SAN DIEGO, October 20, 2011 – Twenty million people in America watched the hit ABC-TV reality show “Dancing With the Stars” this week. Just 700 of them were in the audience to see Ricki Lake, J.R. Martinez, Rob Kardashian, Nancy Grace and Chaz Bono spin, shake and samba their way across the dance floor.
I was one of them.
Southern California residents and visitors can take advantage of the opportunity to attend taped and live performances of dozens of television programs in production at any given time from game shows like “The Price is Right,” talk and interview shows, to blockbuster reality TV hits like “American Idol” and “Dancing With the Stars.” Surprisingly, few people do.
DWTS ballroom seats are among the most coveted. The only sure way to get one is to be a celebrity, know a celebrity, know someone on the crew, wait for the word that a handful of fill-in seats are available on the day of the show, or have an inside track on the few remaining tickets. I have been fortunate to be in the ballroom several times.
The audience is very much part of the show. DWTS audience coordinators are strict about presenting a glamorous, attractive crowd. There is a dress code and you better come in your finest evening attire. Absolutely no one wearing jeans or flip-flops gets in. You need to make sure the manicure and pedicure is perfect, your dress and shoes are fabulous, the hair and makeup is flawless.
The show is live to half the U.S., not produced in real time but recorded like some TV programs. It starts precisely at 8 p.m. Eastern/5 p.m. Pacific. The audience with reserved seating gets in line about 3 p.m. at the east gate of CBS Television City, the last live production studio left in Hollywood. Everyone is put through a serious security check. All electronics are confiscated and held outside until after the show is over.
The wait is enjoyable because everyone is excited and talkative. In line with me were Jennifer Hayter and her smart, charming 11-year-old daughter Ashley from Portland, Oregon. The Hayters won a trip through a charity auction and were celebrating their dual birthdays.
Everyone is brought inside the ballroom about an hour prior to showtime. I was seated at the edge of the ballroom floor next to the judges’ table and had the extra good fortune of sitting next to Marc Cherry, the Emmy-award winning creator, writer and producer of “Desperate Housewives.” He had served as a Miss America judge with DWTS pro Tony Dovoloni, who invited him to see the show. Cherry promised me his hit series “will go out with a bang!”
The DWTS ballroom set is brand new this year. It took 75 people two weeks to construct the new stage, at a price tag of $5 million. It has a newly raised spring-loaded dance floor, a larger orchestra pit with a hydraulic platform that raises and moves the orchestra in position, and a new secondary stage opposite the orchestra where musical guests perform. Balconies were remodeled and a second level was added. It looks like a Vegas version of the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. It is beautifully lighted and there are video screens everywhere.
The audience receives a pep talk and instructions from a warm-up announcer prior to the show. Upbeat current hits are playing over the sound system to get everyone in a party mood. We are encouraged to be enthusiastic with our applause and offered incentives such as Dancing With the Stars t-shirts.
Celebrity spotting is part of the fun as famous fans take their seats in the VIP section just before showtime. This week former contestants Romeo, Kyle Massey, John O’Hurley, and Florence Henderson were in the ballroom. The Kardashian cheering section consisted of Khloe, Kris and Bruce Jenner. Courtney Cox and her daughter were in their front row seats to cheer for David Arquette. Ousted pro Mark Ballas was in the audience seats. For no apparent reason, Richard Simmons was there. Sadly, proud mom Cher didn’t make it.
Members of the Harold Wheeler Orchestra take their seats and warm up. The judges are introduced and take their seats. Carrie Ann Inaba and Len Goodman receive warm receptions.
Judge Bruno Tonioli is the life of the party. He enters to his own theme song, “Party Rock Anthem” by LMFAO. Bruno dances his way from the stage to the judges’ table, hips swiveling in every direction. No one has a better time than Bruno. He hardly sits still all night. He charms the audience and feeds off the attention. It’s a lovefest. During the performances he leans forward over the table to see the competitors’ feet, and taps out the beat with his hand to see if dancers stay on time. He makes his comments on camera and then turns to those seated nearby to get our reaction. Bruno has no off switch.
Hosts Tom Bergeron and Brooke Burke are introduced. Brooke is impossibly thin and wearing a wicked pair of hot pink suede platform stilettos. They are so high she has to hold the arm of a crewmember to safely walk across the dance floor. She doesn’t interact with anyone in the audience, seemingly focused on her job alone. Tom Bergeron is a seasoned pro, calm, sharp and observant. He never misses a cue and helps control what could quickly devolve into chaos.
Working in live television takes immense focus, skill, and coordination. Every member of the production staff is at the top of his or her profession. All must work as a team. The clock waits for no one and the show is timed to the second. If one crewmember is struggling to set up a prop or trips with a camera, the show must go on around them. You need to be a bit of an adrenaline junkie to love it. It’s terrifying and thrilling at the same time.
Competitors are moving to their marks, perform, then sprint up to the holding area for out-of-breath interviews. Harold Wheeler and his musicians and singers must learn and move through multiple songs every show. The camera operators are moving as fast as the dancers, circling or running backward with steady cams to provide those views you see at home without ever getting in the way or being seen on air themselves. Imagine one of these guys stumbling right in front of oncoming dancers.
During commercial breaks, crews are moving set pieces and cleaning the floor during dances. Judges, hosts and performers get their makeup refreshed or a bottle of water. Writers incorporate jokes and comments on the fly into the script projected on host Tom Bergeron’s teleprompter within seconds to make the show seem fresh and spontaneous.
After the show, everyone is exhilarated and exhausted, including the audience. The cast remains on stage, visiting with friends and family. Some greet fans and seem to truly enjoy it, J.R. Martinez and Karina Smirnoff and Carson Kressley and Anna Trebunskaya among the most friendly and generous with their time.
Watching the competitors and their professional partners up close, you realize what some see as silly entertainment really matters to them. They are invested. They get emotional. Watching just a few feet away you recognize the effort they put out to perform well. No matter how successful they might be in their own worlds, ballroom dancing is a challenge for all of them.
The professional dancers are impressive up close. Glittery costumes aside, these people are world-class athletes. They are impossibly fit and skilled. What isn’t always obvious watching from home is their speed, strength and precision. When a contestant can keep up his or her speed with the pro partner, their performance takes a quantum leap.
The DWTS producers have mastered the art of mixing the cast of stars on the show and matching them with the pros. Some criticize the lack of real stars, but the producers have found a brilliant formula and the ratings success is the proof. There is a contestant to appeal to every demographic: youngsters and veterans, athletes and reality stars, singers and actors. Producers always find at least one surprising and sometimes controversial choice.
I admire Chaz Bono’s nerve in signing on. A transgender son of superstar parents is hardly someone most people can imagine relating to, but America likes an underdog and a fighter with a good attitude, which sums up Chaz. He has nothing more to hide and it must be a relief. So what’s left but to shake your generous booty on national television?
Give all the stars credit for putting their dignity on the line and taking a chance on looking foolish while working harder than they could have ever imagined, simply for America’s (and my personal) entertainment and a mirror ball trophy.
Gayle Lynn Falkenthal, APR, is President/Owner of the Falcon Valley Group in San Diego, California. Her regular column, Media Migraine, appears weekly in the Communities at The Washington Times. Follow Gayle on Facebook and on Twitter @PRProSanDiego.
Copyright © 2011 by Falcon Valley Group
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