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Steve Silver’s Opening Number: Too Big to Be Kept Under a Hat

Talk about a hat trick.

Behind-the-scenes Academy Awards workers had been quietly buzzing for days about the ceremony’s traditional opening production number, which producer Allan Carr ordered be kept secret till show time.

Oscar-philes curious about what was behind the tight lips were not disappointed: The 11-minute musical extravaganza, which focused on Snow White’s memories of old Hollywood, was literally topped off with an entrance by Lily Tomlin in a set re-creating Graumann’s Chinese Theater. Not so surprising, except that both slim star and mammoth movie palace were perched atop the crown of a presumably headstrong female dancer.

“It’s the first time anyone has walked out on stage with a movie star on her head,” claimed Steve Silver, the mad hatter hired by Carr last fall to create and design the unusual number, which also featured such oddities as tap-dancing tables.

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As for the poor unknown in the supporting role beneath Tomlin: “She’s harnessed in there quite well,” Silver said shortly before Wednesday’s telecast. “She’s been in there for two days. We keep bringing her food and water and she’s doing just fine. Fortunately, we don’t have to cage her, so it’s an easy feed.”

The crowning effect--which involved a 600-pound, 30-foot-tall “hat” and some of the sturdiest back braces ever designed, among other engineering feats--was the sort of marvel most Americans have never witnessed. For San Franciscans, though, such a sight is by now, well, old hat.

For nearly 15 years, Silver has been the driving force behind “Beach Blanket Babylon,” an oft-changing San Francisco revue in which Snow White goes looking for love in all the wrong places. (A version of the show also recently opened in Las Vegas.)

It’s in that long-running musical comedy production--recognized by city officials as a top tourist attraction--that Silver refined his talents concocting singing-'n'-dancing inanimate objects and gargantuan headpieces with startling mechanical effects. The current San Francisco edition of “Babylon,” for instance, has Barbara Bush portrayed as an actual singing bush--with pearls and high heels.

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When Queen Elizabeth visited the Bay Area a few years ago, she chuckled as a hat that Silver had designed to look like London had a model of Big Ben opening up to reveal miniatures of the royal family inside. Tourists don’t usually get to see that one, but nightly visitors can see the San Francisco headgear that has the Transamerica Tower seemingly rising out of a dancer’s head, or the giant globe cap that has the United States and the Soviet Union shaking hands.

“You kind of have to see it,” said a bubbly Silver, clearly used to the puzzled looks he gets when he tries to describe his creations.

A former painter who discovered he was a showman at heart, Silver describes what he does as “silly stuff, but really obvious stuff.” He calls his humor “sick,” but adds: “I do not believe in offending. You could bring your mother or your daughter to ‘Beach Blanket Babylon.’ The thing is that I like to have fun with , not make fun of , and it’s a very fine line. If we do any parodies on anyone, we want to do it so when they come they have a good time too. It’s not mean-spirited; it has to be really positive.

“People today want escapism, and that’s the kind of stuff that I do. It’s kind of like a ‘Roger Rabbit’ kind of thing where you go, you sit down and you’re entertained. . . . I mean, I would not be good doing Shakespeare. I’m the first to admit that.”

Silver had never done a production number outside of his own “Beach Blanket” revue before; his only movie experience was as an assistant art director on “Harold and Maude,” though he’s sure to get a flood of offers after Wednesday night’s show.

“For about 20 years now, I have wanted to do the Academy Awards,” Silver said. “Because I’ll tell you what life is all about for me: Life is nothing more than crossing things off your list. The more things you cross off, the clearer your path becomes. And the Academy Awards is one of those things.”


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