He delivered a forgotten harmonica to Stevie Wonder onstage at the Grammy Awards, supplied a shoulder to lean on for a post-hip-surgery Gregory Peck at the Oscars and served as a human Xanax for hundreds of other stars in the most terrifying and exhilarating moments of their careers.
Stage manager Dency Nelson, 61, works behind the scenes at the Oscars, plus at times the Grammys, Screen Actors Guild Awards, Teen Choice Awards, MTV Movie Awards and other shows. This year will mark his 25th — and last, he said — Academy Awards, as he plans to retire from one of show business’ least known but most stressful gigs.
An anonymous but critical piece of the Hollywood awards season machinery, stage managers like Nelson control the chaos of the live TV broadcast — they deliver the correct winning envelopes, ensure that the pop-up microphone actually pops up and, most delicately, orchestrate the flow of talent through the stage wings.
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An avuncular former hippie with twinkling green eyes, a silver earring and a scruffy, salt-and-pepper beard, Nelson is stationed in the stage-right wings, a hot spot where most of the Oscar telecast’s jittery presenters enter and elated winners exit.
"It’s like air traffic control," he said one recent afternoon at the Dolby Theatre at the Hollywood & Highland Center, where he was preparing for Sunday’s show. "Ninety percent of the people in the room don’t know my name, but when they round the corner and come into the wings there’s a smile, ‘Oh, that guy.’"
Even seasoned performers rely on stage managers for assurance in the unforgiving medium of live TV, and backstage figures like Nelson develop a rapport with stars they see at multiple shows.
Last year, before Meryl Streep stepped onto the Oscar stage to present an award, she reviewed her script, smoothed her gown and cast a tentative glance at Nelson. “You’ll push me out when it’s time?” she asked. He gently led the actress by the arm to the edge of the curtain, sending her off to face an audience of 40 million.
An hour later, after winning lead actress for “The Iron Lady,” the first person an emotional Streep saw was Nelson, with a chair and a welcome water bottle.
"Dency’s businesslike, but he makes people comfortable," said American Film Institute founder George Stevens Jr., who met him when the recent college grad was lugging heavy film reels for the L.A.-based nonprofit. Charmed by the young man’s work ethic, nearly four decades later Stevens still hires him to stage-manage the "Kennedy Center Honors" and "Christmas in Washington" shows every year.
Many of the approximately 500-person backstage crew at the Oscars have been performers themselves, including head stage manager Gary Natoli (Nelson’s boss) and a stage manager who specializes in talent, Valdez Flagg, both former actors and dancers.
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According to guild minimums, the stage managers must make at least $746 for a 12-hour day, and many work other steady jobs. Thanks to the proliferation of performance-based reality shows such as “American Idol” and “The Voice,” there’s a lot of work available for the specialized group who know how to do it.
Nelson has stage-managed the game show “Let’s Make a Deal” and the syndicated variety program “The Wayne Brady Show.”
"Anyone can do this job as long as nothing goes wrong," said Flagg. "If you can’t go with the flow, you won’t last. You’ll freak out."
The year Wonder forgot his harmonica, for instance, the Grammys crew had to think quickly — how do you subtly signal a blind man? Ultimately, Nelson asked the director to frame a tight shot on the singer’s face while he sneaked up from below and tugged on Wonder’s pant-leg. At the Emmys, when an impostor tried to walk off with “Hill Street Blues” star Betty Thomas’ trophy, Nelson skidded on stage with another.
And then there’s that other occupational hazard: jerks. “People are just nervous in some cases and take it out on you,” Nelson said with a shrug.
This year’s Oscar telecast is a particularly taxing one for the stage crew, with many singing and dancing casts to maneuver. The consequences of a missed cue can be dire — at several points in the show, 34.5-foot lifts built into the stage floor will open to move scenery pieces.
Nelson, who grew up in Menlo Park the son of an Army auditor, originally wanted to be an actor. As a child he hosted the Andy Williams Christmas show by himself in front of the Christmas tree, with a toilet paper roll as a microphone.
After graduating from UC Santa Cruz with a degree in theater, he took a job as a driver and mail clerk for AFI and worked behind the scenes as “the guy who guarded the doughnuts” for the 1970s soap opera parody “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” and a cue card man for “Saturday Night Live” and David Letterman.
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Along the way he continued to act in commercials, basement theaters and tiny walk-on roles (in Woody Allen’s “Manhattan,” you can see Nelson stride across Park Avenue carrying an attaché case). “I wasn’t really getting anywhere,” he said. “I just saw my actor colleagues, their talent, and saw I’m not that.”
The frustrated performance experience, however, gives Nelson a nuanced understanding of what the people he’s pushing into the lights on Oscar night are feeling. “There have been plenty of times where I have held a trembling hand and smiled,” he said. “I so admire anyone who can do that.”
The stage crew prepares with the thoroughness of a military campaign. During rehearsals, Nelson marks his show rundown with different colors of highlighters and pens, noting when he’ll send a performer upstage or where a piece of scenery will move. Unlike some younger stage managers, he still uses paper, not an electronic device, for storing his “road map.”
In a change this year, six college film students will deliver the trophies onstage, instead of the usual cadre of models who float from show to show. On Wednesday, Nelson was coaching them on the subtle art of statuette distribution.
"Let the kiss and hug happen," he said, his hands stained with red ink from jotting notes on his script, six roles of tape swinging from his belt. "Just linger upstage, let that traffic happen."
At Nelson’s first Oscars, before the students were born, Jack Lemmon was the host. Over the years, Nelson said he’s noticed an evolution in the awards show scene, as older performers who approached show business with a certain gentility have given way to a more casual and sometimes cruder generation.
"I’m no prude, but there was a certain formality and respect to things," he said. "I’m sorry to see it go, although I understand the financial necessity ‘cause it’s about the ratings."
A married father of one grown daughter, Nelson lives in Hermosa Beach and is active in Democratic party politics and environmental causes; he helped found a nonprofit devoted to alternative vehicles called Plug in America (he owns two electric cars). Especially engaged in the union to which stage managers belong, the Directors Guild of America, this year he received the guild’s Franklin J. Schaffner Award for service.
He said he’s retiring to devote more time to his political passions, but he also appears ready to shed the pressures of awards season.
"I don’t want to make any mistakes," Nelson said. "The worst is just before the show starts. That’s awful. That last hour in the wings…. It’s not calm inside. As I am nearing my retirement, I just keep thinking of Jack Nicholson’s line in ‘Terms of Endearment’ … ‘Inches from a clean getaway.’"
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