RICHARD L. ELDREDGE, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
It's Sunday night and Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne is giving a cocktail party at home.
And since it's his TV home, the urban loft set in Atlanta where Osborne's shot nearly 50,000 of his film introductions, most of the guests are gently jockeying to place their posteriors in his famous red leather chairs.
As TCM film fanatics know, the chairs are reserved for use by The Hollywood Reporter columnist and his celebrity guest programmers.
All 15 of Osborne's party guests have been selected to officially sit in the seats on camera as the classic film cable channel celebrates its 15th anniversary.
The film fans — some selected straight off TCM.com message boards — will serve as the lucky guest programmers chosen by TCM to introduce a film with Osborne. They've been flown in from across the country and put up at the Buckhead boutique hotel, the Mansion. In addition to this night's on-set cocktail party, the die-hard viewers are being treated to dinner with their movie idol. Their segments, taped late this year, will air the week of April 13-17, TCM's actual anniversary.
Fan Lani Golstab, who flew in from Austin, Texas, is trying to contain herself as the sophisticated, silver-haired Osborne chats amiably a few feet away.
"This is heaven!" she whispers. "I can't believe I'm really here and that it's really him. I had to sit in one of the red leather chairs as soon as I got here. I only got up because I was hungry."
Golstab admits she is such a fan that she sometimes tunes in just to catch Osborne introduce a movie she's already seen a million times.
"Robert always manages to teach me some new factoid that I didn't know," she explains. "That's the real gift of TCM. You're always learning new things."
'I'm in total awe'
Magically, as Gene Kelly croons "Singin' in the Rain" on the hi-fi, waiters emerge from the back of the studio set with fresh trays of chardonnay and Tuscan shrimp skewers (Osborne's off-stage "kitchen" is actually a door to a loading dock).
Hollywood-based film fan Peter Bosch, who flew in to introduce his favorite movie, 1980's "Those Lips, Those Eyes," isn't going near the leather chair until i t's time to tape his segment with Osborne.
"I'm in total awe," Bosch says as his eyes dart around the set. "I wouldn't dare sit in that chair. It's Robert's. I'm afraid lightning might strike me!"
Across the set, Deltona, Fla., film fan Joe Buonocore, who's in town to extol the virtues of Barbara Stanwyck in 1944's "Double Indemnity," is playfully sparring with Kyle Kersten, of Los Angeles, who'll discuss Stanwyck's performance in 1941's "Meet John Doe."
Suddenly, the idyllic TV illusion is shattered when a guest notices the polka-dotted bird plate that traditionally sits on an end table at Osborne's elbow on-camera is busted. The invited guests aren't responsible for the breakage though. The damage was apparently done months ago when Osborne's TV bachelor pad was disassembled for another shoot. The plate was carefully glued back together, since its absence would no doubt generate countless phone calls and e-mails from viewers.
"You'd be surprised how well the viewers know this set," says Sean Cameron, who directs Osborne's intros. "Viewers contact us and want to know where they can buy Robert's chairs. I almost hate to tell them that they're from Pottery Barn."
TCM's first teen
Welcoming the guest programmers, Osborne jokes: "This is the noisiest cocktail party I've ever been to. But we all have something in common, don't we? I'm thrilled that you're all here to help us celebrate our anniversary."
Osborne pauses a moment and adds: "This channel is very important to people right now with the world the way it is. People come up and tell me that TCM is like an oasis for them. What a wonderful compliment."
The next afternoon, Osborne is back on set (minus the cocktail tables and the open bar in the study) with the anniversary festival's youngest guest programmer, Juan Castro, 14, of Northridge, Calif.
Juan, a budding song-and-dance man himself, selected the 1936 Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers gem, "Swing Time."
Castro hops into the chair opposite Osborne as boom mikes dangle overhead. A lint brush is glided over Osborne's suit jacket; he tries to relieve Juan's jitters by telling him: "You'll be fine. We're just going to have a conversation."
"I'm really excited to be here," Juan beams after Cameron says: "Rolling!"
Juan tells Osborne he was introduced to "Swing Time" as a kid "around 7" when his family owned a video store.
Juan then explains he first entered a TCM guest programmer contest in 2007 but his entry was disqualified because he wasn't old enough.
When asked why he prefers Astaire's work over, say, Gene Kelly's, Juan concedes that Kelly's work displayed "more athleticism" but lacked "the vitality you see with Fred."
Even Oscar's official historian seems impressed at Juan's sage assessment of the Hollywood hoofers.
Director Cameron is also pleased with the segment but requests that "we re-do the opening once more for safety."
'Don't wake me up'
Knowing the bulk of the interview is in the can, Osborne opts for a little fun with his teenage guest.
As Juan's eyes get increasingly wider, Osborne gravely intones: "You know, Juan, you may still be too young to be here. In fact, we may have to ask you to leave ..."
Off-camera, the crew starts to laugh as Cameron yells: "Perfect. Well, except for Juan's heart attack. That's a wrap for Juan!"
Juan's family and the crew applaud as he's handed the TCM water mug from his segment, poses for a picture with Osborne and is then presented with a freshly inscribed 8-by-10 photo of the TCM host.
TCM's senior vice president of programming, Charlie Tabesh, knew the 14-year-old had to be a part of TCM's anniversary.
"We all thought, 'Wow, we've got to get this kid to be a part of this,' " he explains. "What I love about Juan is that he represents how vast the TCM viewership really is and how passionate the viewers are about these movies. We're very proud of that.
"My favorite aspect of the anniversary guest programmer tapings was watching the camaraderie of the group. They really bonded with each other. And prepared? They had notes on everything they wanted to say about their films."
The fans cluster around for one final keepsake of their visit. Guest programmer Theresa Brown nudges a friend as a group photo is snapped on set with Osborne.
Brown whispers: "If I'm dreaming, don't wake me up!"