Lights Out at the Best Party in Town : Swifty Lazar's Pals Recall the Man and the Event That Became an Oscar Tradition

JEANNINE STEIN / TIMES STAFF WRITER; BILL HIGGINS / SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It was the party of the year on the night of the year, and if you could sell your mother for a chance to get in, you just might have done it.

Literary agent Irving (Swifty) Lazar's Oscar night bash was the triple-A-list party, an E-ticket ride to the biggest celeb-fest ever. Although the Governor's Ball is the official post-Academy Awards soiree, it wasn't unusual for a presenter, nominee or winner to ditch it altogether and limo to Lazar's.

To be invited meant that you were a friend, or that you'd finally arrived. If you weren't asked, you had the options of leaving town or suffering the indignity of begging for an invitation. Or, you could do as one crasher did and try to wedge your fanny through a second-story window.

The deaths of the legendary powerhouse last December and of his wife, Mary, 11 months earlier, put an end to a tradition that spanned three decades, beginning as an intimate dinner for friends at the Bistro in Beverly Hills and evolving into a media frenzy at Spago.

Those close to Lazar--the ones who called him Irving, as he preferred--can't quite believe that their friend is gone, that tonight Spago will be dark, that there will be no glamorous celebration capped with pizza and champagne.

Michael Caine and wife Shakira are deliberately out of town: "We don't feel like celebrating anything," Caine said from England.

Angie Dickinson will be watching the show at a friend's house. Some, including Barbara and Marvin Davis, will attend other parties.

But no one will forget the diminutive, bald man in oversized black-rimmed glasses who would admonish guests to sit down, eat dinner and watch the show on the various monitors around the room. Lazar didn't suffer table hoppers gladly. If you were seated for dinner, you sat .

And no one will forget Mary, described by one friend as looking like a cameo, as much responsible for the success of the party as her husband.

The evening unfolded in stages, the first before sundown when guests would assemble for dinner. A second wave of guests came later from the awards show Downtown. Here the party found its second wind, re-energized by fresh blood and new faces, some gripping heavy gold statuettes and stargazing themselves.

So many movie stars, directors, producers, studio chiefs, writers and media types were crammed into one place that even the most jaded Hollywood-ites were impressed with the view.

Barbara Lazaroff, restaurant designer and wife of Spago's Wolfgang Puck, recalls this scenario: "We'd do all the prep work; Wolf would be cooking all day. Then Mary would show up with the boards for the seating. Then Irving would come in, look at the boards that she'd been preparing for weeks and move people around. Then he'd leave and she'd move them all back. Then she'd leave. It was the same scene every year, but we loved it.

"Something funny would always happen at the party," she says. "The year Madonna and Michael Jackson came together, they almost seemed like an old married couple. . . . And you could always measure popularity by how loudly people standing outside screamed. When Oprah Winfrey came walking down, you'd think the Messiah had arrived."

Actress Jacqueline Bissett calls Lazar's annual fete "an evening of excitement and a bit of fear."

She recalls "one ironic situation."

"I was at a table with a lot of bigwigs, and I remember Meryl Streep was up for 'Ironweed,' but a lot of people at my table hadn't seen it. I thought in this performance she was just brilliant. And suddenly I got the sense of the split between the work and the social tornado--that people in this town who are in the social tornado don't know the work. It was very odd. . . . There was a definite imbalance."

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It was Lazar's ability to draw in all kinds of fascinating people that Dickinson admires.

"One year I remember I was seated across from Paloma Picasso, and that was thrilling. Another year I was seated near (Rolling Stone Publisher) Jann Wenner. It was also the kind of party where if you hadn't met someone, you could. I had never met Kathleen Turner, and I felt very comfortable going to up to her and introducing myself."

When Lazar moved his base of operations to Spago in 1985, the hype grew exponentially. The party extended beyond Spago's front door and could be diagrammed in concentric circles: On the outermost arc were fans behind barricades near the restaurant. A gaggle of paparazzi staked out the sidewalk. Security types scattered around the restaurant watched crashers and ushered in the biggest stars through the back entrance.

A few select reporters, photographers and camera crews were stationed on the front porch to catch sound bites. A handful of lucky media types were allowed inside, some told not to roam beyond the bar during dinner.

Seating was tricky--few relished being stuck in the back room, although mega-celebs sometimes were stuck there anyway. The front room was considered ground zero, the primo spot for watching and being watched.

Those who messed with Lazar-approved arrangements were playing with a sizable ball of fire.

"If you asked to be seated with somebody, he made sure not only that you weren't, but that you ended up in Siberia," says producer and director Lili Fini Zanuck, who attended her first Lazar Oscar night party 15 years ago and recalls the parties, and Lazar, with great fondness.

"He was enjoying his Holy Roman Emperor status with that, and those people were punished."

She recalls the year she and husband Richard won the best picture Oscar for "Driving Miss Daisy."

"We had great seats in the front room," she says. "And the next year we were moved back to the back room."

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Over the years, Lazar's famous party had its share of glitches and incidents. Lazaroff says that despite times when ex-husbands would collide with ex-wives and their respective new partners, no major battles ensued. There was one year when an accidental flip of a switch changed the Oscar broadcast to a home shopping channel, but it was changed back before anyone had time to purchase a cubic zirconium.

One year guests watched with amusement as Jack Nicholson walked in, stayed for a few minutes and left with a centerpiece.

Michael Caine recalls the year he was nominated for best actor for "Educating Rita" but lost to Robert Duvall in "Tender Mercies."

"When I walked in, I got the same cheers as if I had won," he says. "They all said, 'It's the same to us, Michael.' I didn't win, but to get an ovation like that from people like Cary Grant was an incredible thing."

"Swifty was amazing," says actor Roger Moore, one in the stable of regulars. "The old saying says it best--it was the best of times and the best of friends. And you know, egos being what they are, everybody wants to sit where they think is the important place, but the Lazars were able to make everybody feel like they were important. We'll all be thinking of them on Oscar night."

Philanthropist Barbara Davis remembers the night as "everything you wished New Year's Eve would be when you were a child. It was like Bastille Day and the Fourth of July. I'd think about going to that party for months.

"During the dinner he was very firm--he didn't want people moving around. He wouldn't use the early part of the evening as a social time. He respected the industry and the industry respected him."

Marlee Matlin was all of 21 and a babe in Hollywood when she went to Spago after winning her Academy Award as best actress for "Children of a Lesser God."

"I arrived in shock," she recalls. "I walked in and saw all these stars and I thought I was in the Twilight Zone. I saw Liz Taylor and I went chasing after her because I had to meet her. Also, sitting near us was another personality who was so drunk he fell off his chair. We didn't know what to do."

Another Oscar night regular and Lazar pal was Don Rickles, who says: "If you were a friend, he really showed it at the party. He was a gracious host. Even though there were great big major stars there, your position in life wasn't what always mattered."

Despite their friendship, Rickles adds, "I was more in awe of him. He was like a general. He was the star. Every major person made it a point to say hello."

But being a major person didn't mean Swifty always let you have your way.

One year, Lazar's associate, Alan Nevins, was pulling guest-list duty at the door where he was seen arguing with an officious-looking young woman from Gov. Pete Wilson's office over his refusal to allow the governor's bodyguards inside.

"Bu-bu-but he's the governor," the woman kept repeating.

"I know who he is," Nevins replied.

"Will you personally guarantee his safety?"

"I don't care about his safety."

Later, the governor was spotted at the party, with no bodyguards in sight. Madonna, however, had a huge one by her side.

Free-lance writer Kevin Allman contributed to this story.

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