LOS ANGELES (AP) -- The 81st annual Academy Awards were set to begin Sunday night. Here's what one writer was seeing from his vantage point inside the Kodak Theatre, balcony box 6.

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While the mood is vibrant outside on the red carpet, it's eerily calm inside the theater nearly two hours before the start of the show. About a dozen ushers are guarding — silently, in an almost militaristic fashion — the empty blue orchestra seats where nominees and other assorted A-listers are expected to sit for the ceremony. Light jazz wafts into the theater from the lobby.

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"Winner's Walk," the direct backstage path from the stage to the press room at the Kodak Theatre, has been accessorized with curtains and orchid bouquets. The special hallway is lined with large portraits of past Oscar winners, such as Sally "You like me!" Field, that were snapped during their acceptance speeches. Also along the way: an open bar.

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As more audience members continue to trickle into the theater, a house band just off stage is performing such tunes as "Cool" from "West Side Story," adding to this year's nightclub vibe. Two curtains are encasing the stage before the start of the show. One is a shiny blue curtain. The other is a black awning blanketed with over 90,000 Swarovski crystals.

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Among the nominees assigned to sit in the front row: Kate Winslet, Anne Hathaway, Taraji P. Henson, Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, Marisa Tomei, Mickey Rourke and Penelope Cruz. Jerry Lewis, who is being bestowed with a prestigious Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, and his family have their own box on the orchestra level.

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Jumbo monitors are blasting the supposedly live red carpet pre-show inside the Kodak Theatre. On screen, Entertainment Weekly editor Jess Cagle is interviewing best actor nominee Mickey Rourke, but "The Wrestler" actor has already taken his seat next to co-star Marisa Tomei. Rourke notices himself on screen and points up to it.