Hollywood was a second home
ROSCOE, ILL--Attending the premiere of “Wag the Dog” with one of the movie's stars, Dustin Hoffman.
Talking about music and life with the legendary Paul McCartney.
Pushing through a horde of paparazzi with actress Lindsay Lohan.
Not many people can say, “Been there, done that.”
Jeff Stenzel can. And the 35-year-old Roscoe resident has chronicled many of those adventures in his recently published book, “Beyond the Red Carpet.”
So, how did a quiet kid from South Beloit get to schmooze with dozens of big-time celebrities and attend star-studded events?
“Most of it was just following my interests, mixed with luck,” Stenzel said. “I was lucky to find someone who opened my eyes to going out to Los Angeles, and I was lucky that I met the right people who could help make things happen. Granted, I did do a lot of research to put myself in situations like that, and I was very persistent … It was all networking and being in the right places at the right times. Encountering celebrities and powerful people and simply treating them as human beings, and even friends, can get you a long way.”
It certainly did for Stenzel, who has attended the Oscars, Grammys and Golden Globes, not to mention all of the pre- and post-event activities. However, it all started at age 16 with one of those chance meetings.
“Growing up, I was fascinated by Hollywood,” he said. “I am a history buff and always enjoyed researching things related to history, film and music. I would watch the Oscars and Grammys and wonder what it was like to attend those shows. When I was a teenager, I would go to Chicago for collector conventions to check out the memorabilia, and I met a dealer at one of the shows who regularly went to L.A. He had photos with all kinds of stars and claimed to have all-access abilities to get into any event. He offered to let me tag along with him. At the time, I was working for a hotel chain and I could get discounted rooms, so that was what I brought to the table.
“There ended up being about a dozen of us … we soon realized that he was nothing more than a glorified party crasher with no legitimate access to anything, but he did show us around town and how to find events,” Stenzel added. “On Oscar night, he basically dropped us all off in a parking lot next door to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, and we had to find our own way in through creativity.”
That proved to be an understatement. He met Matt Damon, Nancy Reagan, Kathy Bates, Jeff Bridges, Ed Harris, Smokey Robinson and many others during that first trip.
“I was a young kid, and this was my first time in Hollywood,” Stenzel said. “I was impressed by the bright lights and the red carpets. I got up close and personal with a lot of people I had only seen on TV. It was an instant addiction. I was fascinated by what I learned but also knew that I wanted to develop legitimate connections instead of sneaking around.”
And so his nomadic life between the Stateline and Tinseltown began for the Hononegah High School graduate, one that he summarizes well in his closing thoughts chapter of his book.
“All that glitters is not gold in Hollywood, although that scene does certainly exist,” Stenzel writes. “Hollywood has given me some of the best times of my life and has shown me a lot of tragedy while I figured out my place in the world. There have been many more highs than lows.”
Among the highs involved some of the industry's biggest names.
“I met Sean Penn at a few events in L.A. and ended up watching a Bruce Springsteen tribute concert with him,” Stenzel said. “The media portrays him (Penn) as a bad guy, but like most stars, if you treat them like regular people instead of stars, they are very cool to you.
“At a Paul McCartney tribute dinner another year, I ran into Tom Hanks and his wife, Rita Wilson,” he added. “I had a couple of programs from the night as souvenirs, and Rita couldn't find one. I offered her one of mine and she was appreciative. She introduced me to her husband and invited me backstage … it was me, one of my friends, Tom Hanks, Rita Wilson, Paul McCartney, Paul's wife, Little Steven from Bruce Springsteen's band and Paul McCartney's band. We got to meet Paul and talk to him about music and life. In a situation like this, all barriers are broken and it is not civilian talking to celebrity, it is just a room of people having a conversation.”
And he has enjoyed plenty of those, including while attending the three most star-studded celebrations:
* “The Oscars always have been fun, but events surrounding them have been my favorite. There is an Oscar nominee luncheon that I always enjoyed, as well as the Independent Spirit Awards. I attended The Spirits for several years. Most of these events are ones I have networked my way into over the years. Once you make friends with a few celebrities, agents and publicists, you end up finding yourself on lists or getting regular invites to events and award shows.”
