wear reasonably comfortable shoes, as you will be standing quite a bit at the beginning of the evening. There will be no secure area to leave any belongings," reads the informational sheet from a seat-filler company, Dynamic People Club. "We suggest you eat before you come. No food or drink will be allowed from 1 p.m. till 7 p.m."

On a recent 45-degree drizzly afternoon, Jodell Leonetti carried her clipboard and cell phone into the open-air parking garage next to the Shrine Auditorium and approached a sign that read, "The Dynamic People Club," which she started last summer. An hour later, more than 100 well-dressed women (and a few men) listened attentively as she laid out instructions.

"I've already turned away 10 people today because they weren't dressed appropriately," Leonetti said.

Among the 100 people she accepted was an 18-year-old who survived a freeway accident the week before. (She defied bed rest orders from her doctor and strapped on three-inch silver heels). Another woman realized her red Plymouth Sundance was being towed away as Leonetti laid out rules prohibiting cell phones and cameras inside the auditorium.

The shivering seat-fillers had "earned" their place here by spending two days at the taping of sitcoms earlier in the winter, helping sate Hollywood's appetite for live applause and laughter on the sitcom track.

"For so long, you'll be a dedicated fan, and you'll be obsessed," said Eboni Jackson, 18, who flew down from San Francisco with three friends, spent the night in a hotel and got her hair and nails done. "If you get a chance like this, you have to do it."

Jackson hoped to take the seat of the person next to a star who went to the bathroom, or headed to the stage for an award or a performance.

Others hope for studio executive proximity.

"For me, it's about networking, about getting your name out there," said Arnita Jennings, a writer who left Philadelphia for Tinseltown last October. "I usually sit up front by getting here early. You try to dress where you're going to make an impression," she said, wearing all black and carrying a bag lunch.

Jennings was a seat-filler at the TV Guide Awards earlier this winter, but because she had just relocated, she didn't have new business cards. It was a missed opportunity, she said regretfully, ticking off names of "powerful people" who sat within whispering distance of her at the show. (None of the names sounded remotely familiar, except for Tom Cavanagh, who plays the title role in NBC's new Thursday night comedy, "Ed.")

After standing in the damp, cold garage for three hours, organizers corralled the seat-fillers into a hallway next to the auditorium, where they watched the show's rehearsal on a closed-circuit television. A young woman in a gold top and black wrist corsage dozed off behind the monitor. Seat-filler organizers led women to the bathroom in groups of five.

This is, to be sure, serious business, with producers consistently turning to two main seat-filler businesses to ensure the look of their televised audience. Leonetti's Dynamic People Club operates from within Audiences Unlimited Inc., the world's largest supplier of live studio audiences. It seems like a perfect marriage, because Audiences Unlimited can reward its laughers and clappers with a chance to fill seats at a televised awards show. Leonetti's competition, Seat Fillers.com, the country's largest seat-filler company, maintains a symbiotic relationship with her. They subcontract with each other if they can't provide enough seat-fillers on a given day.

And both companies say they uphold strict standards.

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