Inside DOD   Know Your Military

My Head’s Buzzing: A Sailor’s Oscars Red Carpet Story

Feb. 20, 2020 | BY Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Dary M. Patten

As I ascend the long red staircase of the Dolby Theater, it’s covered with women in flowing, elegant gowns, some livestreaming from their phones, some posing for photos to capture the moment. It felt like I was in a movie.

I’m on the red carpet of the Academy Awards in Hollywood, California, to share messages of support from the stars for the U.S. military for American Forces Network television. AFN broadcasts to American service members and their families serving overseas.

Right now, I have to be back in our section of the media gauntlet before 1 p.m., so I’m scurrying like Cinderella, trying to find essentials such as water and a bathroom.

When I get back, my coworkers are taking photos on the red carpet. Everyone is excited. We lose track of time until one of the elegantly dressed women approaches us.

“We need you in your place,” she says.

A woman in a strapless silver gown holds her hands clasped in front of her and smiles as she talks to a person off camera holding an AFN microphone.
Scarlett Johansson
Actress Scarlett Johansson gives a shoutout to troops watching the American Forces Network on the Red Carpet at the Oscars. Shoutouts are often shared with service members assigned across the globe to boost morale and convey support to the Armed Forces.
Photo By: Petty Officer 3rd Class Dary M Patten
VIRIN: 200209-N-NJ910-1214

As we gather in our corner of the media gauntlet, it starts to rain onto the transparent tarp covering our heads. The tarp slopes down behind us into the street, but the water starts to pool menacingly above a row of very electric lights.

People start pointing at it with concern on their faces. This crowd has seen too many movies, and it doesn’t look good.

Before long, men and women dressed to the nines approach the tarp with walkie-talkies, like secret agents.

“Bring a pole,” one says.

Men run up carrying long black poles and start pushing the water from the tarp, causing it to roll into the streets below.

Somewhere in the distance, a loudspeaker announces an arrival, and the celebrities start to trickle in. Before long, we’ve managed to attract a few stars. For some, their handlers introduce us, approaching with a sign listing their movie and occupation, as if they’re trying to sell us a sound mixer or a short-form documentary. Others we call out to ourselves: “A quick shoutout for the troops?”

“Of course, for the troops!” they respond.

Photographers on a red carpet swarm a woman wearing a shimmering long silver gown with a matching hood on her head. Onlookers in stands above the carpet look down at her.
Janelle Monae
Actress and singer Janelle Monae walks the Red Carpet at the Oscars. During the event, several celebrities provided shoutouts to troops.
Photo By: Petty Officer 3rd Class Dary M Patten
VIRIN: 200209-N-NJ910-0903

From the back of the platform, I can angle my still camera straight while we interview them, shooting over the top of a teammate’s video camera.

From the back of the platform I can frame their faces nicely while I watch them do their interview. It’s like I’m watching them on TV with the volume slightly down, and I can get lost in the expressions on their faces, putting them in perfect boxes -- clickety clickety click -- taking easy, perfect shots.

As the night progresses, I realize I’m missing something. The photos are good, but the sound is muted, and I remember I’m not just taking pictures -- I also have a story to write, and for it, I’ll have to turn up the audio.

Confident I already have some good shots to work with, I make my way back down from the platform where my angle is poorer, but I can capture better action.

And as if my movement triggered some magic, the more famous stars start to flow in.

Janelle Monáe, who not only sings but more recently starred in the movies “Moonlight” and “Hidden Figures,” is draped in a hooded silver dress that glows like an armored knight. Camera operators in black flow with her as if she’s parting the darkness with the light reflecting from it.

A smiling woman in a black dress holds her hands up to her head as if she’s about to push her hair back.
Kelly Marie Tran
Actress Kelly Marie Tran approaches reporters at the Oscars Red Carpet to give a shoutout to U.S. troops. Shoutouts are often shared with service members assigned across the globe to boost morale and convey support to the Armed Forces.
Photo By: Petty Officer 3rd Class Dary M Patten
VIRIN: 200209-N-NJ910-843

Kelly Marie Tran, a relative newcomer to Hollywood who broke out in the new “Star Wars” movies, approaches Disney, our red carpet neighbors, with her characteristically expressive face, which I’ve seen in photos before. After finishing with Disney, she has time for a shoutout to the troops!

But she’s gone before I know it, and other faces appear in the crowd. My mind becomes a name-dropping machine: Margot Robbie, Mindy Kaling, Maya Rudolph, Antonio Banderas, Keanu Reeves, Adam Driver!

The first big interview we get is Al Pacino. He speaks of us military folks fondly, saying, “I support you 100%. Hang in there. You’re doing a great job!”

Harvey Keitel -- a former Marine and a staple of Quentin Tarantino movies -- points to my shipmate running the camera and says, “Thanks for getting us there to do the job!” He also gives an “Ooh-rah!” to his fellow Marines and thanks us for our service.

A man in a black suit wearing black-framed glasses talks to someone off-camera who’s holding an AFN microphone. A woman in silver stands behind him.
Harvey Keitel
Actor Harvey Keitel gives a shoutout to the troops watching the American Forces Network during the Oscars red carpet.
Photo By: Petty Officer 3rd Class Dary M Patten
VIRIN: 200209-N-NJ910-0811

More stars arrive, and my head is buzzing. I’ve easily forgotten the fact that I needed to go to the bathroom more than an hour ago.

We call out to stars. Some, their agents promise, will return to us. Others don’t, but that’s OK. Those who do say hi and send greetings to the troops watching from overseas, speaking fondly of their many relatives who have served.

“My father was in the Air Force for 35 glorious years. He was a Tuskegee Airman,” Good Morning America host Robin Roberts said with pride in her eyes.

“We know who the true heroes are. Not the people walking the red carpet -- they are,” she said, pointing to the camera and AFN’s military audience.

Some of the biggest names arrive fashionably late. Leonard DiCaprio and Brad Pitt march in like kings, many in the crowd in awe of their presence. Renee Zellweger, who I would later watch accept the award for Best Actress on TV, tells us about her time working with the USO. “Not a day goes by that we don’t think of you,” she says.

A woman in a black dress with pearl-beaded neckline talks to someone off-camera who’s holding a microphone on a red carpet.
Tamron Hall
Broadcast journalist and talk show host Tamron Hall gives a shoutout to the troops watching the American Forces Network at the Oscars red carpet.
Photo By: Petty Officer 3rd Class Dary M Patten
VIRIN: 200209-N-NJ910-1228

“My favorite network!” Scarlett Johansson exclaims, greeting us warmly. “I’ve been really fortunate to do two USO tours now. It’s so great to meet all of you guys and bring you guys whatever little kind of show we can scrape together.”

Before long, they’re all inside the theater, and Tamron Hall, who has been interviewing actors for ABC, comes over to us with a big smile on her face, her neck encased in pearls, and says, “American Forces Network! My dad was in the Army for 30 years. Thank you for your service!”

And then, before we know it, it’s time to leave.

The movie -- as if only a dream -- is over.