* “The Grammys were the first award show I was extended a personal invitation. I attended eight Grammys and walked the red carpet many years. I often attended pre-Grammy parties, tribute concerts, even rehearsals many times. I attended rehearsals with Paul McCartney, Katy Perry and many others over the years.”
* “I first attended the Golden Globes in 2009. I don't attend every year and I have taken the last several years off to focus on other areas of life, but I do intend to go back. The Globes were always my favorite event because I ran into so many of my entertainment heroes, such as Steven Spielberg.”
And those connections paid off in other ways -- he has worked on several films in various capacities.
“The first film I ever did anything on was basically an extra on 'Contagion' with Matt Damon in 2010,” Stenzel said. “I was invited to the set by a friend, and I ended up doing background work and assisted another friend in special effects. This sparked my interest in getting into film work, and I have since produced a handful of independent films, written scripts and assisted in many ways on other projects.
“One of the more recent films was as a producer on a film called 'Vanished,' which is currently being pitched to Lifetime,” Stenzel added. “These are not studio films and mostly shot on a small budget. I also have done a handful of small acting roles, writing and
production assistant. I do have several projects in the pipeline at any given time. I really don't have a desire to get well known. I have been around enough of that to know it's not the lifestyle I would want.”
Still, he wouldn't trade those experiences for anything, including the ones that many people never hear about.
“I was out to dinner and ran into Lindsay Lohan,” he said. “This was when she was the 'it girl' in Hollywood. We were leaving the restaurant at the same time and talking. As soon as the doors opened, dozens of flash bulbs went off in our faces. I knew Lindsay a little bit, but we weren't on a date or technically even there together.
“I always knew about paparazzi, but I never experienced it until this point. Neither one of us could see at all. And you had to pretty much walk forward, running into cameras and people until you either got to the street or a car. I escorted her to a car before stepping back. One paparazzi climbed on her hood while over a dozen others ran after her car as she drove down the street. The disregard for safety they showed really opened my eyes to what these people have to deal with on a regular basis.”
So, Stenzel often has seen the glitter and heartache wrapped into one.
“I have experienced things that most people often don't, things that people know exist but may not have seen firsthand,” Stenzel said, including seeing stars in private moments. “The neatest thing to me is that when you are in these situations, you can have private, one-on-one moments with these people. I once encountered a pop star sitting on a curb crying outside of a party one night. I went up to her and asked if she was OK. Most stars are used to people telling them what they want to hear and they can't be themselves. She seemed to really appreciate the fact that someone cared enough to ask and didn't want anything from her. She had just broken up with her boyfriend and needed a pep talk.
“Just because someone is famous or well known doesn't mean they don't have the same problems everyone else or need to vent. A lot of people don't always understand that or get star-struck. I tend to not mention names with some stories simply because I don't want to breach anyone's trust, especially if it is something I have witnessed.”
Stenzel, recently married, works at FatWallet in Beloit as a content specialist. He enjoys playing guitar and scuba diving, not to mention writing and traveling, the latter two that made “Beyond the Red Carpet” possible -- it's available online at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.
It's definitely not a tell-all, but Stenzel provides plenty of interesting stories from hobnobbing throughout the entertainment world.
“Hollywood became a second home to me over almost 20 years,” he said. “I attended almost every major award show, movie premieres, parties, backstage access at concerts and was even invited to several stars' houses. I probably will never tell everything I have seen, but I have demonstrated the path I took and many stories and experiences in my new book.”
However, Stenzel remains a Midwest guy at heart.
“Hollywood is a great place and it is fun, but I always enjoyed coming home,” Stenzel said. “The Midwest and Stateline area is my home and feels like home. I went out to L.A. as many as 15 times a year, but I always looked forward to coming home. It kept me grounded and sane. Throughout all that time, I maintained a career in the area and many people knew very little about what I was up to when I took time off. I was pretty secretive about it simply because people tend to use you for contacts, access, etc.
“I always did this for the love of it, not for the attention,” he added. “The people closest to me started telling me that I can't go through life without telling my story, and as the years passed I realized how rare some of the things I have done actually are, even though to me much of it seems tradition now. I love film and music and always will. But home always will be where my loved ones are.”