May 24, 2011 04:30 PM by Ryan Haidet
As a Survivor fan, I consider myself to be extremely lucky. Including Survivor: Redemption Island, I have covered the last 10 season finales as a member of the studio audience with a spot on the red carpet following each live reunion show. There really is no better job when it comes to having a passion for what I think is the best reality show on the planet. One of the questions I get asked the most frequently is, “What is it like being in the audience during a finale?” I answered that question with an article about my experience at the Survivor: Tocantins finale in 2009. I thought I would revisit that same question with a glimpse inside the Ed Sullivan Theater once again — this time for Survivor: Redemption Island.
Let’s begin with the day before the finale itself. After spending most of the afternoon around New York City being a tourist, I ran into some of the cast at the hotel. I snapped a few pictures with most of them and grabbed a slew of autographs. Later that night, I decided to walk to the Ed Sullivan Theater — the same location where the David Letterman show is taped — to see if there was anything going on.
It was around 10 p.m. when I got there and peeked through the front doors of the theater to see nothing at all. The red carpet had not been set up yet. Surrounding the outside of the building, there were multiple trucks apparently filled with equipment for the finale. I asked one of the security guards outside if everything there was for Survivor. He simply nodded. In passing, I noticed that some of the set pieces — clearly representing the rocks from Tribal Council — covered in plastic at the edge of Broadway right in front of the theater (see image below).
On the day of the finale, I watched the entire cast leave the hotel around 1 p.m. with their wardrobe bags in hand. This was the first time I had seen Boston Rob Mariano all weekend since he was the only castaway staying at a different hotel. He was grinning from ear to ear on his way outside as many fans waited in the lobby like members of the paparazzi hoping to get a good picture.
With several hours to spare before I needed to arrive at the studio, I spent the afternoon at Coney Island before heading back to the hotel for a shower.
I arrived at the theater around 7 p.m. where gobs of people were lined up waiting for their turn to go inside. I quickly approached one of the sign-in tables where I was given two silicon wristbands — a white one for access to my seat in the audience, and a red one for access to the red carpet.
Once inside the buidling, I was ushered to my assigned seat. But I wasn’t in the mood to sit down and wait for the show to start. Instead, I walked around and talked with a few former Survivor contestants I had met in the past who were also present in the studio (Courtney Yates and Stephen Fishbach). After saying hello to them, I walked to the front of the stage and took several pictures.
It is always amazing to see the set up close and personal. The production team truly does an amazing job transforming the Letterman stage into Tribal Council. I asked one of the CBS personnel to take a picture of me in front of the stage when I spotted Mark Burnett out of the corner of my eye.
I have met Mark Burnett on multiple occasions throughout the time I’ve covered Survivor — but it’s always excitingly intimidating to see him in person. I took the opportunity to ask him if he would take a picture with me in front of the Tribal Council set. After agreeing to take the photo with me, Mark plopped down on the edge of the stage and instructed me to follow suit. It was an awesome moment and I love the way the picture turned out (see below).
As I made my way back to my seat, I noticed Jeff Probst’s parents entering the studio. I have been friends with Mrs. Probst since Survivor: Samoa and it’s always a pleasure to spend a few moments with her. She gave me a big hug and talked with me for about 15 minutes just prior to the show beginning. We talked about this season and how life had treating us in general. She really is a great lady.
Before I knew it, the show was starting and I was back in my seat.
Once the show begins, there really isn’t anything too thrilling for the studio audience to experience. Everybody inside watches the taped portions of the show on multiple monitors scattered throughout the studio. During commercial breaks, the warm-up guy explains how the live portions of the show will work while offering some rules for the night.
About 15 minutes before the live portion of the finale, crew members began lighting all of the fires on the Tribal Council set. This is when Amber — Rob’s wife — and their two children were escorted to the front row of the theater after watching most of the finale in the green room.
Moments later, the final three and all of the jury members emerged from backstage as the studio audience erupted in cheers. They each quickly sat down in their spots around the fire and watched the monitors with the rest of us.
With the cameramen in place, the band started playing and Probst walked in from the rear of the theater. When he read the votes and revealed that Boston Rob was the winner, the house was rocking! I have never heard a studio audience so excited for somebody to win the game. Ever. Everybody there was on Rob’s side. I even think Natalie’s parents and Phillip’s friends were rooting for Rob. OK, maybe not. But it was hard to not be rooting for him.
Now let’s get to some of the stuff that happened behind the scenes.
During the commercial breaks, the warm-up guy tried to tell jokes and keep the crowd entertained as crew members adjusted the set or added makeup to those on stage. Probst also spoke directly to the audience about a variety of topics. For example, at one point Probst asked the audience for their general reaction to the Redemption Island twist. The initial response was overwhelmingly positive, but as those cheers died down, some audience members booed the concept while others shouted their own suggestions on how to tweak the twist.
Another interesting point came moments after David’s marriage proposal to Survivor: Tocantins castaway, Carolina Eastwood. If you remember, this moment lasted way too long during the live show as Probst and David had a weird banter back and forth before the ring was pulled out. After this took place and the show went to commercial, Carolina was brought on the stage to sit on David’s lap. Weird. Probst turned to the crowd and admitted they had clearly worked this plan out ahead of time, but he was starting to fear David was getting cold feet because of his slow reaction. Probst joked that he thought David wasn’t going to go through with it at all.
As the show came to a close, the theater quickly emptied out as loads of crew members began immediately dismantling the set. Outside in the main hallway, the press gathered on the red carpet ready to interview the final eight castaways — myself included.
There you have it. A view from a seat in the audience!
Images by Ryan Haidet.
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