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What You Won’t See at Oscars : On Cue: Behind Those Cameras on Oscar Night

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In the middle of the 1983 Academy Awards, the trailer housing the TV director and his technical staff at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion began to shake violently.

The crew inside--the people calling the cues for talent and music and camera, the technicians responsible for sending coverage of the ceremony to millions of television viewers around the world--thought it was an earthquake.

Their first instinct was to run from the vehicle before it tipped over, remembered one technician on duty that night. But then they realized that they were in the middle of the Oscars and “the show must go on” no matter what.

Turned out, it was only an elephant.

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On its way into the auditorium to present one of the envelopes with its trunk, the massive extra from that year’s winning movie, “Gandhi,” had simply brushed the trailer with its prodigious rear end.

Tonight--cross your fingers--there probably will be no earthquake. There definitely will be no elephant. And if all goes well, the worst the TV team will have to contend with is a flubbed line or a maudlin acceptance speech that goes on too long.

Jeff Margolis, who will direct his fifth consecutive Oscar telecast at 6 p.m. on ABC, said that he doesn’t dare think of what can go wrong when he settles in to call the shots. With 250 people hooked up to him via radio headsets and the fact that each winner is a mystery until the envelope is opened, the potential for mishap is enormous.

Fortunately, he said, things have gone awry only once in his previous four outings. The 1988 ceremony originated from Los Angeles and from five other spots around the globe. In rehearsals, Margolis and his crew could not get the satellite hookup to work properly from Moscow, where Jack Lemmon was hosting. During the live broadcast, the connection finally clicked but when Lemmon began to talk, his voice echoed badly.

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“I knew immediately why there was an echo,” Margolis said. “The sound in the room where he was standing was too loud and it was reverberating back through his microphone. The producer in Russia was on a headset with me here in L.A. and I said, ‘Turn the sound down in the room.’ The producer yelled, ‘What?’ and I screamed, ‘You have to turn the sound down in the room to stop the echo.’ Again he said, ‘What?’ And I yelled even louder, ‘Turn the sound down’ and he said, ‘I can’t hear you. The sound is too loud.’ ”

Some unexpected events turn out to be fun. In 1974, in one of Oscar’s most legendary moments, a naked man skirted security, cut through the cyclorama--an expensive, seamless curtain backdrop on which images can be projected--and ran across the stage behind David Niven. While many people got a good laugh out of it, Keaton S. Walker, who has worked as an art director on the telecast on and off since 1972, said that he was “very upset” because the cyclorama had just been purchased and already was scheduled to be rented to another show.

Walker said he had no idea how the streaker managed to sneak behind the curtain in the first place.

But Robert Metzler, who has served as the event’s business manager and general trouble-shooter for the past 40 years, has his own theory.

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“I don’t think it was accidental,” he said. “My wife was here for the dress rehearsal and David Niven asked her out in the lobby if he could borrow her pen. She gave it to him and he sat on a step out there and wrote his ad-lib remark about this fellow’s shortcomings, and then he told my wife how proud he was about this terse line he’d written. And that was two hours before it happened. That’s all I know about it.”

Part of the reason Metzler--who can sit for hours telling yarns about movie stars and Oscar trouble-shooting over the past four decades--believes that the streaker was a set-up is the overzealous security gaffes he’s witnessed during ceremonies past.

One year, he saw a uniformed officer vehemently turning away someone in a two-toned Rolls-Royce because the car did not have the proper sticker. Metzler said he arrived on the scene just in time to hear Frank Sinatra scream, “So you’re giving me permission to turn around and go home? Fine!”

A few years earlier, when the ceremony was held at the Pantages theater in Hollywood, Metzler said he saw Oscar-winning actress Jennifer Jones, who was decked out in a long gown, being carried by her elbows six inches off the ground by two security guards. “And she was saying, ‘I mustn’t cry. I mustn’t cry. I mustn’t ruin my makeup,’ ” Metzler recalled. “And I said, ‘Put her down,’ and they said, ‘We can’t put her down. She doesn’t have a badge.’ ”

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Prior to another Oscar ceremony held at the Santa Monica Civic auditorium in the early 1960s, a woman protesting Hollywood’s neglect of African-Americans had threatened to drive a car in front of the theater and throw away the keys, blocking the highly choreographed traffic pattern for the stars’ arrival. As a precaution, Metzler hired a tow truck to stand by. The protest never happened but Fox mogul Darryl F. Zanuck’s car broke down nearby.

“He and Mrs. Zanuck got out and walked the rest of the way to the theater, and the tow truck, which we had there for the first time, towed away his Rolls-Royce while everyone stuck in the snarled traffic whistled and applauded.”

Metzler said that he engaged in a friendly war with Joan Crawford for many years over the free Coca-Cola that was given out as a promotion to everyone at the Oscars. As a member of the board of Pepsico, she always cajoled him to switch to her brand. Whenever he told her he couldn’t dump Coke for Pepsi, she’d uninvite him to her post-Oscar champagne party.

But it was also Crawford who taught him a timeless lesson in being a star. In 1962, Crawford had to rush out toward the end of the Oscar ceremony to catch a plane to New York. Metzler was charged with escorting her out the back to her chauffeured car.

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“And from out of nowhere, kids 12, 13 years old came running up to her wanting autographs,” he said. “She was flattered and looked genuinely pleased, so I figured she wanted to autograph these things for them and I stopped. She said, ‘Keep on moving, Bob. You never stop. You just walk and you smile and you sign and you open the door to your car and you get in and you blow a kiss to everyone and away you go.’ And that was the last I saw of her.”

LIVELY GATHERING

The annual symposium of foreign film nominees was one of the liveliest ever. F7.


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