Uma, Keanu, Jamie Lee...And Me

House lights flare, the $23,000-a-second commercial break is ending, and a voice starts the countdown: "10, 9, 8..." There's scuffling in the aisles as Denzel Washington returns hurriedly to his front-row seat. Just as David Letterman walks back to center stage and the last straggler hops into a seat, production staffers race to the back of the hall. When ABC's cameras pan the audience, every seat in view is filled. Welcome to the Oscars.

Oscar traditions such as keeping those seats filled dominate the production staff's time. "Seat fillers" sit in for luminaries on a trip to the bathroom or waiting backstage for their turn to present an award. There are 169 fillers, coming from as far away as England, and all dressed to the nines. Rushing in and out as needed, they ensure that the front 18 rows are occupied whenever the cameras are on. This year, I am one of them.

Next to the Super Bowl, the Oscars is probably the best-known and perhaps the most boring three hours of live television broadcast annually. But unlike the Super Bowl, the Oscars are planned down to the most minute detail. Seat fillers are just one small piece of an enormous jigsaw puzzle that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences and Capital Cities/ABC Inc. started putting together in January.

That's when Dan Lyle, a partner at Price Waterhouse, started the annual routine of mailing ballots and tallying results. On Oscar Monday, Lyle is backstage handing out the winning envelopes to each presenter. "It only lasts a short amount of time, but for that short time, you know a secret a lot of other people would like to know," he told me.

Lining up stars such as Uma Thurman to present seems to be one of the easier tasks. "It's extremely prestigious," says Danette Herman, who has been booking the hottest of the hot for 17 years. Accommodating the press is trickier. More than 1,000 newspaper, radio, and magazine reporters and correspondents from 350 TV stations around the world showed up this year. Outside the hall, TV press tents brim with computers, phones, and fiber-optic cable to speed the news from Tinseltown to Macedonia.

Keeping "the talent" happy is another project. Academy staffers are eager to avoid any gaffes, such as the 1988 disaster, when the police didn't arrive early enough to control traffic. Glenn Close actually had to hoof it for two whole blocks to arrive on time. This year, police lined the streets from early in the afternoon, diverting traffic and almost turning away four buses carrying us from our pre-Oscar briefing at ABC's Hollywood studios.

I SPY. We arrived at 3, three hours before curtain. Walking from the buses, our directions were still fresh in my mind: Don't go to the free lobby bar--that got two seat fillers thrown out last year. Don't speak unless spoken to. And report to security any sitter you don't recognize from the briefing. We were whisked into the Shrine along a red carpet, past a sea of TV reporters and photographers, through bleachers filled with fans who had slept outside all night to catch a glimpse of the celebrities.

Then, the waiting began. We sat in the back of the auditorium watching giant screens showing stars being interviewed outside on the red carpet. As luminaries such as Anthony Hopkins and Elizabeth Taylor pulled up, tuxedoed valets opened doors and took the limos to parking lots. The valets are an eclectic group of lawyers, MBAs, and other laymen, according to Cari Wolk, vice-president of Charter Parking. "I've got some of my friends doing it. Even our insurance agent," says Wolk. It's another Oscar-night management challenge--valet parking for more than 1,500 limos and cars.

At 4:30, I walk down the Shrine's long center aisle to Sharon Stone's front-row seat. I was early because Joseph DiSante, ABC's manager of security and special services--and the selector and overseer of the seat fillers--knew Stone was presenting an early Oscar, for best costume design. She wouldn't get to her seat until an hour into the broadcast. I sat waiting and watching those big screens. Jennifer Tilly was smiling through an interview. Her hair looked a lot better than mine.

As fire marshals led sniffing black Labs around the stage checking for bombs, I noticed that the high neck of my rented, $150-a-day sequined gown was rubbing my skin into a welt. While men in tuxedos cleaned the stage with Windex, a tuxedoed imposter was led out and arrested.

BUDDY SYSTEM. Slowly, at around 5:30, the audience began to appear. Most of the $250 seats in the front rows are saved for nominees and the well-known, but of the first wave of arrivals, I recognized no one. A man three rows behind me explained loudly to a friend that he got his tickets because he's buddies with the show's producer, Gilbert Cates.

Some 20 minutes later, the big names started trickling in. In the past, I've seen an isolated star or two, on the street or in a restaurant. Once, I even saw Brooke Shields in the lingerie department of Bloomingdale's. But this was high voltage star power. Jodie Foster plopped down four seats away, only to jump up moments later to give Anthony Hopkins a big hug. On my other side, Jamie Lee Curtis made small talk in comic voices with Morgan Freeman's wife, while Freeman himself hummed along to the background music and Denzel Washington's wife talked parent talk with Susan Sarandon. The clock ticked, and more familiar faces, often attached to bodies much shorter than I had imagined, filed in. Jack Nicholson, John Travolta, and Tom Hanks hunted for their seats. Behind me, I heard Susan Sarandon again, this time talking to Tim Robbins about seat fillers. "I wonder if we'll see those girls who sat with us at the SAG awards," she wondered as I tried to look like I fit in.

Truth be told, filling a seat isn't the toughest job. Once the show started, I laughed, clapped, and chatted with my neighbor, another filler. At the appointed hour, I jumped up as Sharon Stone, wearing a billowing silver ensemble, made her way down the aisle. Proving that even the easiest job can provide opportunity for faux pas, I almost tripped Jamie Lee Curtis. Later, I made Keanu Reeves stand up, thinking I had to get past him to fill a seat, only to have the true occupant return.

READY TO POUNCE. Coordinators, often veteran seat fillers, hold printouts alerting them to each star's scheduled absences. But the unforeseen trip to the powder room is handled by droves of fillers who roam the crowded aisles during commercial breaks, ready to pounce on a vacant seat at a moment's notice.

My stint in the front row was followed by 15 minutes behind the producers of Forrest Gump and a final spot trying to see around the coif of supermodel Claudia Schiffer. Between seatings, I lined up in exit hallways on the side of the theater with the other temporarily unseated fillers, comparing stars we had sat next to and rubbing our feet. I had been wearing high heels since 10:30 a.m. and had seldom been happier than when the Oscars finally drew to a close at 9:30. My fellow seat fillers and I trooped out of the auditorium to the four waiting buses that would transport us back to Hollywood. The buses were parked out back, across the street from the tent for the Governors Ball, where 1,650 Oscar attendees were chowing down on Wolfgang Puck's pizza while quaffing 40 cases of champagne.

For the people who've been working on the event since January, the day after the awards is tough. "We wake up and don't have a reason for living," says talent booker Herman. The crowd on the bus was more relaxed. Engineers, students, ABC employees, and other tyros, we'd be back at work the next day.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.