LOS ANGELES - On Feb. 29, Billy Crystal will read wisecracks from a script, in front of millions of Oscar telecast viewers, while wearing a tuxedo on the Kodak Theatre stage.
On Wednesday morning, Crystal was improvising jokes in the theater lobby, wearing a sweater and faded jeans, playing to about 200 co-workers at the first major production meeting for the 76th annual Academy Awards.
It was a chance for everyone involved in the show, from firefighters to joke writers, to literally get on the same page: Each attendee received a phonebook-sized package of pink papers detailing the timetable for all work left to complete.
Joe Roth, head of Revolution Studios, which has produced movies ranging from "Black Hawk Down" to "Anger Management," is the producer of the Oscar telecast. He's the final decision maker, the boss - the Lord of the Rings, so to speak.
He opened the meeting with a few introductions: Crystal, hosting for the eighth time. Director Louis J. Horvitz, another eight-time veteran. The producer for the red-carpet pre-show, Joel Gallen ...
" ... Is Joel Gallen here?" Roth asked.
Murmurs. Not yet.
"Which is good - for the guy who's doing the pre-show," Roth deadpanned.
Crystal jumped in: "First change: The pre-show's going to be a post-show."
The most revered Oscar host since Bob Hope is making his first return to the Academy Awards stage in three years.
"I'm delighted to be back ... and be the jockey on the show," Crystal told the group as booming noises echoed from inside the theater where crews were assembling the towering set.
A microphone was passed around for people to introduce themselves: talent wrangler Danette Herman, who recruits celebrities to appear as presenters; costume designer Ret Turner, who described himself as the "bust wrangler"; musical conductor Marc Shaiman, who crooned part of the jazzy show tune "Luck Be a Lady."
Like classroom troublemakers everywhere, the comedy writers huddled in the back of the room and misbehaved: Ed Driscoll, the "disgruntled writer"; Carol Leifer, "writer ... and key grip"; and a 50ish white man who introduced himself as Denzel Washington. Actually, he's Norman Steinberg.
The tardy Gallen arrived midway through the introductions, accepting the mocking cheers and applause like a pro.
Then it was on to business. The many metamorphoses of designer Roy Christopher's glossy set were previewed so people will know how and when it will shift during the telecast.
Roth also unveiled a large board that outlined the order of the awards, including when the special tributes to the late Hope and four-time Oscar winner Katharine Hepburn would occur.
No winners on the board yet - votes are still coming in.
Another omission: the celebrity presenters. Many of them are still hush-hush, to build suspense.
"We've taken the presenters names off ... because we don't trust you," Roth told the group, only partly joking.
Then the veteran movie producer, who said this is the first time he has produced a minute of television, began a verbal run-through of the program.
"What I want to do is go through the entire show, as if you were watching it at home," said Roth.
After pulling back the black sheet covering the order board, Roth starts his show:
"The camera will turn, look up on the stage, and a distinguished older gentleman who's won an Oscar will come out and welcome us all there, talk about the impact of film around the world," Roth began.
"Then Billy will come out and do his stuff. His 'stuff' involves a number of different media and he'll be up there 10 or 12 minutes making us laugh.
"At the end of that, he will introduce the first presenter, who is Catherine Zeta-Jones, since there's a tradition of past-year winners giving awards to the opposite sex," Roth said.
"Catherine will sashay out in her red dress and we'll draw the first award for supporting actor."
And the Oscar goes to ...
ON THE NET
Academy site: www.Oscars.org
ABC Network site: www.Oscars.com