As Ali Walton worked her way through the packed crowd, her mind replayed a single thought: Don’t step on Sofia Vergara’s dress.
Yes, that Sofia Vergara. And that stunning white dress that the Modern Family star wore to the 69th Emmy Awards on Sunday evening. Walton, a communications arts major in her senior year at UW-Madison, found herself on the red carpet alongside the actress and spent the night rubbing elbows with standouts of the silver screen. Incredibly, it was just one of many is-this-really-my-life? highlights from a summer internship in Los Angeles.
Walton and fellow communication arts major Ryan Holtz left campus this past May to intern at CBS. Walton worked in the comedy development department, which creates new television shows for upcoming seasons for the network. She attended pitch meetings and table reads and listened in on calls. “It was incredible sitting in on meetings with executives because I was able to see first-hand how they analyze and breakdown scripts and story ideas,” she says.
Holtz, meanwhile, served as a program planning and scheduling intern. It’s a unique position that Kelly Kahl, a UW-Madison alum and now president of CBS Entertainment, offers to a UW-Madison communication arts student each summer. Kahl’s mentorship was incredibly valuable, as was the peek into the realities of working in entertainment, says the student from Reedsburg, Wisconsin.
“It reinforced that I definitely want to work in this industry, but it made me take a step back and look at how huge this industry is,” says Holtz, who will return to LA after he graduates in January, to work as an assistant at CBS, a real-job extension of his internship.
Over the summer, CBS hosted “speaker nights” during which executives from different departments would share insights and advice with interns and pages.
“It was mentioned briefly that there would be some sort of reward for the interns who attended the most nights,” Holtz says. “As it turns out, Ali Walton and I were the only two who never missed a night.”
It reinforced that I definitely want to work in this industry, but it made me take a step back and look at how huge this industry is.
Their reward: the chance to work at the Emmys.
Walton and Holtz jetted back to LA last week and logged 10-hour days setting up tables, prepping dressing rooms and watching dress rehearsals — “We knew all the jokes Stephen Colbert was going to do,” Walton says — in preparation for showtime.
“Basically, whenever someone needed something, we’d do it,” Walton says. “I helped Mandy Moore with her dress in the bathroom.”
Their credentials granted them access to the famous red carpet, where Walton crossed paths with Oprah Winfrey, Gina Rodriguez, Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon and other celebrities. But even more than that, she appreciated the chance to learn about production work and reconnect with professionals she had met over the summer.
“You always want to be networking, you always want to be keeping those connections,” says Walton, who is from Milwaukee and plans to move to LA after graduation, with a dream of working in comedy or drama development.
For Holtz, a highlight was when Kahl surprised him with a ticket to the Governor’s Ball, the star-studded after-party. There, he spotted his all-time favorite director, Christopher Nolan. Knowing he’d regret not saying something, Holtz told Nolan how much he admired his work. “It was my biggest completely star-struck moment,” he says.
Hotlz left with the feeling that it wouldn’t be his last time attending such a big-deal Hollywood event.
“I thought to myself, ‘I’ll be back.’”
A friend in Hollywood
Kelly Kahl left Vilas Hall in 1989 armed with a communication arts degree and a lifelong love of television. How did he work his way to the top of CBS?
“It was kind of the classic pack-up-the-car-and-go story,” says Kahl, who was named president of CBS Entertainment this summer. “I came out here with no conduits into entertainment. No friends in Hollywood, no uncles at a studio, no aunts in television.”
Kahl attributes his success partly to “plain old luck” and also to a strong work ethic. “I try to impart to the interns we bring out here and the students I speak to at UW that Hollywood can be hard to crack. If you want to stand out, especially early on, develop a reputation as a dependable person.”
Kahl, a 2017 recipient of the Distinguished Alumni Award, is eager to help students, especially those lucky ones who land the internship he’s sponsored each summer for the past decade.
“I’m probably most proud of being able to find jobs for almost all of them,” he says.
Communication arts department chair Mike Xenos says the internship is “the most coveted” of all that are offered through the department.
“Everyone who does it raves about what a great experience it is and how generous Kelly is with his time and mentoring,” he says.