Oscar's Life Complicated by Writers' Strike, New Setting

This year's edition of the Academy Awards promises to be full of surprises--and that's not even counting the opening of envelopes.

First, there's the small matter of a strike by the show's writers; and second, Oscar's moving this year from the plush and cozy Dorothy Chandler Pavilion to the less-plush and cavernous Shrine Auditorium.

As a result, the 60th annual Academy Awards ceremony Monday (6 p.m. on KABC-TV Channel 7) will operate under a number of conditions quite different from last year's show, or the year before that--conditions which indicate that the producers of the awards program, to be telecast nationally on the ABC network and in 88 other countries, will have their hands full.

The main problem is the continuing strike by the Writers Guild of America, which effectively prevents last-minute changes in the ceremony's script. Written by former guild President Melville Shavelson and others before the strike against the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers began March 7, the script--including everything but ad-libs and acceptance speeches--is functionally set in stone.

The guild has already sent letters warning presenters and others--regardless of whether they are guild members--against writing new material for the telecast. With that warning was a copy of strike rules that require members to inform union officials of violations of any "strikebreaking activity or scab writing."

One celebrity recipient of the warning, who declined to be identified, complained to The Times Thursday of the "McCarthy"-like tone of the guild strike rules requiring that members report on others.

Cheryl Rhoden, guild spokeswoman, said the fact that "they're taking offense at the rules governing the strike is, of course, regrettable; however, a strike is not a birthday party. People have placed their careers and their security on the line."

Rhoden said Thursday that during the telecast, union officials will be reading a "validated copy" of the show's script "very closely" for substitutions and changes.

Awards show producer Samuel Goldwyn Jr. acknowledged the difficult situation presented by the strike in an interview. The strike will make "the show less flexible," he said, but this year's show, with its emphasis on visuals and sound, is less handicapped than it might have been, he said.

The academy filed for a waiver from the guild for the Oscarcast this year in an effort to exempt the show from the writers' work stoppage, but the guild leadership denied the request. (Goldwyn said the show's production team has sought a separate, temporary union agreement, but it is not likely to be approved in time for the show.)

Rhoden said guild members "will also be watching in the hall for cue cards" containing things not found in the script. Guild members who are among the evening's presenters or hosts--Chevy Chase, for example--must either completely ad-lib or borrow from their own previously written material, Rhoden said. Any evidence of new material written by guild members expressly for the show would be grounds for disciplinary action, she said.

(Non-members found writing new material for the telecast might be barred from joining the guild, Rhoden said.)

Officially, said Rhoden, the guild does not plan to picket the ceremonies or to demonstrate during the stars' arrivals at the auditorium. But, she said, the union hasn't cautioned individual members against holding demonstrations.

For his part, Goldwyn said his working relationship with the guild has been "diplomatic," adding that he hoped there would be no serious disruptions at the Shrine.

The 62-year-old Shrine--not used for the Academy Awards since 1948--represents another variable for director Marty Pasetta and Goldwyn. The notoriously capacious Shrine, with all the broadcast hardware in place and able to seat almost 6,000 people, has presented the producers with both opportunities and risks.

"The first thing we thought of was, 'Hey, we'll actually be able to rehearse in there,' " said Goldwyn, for whom this is his second--and what he said will be his last--year as Oscar-show producer. "We enjoyed the Pavilion a lot--it's a very classy facility--but there was always a time crunch, not enough rehearsal. At the Shrine, we could be into the hall and starting up two weeks before air. That's a big benefit for a show as technically complex as the Academy Awards."

Goldwyn expects to have six full technical rehearsals this year, considerably more than in recent years at the Pavilion. Seventeen TV cameras are being used to capture the action, and the accumulated rehearsal time should make some of the more complex set pieces on the show come off more smoothly, Goldwyn said.

"We're installing two large video screens on the stage, which should emphasize to everyone the place of visuals this year," Goldwyn said. "It's also a reflection of the increasing internationality of the Oscars. We just didn't want to overload the verbal part of the show this year."

The Shrine's capacity also represents a chance for the full academy membership of 5,000 to actually attend the awards show. The Pavilion accommodated about 3,000 for previous Oscar shows.

"We've had constant complaints about not being able to seat the whole membership to view the awards they voted on being presented," Goldwyn said. "That won't happen this year."

But the Shrine may produce other difficulties. The Shrine's antiquated sound reinforcement system had to be overhauled to improve sound in the hall for those attending, and broadcast sound systems had to be redesigned in order to accommodate the new--and as yet untested--house system, Goldwyn said. Also, the air conditioning was found to be "sorely wanting and pretty noisy," he said.

"I called up the mayor's office and told them about the (air conditioning) problem," he added. "They practically shouted back, 'That's not right! For the Oscars? Everybody in those tuxedos and nervous? We're going to have to fix that!' "

There will also be the numerous small details and potential complications that go along with moving the show to a new venue, Goldwyn said, pointing to parking and traffic flow, delivery of sets, props and other hardware and crowd control.

"Heck, the first thing everyone asks me about the show is, 'What's going to wrong this year?' " Goldwyn said with a laugh.

"If the show runs 10 minutes long . . . I can live with that."

ABC has scheduled a Barbara Walters special to follow the Oscars at 9 p.m., with the usual disclaimer: "Time approximate."

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