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Oscar Time--Without a Safety Net : Welcome to Live TV--When Even Dogs Can Have Their Day

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was time for rehearsals at the 66th annual Academy Awards show.

Cameras zoomed in. The orchestra played. James Ingram and Dolly Parton walked to center stage of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, singing the Oscar-nominated song “The Day I Fall in Love” from the movie “Beethoven’s 2nd.”

And then things went to the dogs.

Beethoven, the St. Bernard made famous by the film of the same name, sauntered up beside Ingram and--looking at a trainer--placed his huge paws on a box. Then, just as the song ended, Beethoven shook his massive body, sending dog hairs and slobber in every direction. Ingram laughed as the trainers quickly brought out the towels.

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Meanwhile, Missy kept missing her mark on stage. This smaller St. Bernard had her own box next to Parton that she was to supposed to stand on, but she couldn’t get the hang of it. Five times, she ignored her trainer’s instructions and walked past it. Once, she headed straight for Beethoven.

“And they say girls ain’t as smart as boys,” Ingram quipped.

Another time, she stopped to sniff Parton, who was wearing a skintight leather outfit.

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“Think anyone will see us now?” Parton asked Ingram. “Not after the doggies come.” The production crew erupted in laughter when Parton looked at the dogs and joked: “Maybe we can hang onto them once they get here and ride ‘em off!”

The Oscar show airs tonight on ABC. Live. Get a seat on the couch early. You won’t want to miss what Beethoven and Missy might do.

Or any of the performers, for that matter. They are just two of the dozens of celebrities who will take part in one of the world’s most watched TV programs. But this is one variety show that does not have time to get the wrinkles ironed out in New Haven before hitting Broadway.

Over the weekend, singers, dancers and production crews descended on the Los Angeles Music Center to get things in shape. Even Sunday afternoon’s earthquake, which came during a rehearsal pause, didn’t deter the shaken performers from running through their numbers.

In addition to Parton and Ingram, rehearsal time was set aside Friday through Sunday for Bruce Springsteen, Janet Jackson, Keith Carradine and Neil Young, who will each sing Oscar-nominated songs.

Bernadette Peters, who belts out the opening number, spent part of Saturday descending a staircase on stage, getting her timing down while a film montage praising those behind the cameras in Hollywood rolled behind her.

Choreographer Debbie Allen rehearsed dancers from some of the world’s leading ballet companies.

And everyone wondered about what Whoopi Goldberg would do.

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Much attention will be focused on the Oscar host, who this year replaces Billy Crystal. Some people close to the show are nervously waiting to see if her ad libs will be proper for early-evening network television.

“When you buy a Whoopi Goldberg, you buy the whole package and part of the package is she is a free spirit who just might say anything that comes to mind at the moment,” said Buz Kohan, one of the show’s writers.

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Oscar producer Gil Cates agreed that some are concerned but he isn’t one of them.

“What they are concerned about,” Cates said, “is that Whoopi may say things that may be inappropriate for a 6 o’clock audience. There is no way she is going to do it because she is an intelligent adult who knows who the audience is.”

While the awards themselves are the heart of the show--and have great meaning to the film industry itself--ABC is counting on the program to capture good ratings again. Last year, it was seen in about 29 million U.S. homes, attracting 51% of the people watching TV at the time. That was the highest since 1983.

Critics, however, have long had a field day with the program. Although it has had streakers, an American Indian representing Marlon Brando rejecting an Oscar, and seemingly enough unsolicited political commentary to fill the Goodyear blimp, the usual rap on the Oscars is that it is too long, too boring and has too many participants.

Cates, who produced the last five shows, has heard it all and the criticism gets under his skin.

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“This is a wonderful show to dis,” Cates said. “It’s the best show to dis in the world.

“I’ve had reviews where you know people haven’t watched it,” Cates said. “I’ll give you an example. Johnny Carson said to (Daily Variety columnist) Army Archerd at one point, ‘It’s a shame the Academy Award show doesn’t put all the voting information . . . at the end of the show.’ (But) we’ve been doing it for six years!

“It’s funny,” Cates continued. “I’ve had reviewer friends of mine call me the week after the show and say to me, ‘My god, do you have to have all those people talking together, two people at once?’

“I said, ‘We had two (dual presenters) last year. This year we had two. What are you talking about?’ It’s like no one sits and watches this show!”

At three hours and 20 minutes, some might complain that the Oscars are way too long, but Cates defends the length.

“I don’t think the show drags at 3 hours and 20 minutes,” he said. “The only problem with it being 3 hours and 20 minutes is that my friends in the East, who want to go to work Tuesday morning, would like to go to bed before 12:30. That’s the reality.”

Cates said he loves to do different things with the show every year. Once, he used satellite communications to beam celebrities in from such faraway locales as Russia, Japan, Australia and Britain.

Last year, some people complained that the show celebrated the role of women in films during a year when there weren’t many good roles for women.

“A lot of people mistook it,” Cates said, “saying it was a terrible movie year for women. . . . (I told them) we’re not celebrating the success of women in movies this year. We’re celebrating women in movies for history.”

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In addition to performers onstage, the success of this year’s show will also depend on professionals behind the scenes.

The set was designed by Ray Christopher (“Murphy Brown,” “Frasier”), who said Cates let him have free rein, but wanted something “contemporary, dynamic, a new look. I want it asymmetrical.” So, Christopher put giant Oscar statues inside metal cones. The five cones on stage are illuminated periodically for dramatic effect.

Film supervisor Douglass M. Stewart (this is his 12th Oscar show) gathered clips from the nominated movies and assembled special film presentations. There will be one dedicated to Hollywood’s famous dogs--ranging from Toto in “The Wizard of Oz” to Asta in “The Thin Man"--and another in which actors are shown winking.


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