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It’s Showtime for Oscar : Worshiping at the Shrine

Tonight’s Academy Awards show, which can resemble an ancient ceremonial ritual with Hollywood’s gods and goddesses figuratively bowing before a graven image, is taking place in an authentic temple.

Despite severe traffic and parking problems last year that barred several prominent celebrities from making the show on time, the Oscar ceremonies tonight will return to the Shriners’ Al Malaikah Temple, commonly known as the Shrine Auditorium. The Shrine also hosted Hollywood’s famed awards show in 1947 and 1948.

Richard Kahn, president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, said the Oscars changed locations--after 19 years at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in the Music Center--because the Shrine offered increased rehearsal time and twice the seating for the academy’s 5,200 members. Also, the Governors Ball following the ceremonies could be conveniently moved from the Beverly Hilton to the adjoining exposition hall.

“There’s no question that the Music Center, with its jewel-like setting, is a wonderful location for events such as the Academy Awards,” Kahn said. “But the Shrine is a nostalgic venue with comparable virtues.”

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Located on Jefferson Boulevard near Figueroa Street, the towering 100-foot walls and elaborate Arabesque filigree of the 63-year-old Shrine rise suddenly from the ground like a concrete extension of the sidewalk. Inside, the cavernous Shrine seats nearly 6,500 (more than double the Pavilion), each seat with an unobstructed sight line of the entire 65-foot-by-185-foot stage.

“You have more rehearsal time at the Shrine, and the audience was looser because you had more people,” said film producer Samuel Goldwyn Jr., who produced the last two Oscar shows, at the Pavilion and the Shrine. “I enjoyed the Shrine. . . . The more people you can get in, the better, but that’s just a basic showman’s instinct.”

(Allan Carr, co-producer and co-author of the movie musical “Grease” and producer of the Tony-award winning “La Cage aux Folles,” will produce tonight’s scheduled three-hour Academy Awards ceremonies on ABC beginning at 6 p.m. on Channels 7, 3, 10 and 42.)

The whitewashed exterior of the Shrine last year presented a marked contrast to the plush elegance of the Music Center nestled comfortably on Bunker Hill. The traditional 200-foot-long red carpet walk the stars take from their limousines to the Pavilion was shortened to a 60-foot, curb-side jaunt at the Shrine.

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In an apparent attempt to mask the fading facade of the Shrine, six golden, 24-foot statues of Oscar stood majestically under the sweeping Moorish arches at the entrance, and sheeting only partially dressed the wooden bungalows and bleachers outside.

“This year, the look of the show will capitalize in every way on the rococo aspects of the building and glorify the historic, Hollywood theme, rather than attempt to high-tech or gloss it over,” Kahn said.

For Oscar night, three-time Emmy-winner Ray Klausen re-created the swank Cocoanut Grove night club--which hosted the Academy Awards show in 1930, 1940 and 1943--but was closed down when the Ambassador Hotel on Wilshire locked its doors in January. The show’s glamorous opening number, in which Merv Griffin will resume his bandstand perch, will breathe life back into the legendary nightclub with an on-stage guest list that includes Alice Faye, Dorothy Lamour, Cyd Charisse, Dick Van Dyke and Roy Rogers and Dale Evans.

Still, there are some not as willing to adapt to the building’s older characteristics. Last week, the American Ballet Theatre, a fixture at the Shrine for the last eight years of its West Coast visits, announced that it was leaving the Shrine and taking its troupe to the Pavilion for the 1990 season. The move was reportedly due to a combination of the public’s preference for the Music Center and that the dancers believe they look better there.

Alarmed by last year’s traffic problems, Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley pitched in the city’s support for this year’s Academy Award presentations. To tame the traffic snarls, the Los Angeles Department of Transportation devised a sophisticated traffic system, including detailed arrival and departure plans, lane closures and seven different parking passes to direct guests into the three Shrine parking lots and eight additional area lots that will be used. In addition, close to 100 officers--almost twice as many as last year--have been assigned to patrol the event and direct traffic.

“Los Angeles is the entertainment capital of the world,” Bradley said, “and I’ll do everything within my power to keep it that way. The film and recording industries employ thousands of people and attract hundreds of thousands of visitors to our city. There’s no doubt the entertainment industry is a strong asset of our Los Angeles economy.”

After losing the Grammy Awards ceremony in 1988 to Radio City Music Hall in New York, the management of the Shrine set out last year to retain its bid as the premier presenter of nationally televised awards shows. (The Shrine also stages the American Music Awards, the Soul Train Awards and the NAACP Image Awards, and has hosted the Country Music Awards.)

“The Shrine Auditorium has an identity problem,” said auditorium manager Douglas Worthington, who spearheaded an aggressive campaign to snatch the Oscars from the Pavilion and lure the Grammys back to Los Angeles, while currently negotiating for the 1990 Emmys. “Nobody has heard of us. Awards shows like these are strong marketing tools. They let promoters and the general public know who the Shriners are and what the temple has to offer.”

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The Shrine Auditorium was not the first temple built by the Shriners. A smaller temple was built on the same site in 1907 for $120,000 by the Nobles of the Ancient Arabic Order of the Mystic Shrine. The Shrine is an international fraternity of approximately 850,000 members, all of whom are Masons. The fraternity of Freemasonry is the oldest and largest fraternity in the world, dating back hundreds of years when stonemasons and other craftsman gathered together in lodges to promote moral and spiritual values.

The first temple, erected primarily for use by the fraternal order, burned to the ground in 1920, the result of what police believed to be an exploded gas heater. The Shriners decided to replace the temple with a theater and exposition hall unequaled anywhere in the world, one that could serve the needs of the Los Angeles community as well as the Shriners.

