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The band is in full swing, belting out familiar tunes as catering staff weave through the crowds of people, serving up a variety of hor d'oeuvres. The bartenders can barely keep up with the demand for martinis and other drinks. And a professional photographer snaps pictures, one after another of groups of partygoers in front of a backdrop to help provide a memento of the night.
Suddenly, a deep baritone voice, as if coming from the clouds (or at least the highest reaches of the hall), punctures the raucous sounds of revelry. The voice reverberates through the massive room with one singular prophetic message.
"Ladies and Gentlemen, the cocktail reception is now over, and tonight's program is about to begin. Please make your way to your seats."
This evening's event is the 20th annual dinner for Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN), one of hundreds of organizations headquartered in Washington, D.C., many of which throw formal galas at least once a year.
At the microphone and behind the red curtain stands Andrew Criss, a young stocky bearded man with a voice that reaches the rafters. He is known as the "Voice of God," a divine name given to professional announcers like him who work to make formal introductions at events like these. He tries not to let his title get to his head.
"I do have a lot of people who if they have seen me in the booth will come up and say, 'It's God!' They'll call me that jokingly," he says. "You get humbled when you make a mistake, or you blow something, or you audibly stutter."
However, working as a professional announcer for years has enabled Criss to perfect his craft, keeping stutters and mistakes to a minimum.
"My goal is always to sound like a recording," he says. "And if people say, 'oh I thought you were a recording' then I know I've done a good job. It's a matter of sounding not conversational but very very polished and professional while you're speaking."
He says the only reason he is not put out of business by recordings altogether is the inherent fluidity of live events necessitating an announcer who can adjust to changing plans when scheduled speakers are late or don't show up at all. While the script he is given gives a precise schedule of events down to the minute, he sees it as a rough estimate at best, with most politicians who speak running over their allotted time.
For the duration of the formal SLDN program, he is the person behind the curtain introducing everyone from the executive director of the organization to a singer of the national anthem. He is keenly focused with his headset over one ear anticipating the cue from the program coordinators to read on. He holds the script firmly in his right hand, keeping one eye on the line of people to his left ready to step onto stage. His left hand reaches for the mic.
"Ladies and Gentlemen," he says. "Welcome to the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network 20th annual national dinner. Please turn off all cell phones and other electronic devices at this time."
His voice echoes through the expansive void of the National Building Museum, the venue of the festivities.
"I'm the guy who says ladies and gentlemen a lot," Criss says. "Most of the jobs that I do in D.C. are live events, a black tie dinner, a political function, like an inaugural ball, a company's annual party that they have, and I'm the voice that you hear coming over the event. You never see me. I'm not an MC host. I don't stand on the stage in a tuxedo."
While Criss now works the mic at events all over the country, announcing in Washington, D.C. over the past decade has brought him a wealth of unique experiences.
"Because a lot of these events are focused on policy or the elections or legislation that is being pushed, I have had the good fortune of being in the room when pretty important announcements have been made," he says.
"I was in the room when George Bush said that countries that love freedom do not build weapons of mass destruction, and pretty soon we were in the war with Iraq," he says. "I was in the room when president Barak Obama said he would repeal Don't Ask Don't Tell. I was in the room when we celebrated the repeal of it, which was amazing. It's kind of amazing to be in Washington and see those moments that will become history happen right in front of you."
Criss dates the start of his career and interest in announcing back to his high school days, when he was doing the announcements for the halftime program of football games. Eventually, after he moved to the District, a friend with connections to local events helped him secure his first job as an announcer.
"I had no idea that I could possibly make a living doing this, or that it even existed as a potential job, but 10 years later, here I am," he says.
Perhaps it was a bit of divine providence for this voice of god.
[Music: "Working for the Weekend" by The Brown Derbies from We Deliver / "Live Like We're Dying (Karaoke in the Style of Kris Allen)" by Karaoke Hit Collective from Karaoke Hit Collective Presents: The Hits Vol. 3]
Photos: D.C. Gigs