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Staff Reporter

"I NEED TICKETS" signs are on every corner outside the Shrine Auditorium. White stretch limousines are quickly filling up a VIP parking lot. A huge grill is stoked and piled high with smoking beef ribs.

Backstage, Tony Cornelius is a picture of calm as he oversees final preparations for the Soul Train Awards show, set to start at 5. "Nothing can stop this roller coaster now," he says.

Cornelius is the son of Don Cornelius, who launched the popular "Soul Train" show in 1970. Tony has overseen the awards since their beginning. Don is there, too, dressed in a black tux, while Tony wears a long, flocked black coat with black tuxedo pants.

Around them, stagehands are yelling, "Big set coming through!" Dozens of musical instruments have been left on nearby risers next to a ridiculously oversized, hot-pink velvet throne.

Cell phones are everywhere, even among the eight Soul Train Dancers. Whenever there's a ring, everyone reaches into his or her pocket or bag. A publicist is on her phone, giving directions to someone in a car. "No, you were supposed to make a right on Figueroa," she yells over the noise. "It's Missy Eliot no, not Shant & #233;e, it's Shanice. I don't need to tell you this!"

At 4:58, two minutes to show time, a camera assistant wearing spike heels and a sheer dress runs by carrying a huge zoom lens. A cameraman sits on his equipment box and says, "This isn't as much fun as the Grammys."

Magic Johnson hangs out backstage, chatting with his entourage. A stagehand rushes up and motions them to their seats. "I gotta' start the show on time!" he says.

At 5:02, superstar Lauryn Hill is the first performer to take the stage. She wears a frayed denim outfit and a big sparkling head wrap. She was last year's best new artist and is nominated for four awards this year.

A few minutes later, Dru Hill sings a number that ends with the lighting of a fake cannon and the setting off of fireworks. The cannon didn't light during rehearsal, so there is considerable relief when this time, on live TV, it goes off without a hitch.

The show rolls along. At 5:40, a huge cartoon country-house flanked by trees and picket fences is rolled through the backstage area for the Busta Rhymes set. There are more cries of "big scenery coming through." A tree falls over and four stage hands rush back to catch it. Along with the house, a red Humvee (off-road vehicle) sits backstage ready to be rolled down a platform during the performance.

Five minutes later, the disc jockey for Rhymes is missing. People yell his name, Flip Mode.

"We need a DJ, We've lost our DJ!" Moments later, Flip is found and the set goes on.

At 6, R. Kelly wins the award for best male rhythm and blues/soul album. The stage manager gets on the phone to the director and shouts, "R. Kelly refuses to go out, Magic will accept, Magic will accept!" Magic Johnson glides up to the stage and accepts the award saying, "R. Kelly was getting ready to perform."

Ten minutes later, the stage crew is preparing for one of the highlights a medley by Whitney Houston and other singers. The stage manager croaks: "We got Whitney? Where's Whitney WHITNEY Houston?" She is rushed backstage, surrounded by four handlers. One brushes her face with blush, one fluffs her hair, one sprays her throat, and another takes her velvet wrap and leads her by the hand to the stage.

When the segment is over, she comes off and is given a multi-colored velvet stole to wear before she speaks with Luther Vandross. "How's mama doin'?" she asks. "You know I love you."

The hot-pink throne is now onstage and occupied by Kelly Price, a big woman who won the best new rhythm and blues/soul or rap artist award earlier in the evening. She wears a cobalt blue leather jumpsuit and sits in repose as she waits for a commercial to end. When the music starts, she bounds off the chair to begin to sing and dance.

At 6:50, there's one last crisis. Presenter Missy Eliot still hasn't shown up, so singers Shanice and Keith Sweat present the Sammy Davis Jr. award themselves to Lauryn Hill as Soul Train's entertainer of the year.

"Big up to you, Soul Train!" Hill tells the screaming audience as the show comes to an end.

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