Heralded as fireproof and earthquake resistant, the new and improved $2.5-million Shrine Civic Auditorium, billed as the largest theatrical facility in America, opened to citywide fanfare in 1926. Architects John C. Austin, A. M. Edelman and G. A. Lansburgh, who also designed the Wiltern Theatre, created what quickly became Los Angeles’ prime cultural center for the next 40 years, although the facility, wholly owned and operated by the Shriners, never received city or state funding.

Reflecting the classic Moorish architecture popularized by the Masons, who claim their predecessors built King Solomon’s Temple in 1011 BC, the Shriners’ Al Malaikah (meaning “city of angels” in Arabic) Temple features broad domes, false parapets and high, narrow archways.

The Shrine may be the only theater in existence with more seats in its balcony than in the orchestra section on the floor--with no supporting pillars to obstruct the view of those below.

Overhead, a multicolored, five-ton crystal chandelier in the main auditorium hangs from a concrete and plaster ceiling shaped like a cloth tapestry, giving the illusion of a magnificent swag tent top. Original, hand-painted stencils adorn the shadowy crevices of the walls and ceiling.

When it opened, there was no theater facility in Los Angeles to rival the Shrine’s seating, flexibility or excellent acoustics. Its expansive stage accommodated ballet, opera and vaudeville shows, circuses, concerts, a portable rink for ice skating revues, a boxing ring for amateur boxing matches and a motion picture screen for the early movies of Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks.

Before the Los Angeles Sports Arena was built, the nearby USC basketball team played home games on the hardwood stage. Meanwhile, the 56,000-square-foot exposition hall was used as a roller-skating rink.

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On March 13, 1947, the Academy Awards moved its show into the Shrine from the Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. To fill the seats, the film academy sold tickets to the general public for the first time, while ABC broadcast the ceremonies to more than 40 million radio listeners.

Ronald Reagan, president of the Screen Actor’s Guild and husband of best actress nominee Jane Wyman, set the stage for the dignified ceremony by solemnly narrating a montage of Oscar-winning films, oblivious to the fact that the picture he was narrating was showing on the ceiling instead of the screen, upside down and backwards, due to a technical problem with the projector.

The Oscars returned to the Shrine in 1948, highlighted by the antics of would-be political columnist Art Buchwald and film producer David L. Wolper--both USC students at the time--who paraded a third student dressed in a gorilla suit up and down the aisles before the show to promote a student drama written by Buchwald. While some attendees were enraged by the spectacle, enterprising RKO publicists snapped photos of the ape and claimed it was a publicity stunt for the studio’s upcoming feature, “Mighty Joe Young.”

The next year the Oscars retreated to the small academy screening theater in Hollywood to reduce expenses. The decade that followed witnessed the rapid decay of the neighborhood surrounding the Shrine. In the early 1960s, more modern facilities such as the Music Center and Sports Arena emerged, eclipsing the glory of the Shrine and stealing away its acts.

One of the Shrine’s lowest points came in 1974, when protesters picketed the Soviet Union’s Moiseyev Dance Company appearance there. A pipe bomb shattered glass and damaged the front doors of the Shrine the night before the company opened its five-day run.

The Shrine underwent a renaissance and began its climb back to national prominence in 1976, when the Shriners commissioned what turned out to be a $3 million refurbishing project to restore the facility--deemed a historical landmark by the city, state and National Historical Society--to its former glamour. The damaged outer lobby was enclosed in glass, the building’s exterior was repainted, more than 12,000 yards of carpet were laid, elevators and an air conditioner were installed, and the entire auditorium floor was raised up more than two feet to improve sight lines.

Then, in 1978, the Shrine landed the nationally televised Grammy awards show.

“The reason I went to the Shrine was because the show was getting too big for the (Hollywood) Paladium, which seated only 2,000 people,” said Pierre Cossette, producer of the Grammy telecasts for the past 19 years. “Most of the acts in the Grammys are self-contained, with each group and their equipment set up on a band cart you roll onto stage immediately before their performance. We’ve had as many as 14 band carts waiting backstage at the Shrine. You can’t do that anywhere else.

“If somebody today were to ask me how to build the perfect theater, I’d tell them to make it just like the Shrine.”

When New York Mayor Edward Koch bent over backwards to provide security, traffic control and publicity for the 1988 Grammy Award ceremony in New York, Mayor Bradley--realizing what a prize the Grammys meant to Los Angeles--responded by forming a Los Angeles Host Committee to usher the Grammys back in 1989.

“The intention of the committee is to be a continuing organization that will work with the entire entertainment industry, not just the recording academy, to keep shows like the Grammys in Los Angeles,” said executive director James Stewart, who helped the host committee raise $200,000 for the Grammys and sponsored a series of special activities to welcome them back.

For 1990, Cossette said the Grammys have signed a commitment to return to the Shrine. The Oscars, on the other hand, already have a deposit on the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, where theater officials have guaranteed sufficient rehearsal time for next year’s Oscar ceremonies.

Worthington, however, feels if he can work out the traffic and parking problems that occurred last year, he can entice the film academy to remain at the Shrine. Last week, the Shriners signed a letter of intent to complete a multilevel parking structure by the summer of 1990.

For the auditorium on Oscar night, Worthington will receive no more than his standard $4,000 rental fee, plus rehearsal time, and he will forfeit the 10%-of-gross ticket sales he normally receives from bookings.

“We don’t participate in shows like this for the money--we become involved because this is what the Shrine is all about,” Worthington said. He then paused for dramatic effect, before breaking in with an impromptu announcer’s voice: “Live, from the Shrine Auditorium in downtown Los Angeles, we bring you the American Music Awards, we bring you the 31st annual Grammy Awards, we bring you the 61st annual Academy Awards. . . .

“Do I need to say anything more?”


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