Stage Fright

During the 65th Academy Awards in 1993, which I produced, we had a wonderful performance of Alan Menken and Tim Rice’s “A Whole New World,” which was from the Disney film Aladdin and nominated for an Oscar. Debbie Allen choreographed 35 dancers, along with the film’s stars Lea Salonga and Brad Kane. It was filled with Arabian Nights splendor.

To add to the color and character of the number, Debbie and designers Ray Aghayan and Ret Turner dressed various dancers as harem girls, fire eaters and street peddlers. For an extra fillip, we had beauteous young dancer Veena Bidasha charming a six-foot snake slithering around her shoulders. The two-year-old female royal python, Jasmine, belonged to Veena, and she was quite fond of her. Jasmine was a great pet that seemed to feel an equal affection for her owner. Everyone soon grew quite accustomed to having the snake around.

When Jasmine wasn’t dancing with Veena, she passed her time in a large jarlike wicker basket. During one rehearsal break, a curious dance colleague, perhaps just to say hello, peeked in—and in an instant, the python was out. She slid past the startled dancer and disappeared under some bleachers.

Veena was instantly summoned. Naturally, she was disturbed and looked high and low for the snake, which was nowhere to be found. Now, Stage 14 at Sunset Gower Studios (the old Colum­­bia Pictures) is quite large. Jasmine obviously wanted to be left alone and soon found her way to the farthest,quietest place she could reach.

Well, the search lasted into the night with no success. For the next couple of days, we looked everywhere. Snake experts, zoologists and various good people all pitched no avail. The stage was made colder in an effort to encourage Jasmine to move toward a warm lamp we had provided as a comfortable nest. Veena requested and received permission to sleep on the stage in the hope that the snake would come to her. Various traps were set, and bait was used (poor little mice) with no success. Some experts thought the snake might be molting. In that event, she would lose a layer of her skin, and we, of course, could find her that way. But try as we might, Jasmine was not forthcoming.

Our landlords were troubled. While we had no problem rehearsing with a hidden python—after all, she was our friend, and we wanted her to turn up for Veena—the thought of renting the stage to others was problematic. I mean, who would want to rent a space with a hidden six-foot python? The folks at Sunset Gower were not happy. Who could blame them?

Litigation loomed. Whose fault was it? Was there insurance coverage for an escaped python? I must confess, after we were repeatedly assured the snake was a sweetheart who wouldn’t hurt a soul, the idea of buying another python to put it in the building so Jasmine could be “found” seemed appealing. But morality and good judgment got the better of me, and we just kept looking.

My associate producer, Michael Seligman, was beside himself. On the one hand, we were worried about a lawsuit stemming from Sunset Gower’s inability to rent the stage when the Oscar rehearsals were finished; on the other, we had done everything we could think of to find the thing.

In the meantime, Veena used another python she owned, Aladdin, to rehearse and perform. Aladdin did a good job, though he probably knew he was an understudy.

My friend Arthur Hiller, who was president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences at the time, and the Academy’s executive director, Bruce Davis, were also stymied. During my time as producer of the Oscars, I have had Bart the bear, Beethoven the dog and Triggerson the horse (grandson of Roy Rogers’ Trigger) on the show. Movie stars all. They had each behaved well, and none had escaped. What to do?

Fortunately for us, Saul Pick, one of the owners of Sunset Gower, was a good friend of Mike Seligman and elected to hold off renting Stage 14 for several weeks. Saul was a good guy.

Lo and behold, about four months after Jasmine disappeared, a watchman was checking the stage during the filming of a sitcom, and there near the elephant door was our serpentine friend. She appeared a bit bewildered, but after the fire department was summoned, Jasmine was picked up, put in a burlap bag and returned to an ecstatic Veena.

The python had indeed molted. The lengthy shed skin was later found hidden below the area where the bleachers had been. Veena never told her favorite python that Aladdin had substituted for her on the Oscars. Pythons don’t have great eyesight, so I have a feeling when Jasmine watched the videotape of the program, she thought Aladdin was her.

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