To a Miss America contestant peering past the glare of live TV lights, Ken Stein is the pair of white-gloved hands that signals when she can move and where her next mark is.
To Golden Globe or Academy Award presenters who may be balky, inebriated, or missing glasses to see the teleprompter, Stein is the guy who’s backstage to soothe, smooth and solve the problem.
An L.A. native, and son of a radio and TV game show writer, Stein landed his first showbiz job as a gofer on Laugh-In. He got his big break and was able to join the DGA in 1976 when a daytime kids show promoted him from production supervisor to stage manager.
He’s part of a core group of seasoned pros–perhaps 25-30 on each coast–who keep things on track and moving at large live television events such as variety and awards shows and beauty pageants.
“A lead stage manager is like the 1st AD on a film,” says Stein. “They’re the first hired, and get to bring in a lot of the other people.” The lead–typically hired by the director–might bring in up to a dozen managers, each delegated to a specific area of the production.
On a big show like the Oscars, “our value is that the presenters are comfortable with us because we’ve helped them get through other awards shows,” he notes. “Film actors get a little nervous with live television, so if we can put them at ease, that’s a big plus.”
Stein is particularly fond of doing beauty pageants, and this year turned down a Golden Globes assignment when it conflicted with Miss America. “You’re surrounded by 50 to 80 girls, which keeps me young,” says Stein of the pageants. “I get a kick out of them.”
He takes a paternal attitude toward the women, who call him “Mr. White Gloves.” “They get so pumped up with adrenaline and excited that they forget where to go,” he says. “I keep them in place for the director to get the shots he needs, and then release them to go to their next mark.”
Although Stein has never experienced a complete “crash and burn”–the greatest fear of any live show manager–the specter of disaster can still hover. It’s that fear, he says, that keeps stage managers on their toes and doing their best.
“In the live picture, the level of tension gets stepped up a notch,” he says. “There are moments that put the fear of god in you.”