Master of ceremonies

Special to The Times

Roy Christopher has the same dream every year he designs the Academy Awards show: "I walk into the theater, I look at the stage and it is the most hideous, banal flat, amateur, cliched set you could possibly imagine. My heart just sinks, and I think how could I have let this happen? How could I possibly have not paid attention?"

With clouds of war hanging over Hollywood's big night, he's dealing with a different kind of nightmare this year. "Hopefully," Christopher said Wednesday, a day after Oscars organizers announced they would roll up the red carpet in deference to political events of the day, "the joyous celebratory tone of this year's tribute to the movies will be a brief relief from the reality of the current world situation."

Although it was unclear at press time whether the Sunday show would proceed as planned, there was never any question that Christopher would be its designer.

"I always go to Roy for the Oscars first," says Oscars producer Gil Cates. "He is the master of the grand theme. Many designers don't have the courage to use the entire stage without cutting it up into small, bite-size pieces. What I love about Roy is that he's capable of these bold architectural statements."

The centerpiece of Christopher's Streamline Moderne set for the 75th anniversary show -- his 14th -- is a huge silver globe that will hang over the orchestra and a few of the front rows of Hollywood's Kodak Theatre. The globe is 14 feet in diameter, weighs 3 tons and has "Oscar 75" in 4-foot-tall letters revolving around it.

When the custom-made Art Deco curtain opens onstage, it will reveal a huge elliptical sculpture, shaped like a giant inverted champagne flute, made of iron and covered with a pale gray silk-like fabric. The 35-foot-high flute will be onstage through the entire show, sometimes surrounding a giant Oscar statue, other times used as a film screen.

"Every time I do the Oscars, I say I'm never going to do this again," says Christopher. "I've just done it too many times. It takes too much out of me. Then Gil calls. He says, 'Let's do it one more time,' and I say, 'OK.' "

Inspiration comes from everywhere. Some of his ideas for 1999's neo-classical dome came from a book of 16th century etchings, while an earlier set was prompted by a design exhibition he saw at New York's Whitney Museum of American Art. In 2001, Christopher thought of Stanley Kubrick's film "2001: A Space Odyssey," and this year's concept, he says, sweeps in all sorts of research he did on architecture, fashion, product and motion picture design circa 1929 on.

"I think Roy Christopher is much too good a designer to be doing awards," said Robin Wagner, a Tony Award-winning Broadway set designer who has worked on "A Chorus Line," "The Producers" and "City of Angels." "I'd like to see what he would do with a spectacular Broadway musical."

Visual tribute to the movies

This year, as every year, Christopher and Cates started working on the show around the end of October. "We talked about the fact it was the 75th anniversary, and that Gil wanted it to be joyful, a ... celebration of the movies," says Christopher, who gives his age as "between 50 and death."

The designer's ideas take shape during what he calls his "doodle phase." He sits on a couch or chair in his Hollywood Hills home, not at his drawing board, with a writing tablet and pen. The television is on as background, and, he says, "I just free flow, think 'Oscar, 2003,' and what the show should represent at this place in time."

Each of those doodles takes just a few minutes, and Christopher says he usually turns out 200 to 400 of them. Then, in early December, he packs up his favorites, takes them to Cates' office in Westwood and lays them out on the producer's conference table. After an hour or so, they've come up with several concepts they both like, usually with a common theme. This year, it was the flute shape.

The designer next sits at his drawing board, making floor plans to scale and trying to come up with a few basic design concepts that are endlessly versatile and integrated.

Art directors come on board just before the holidays, help him assemble rough models of the sets, and start figuring out things like just how this year's flute and globe could actually be engineered, much less set into place.

Once the set is constructed, Christopher turns to designing musical numbers and what he calls "star shrines." The year Cher wore her barely there Bob Mackie outfit, for instance, Christopher heard about it and designed the special archway she came through. ("Nobody paid any attention to the archway," he concedes.) He sent Shirley MacLaine onstage in a spaceship, and the year Jamie Lee Curtis starred in "True Lies," he dropped her onstage in a helicopter.

He has earned Emmy nominations for all 13 Oscar shows he designed, and won for five of them, plus a sixth for a Richard Pryor comedy special. And he's also designed eight Emmy broadcasts, seven Tony Awards shows and two Grammy shows.

Many years, Christopher was designing the Oscars, Tony and Emmy broadcasts, plus the sets for "Frasier" and assorted other television sitcoms all at the same time. "My every hour is accounted for," he concedes, "but I'm very good at time management. I remember when I was starting out, I would be drenched with nervous perspiration. Now I know everything can be dealt with."

Christopher works out of three offices this time of year -- the poolside studio at his Hollywood Hills home, his TV production office on the Paramount lot and a suite of special Oscar offices at the Sunset Gower Studios. All are in Hollywood and a few minutes' drive from each other.

One recent day at Christopher's Oscar design office, there's a book on his drawing table about Frida Kahlo, its pages marked with Post-its of possible Kahlo paintings he can incorporate into scenic projections during the Oscar-nominated song "Burn It Blue" from the film "Frida." And draped across the rest of the table is a floor plan of the stage he's referring to in a phone conversation with "Chicago" director Rob Marshall as they talk about where to put the pianos for "Chicago's" Oscar-nominated song, "I Move On."

Director Louis J. Horvitz says the globe's gone in fine, and even the tiny onstage light containers Christopher feared would look like tiny trash cans look elegant and lovely. The large architectural units that function as curtains for the stage had to be redone to look seamless for this year's demanding, high-definition television cameras, but they are back, in place and looking good.

Things don't always go so smoothly. For the 2001 show, enormous curved Oscar cutouts, designed to move on and off stage all through the show, were finally set up onstage and simply would not move. "They weren't designed for people to walk through, but that was the solution," says Horvitz. "Necessity is the mother of invention."

Christopher, too, adapts. Oscars lighting designer Bob Dickinson, for instance, recalls the year Bruce Springsteen appeared to rehearse his Oscar-winning song, "Streets of Philadelphia," on the set Christopher had designed. Springsteen didn't want any set for the number, says Dickinson, "and Roy said if it wasn't right, we wouldn't use it and we didn't. I think it would be hard for someone else to design and create a set and then not use it. But Roy wanted truly what was best for the show and best for the artist."

Raised on a farm in Fresno, Christopher studied theater arts at Cal State Fresno. He acted and designed in college and after, often with his college sweetheart, Dorothy, an actress and, later, set decorator whom he married in 1959 and who each year designs with him the Oscars' backstage green room.

He's also designed sets for 42 different situation comedies, including "Wings," "Murphy Brown" and "Becker." It was the television work that first led to his invitation to do the Oscars in 1979.

He makes his living mostly on sitcoms like "Frasier," where he designed the pilot and every set since. Frasier co-creator David Lee says Christopher "captured the essence of who Frasier Crane is perfectly," and Christopher's high-end condo set for the Seattle radio psychiatrist has proven so popular with viewers they actually write in asking where they can buy similar condos.

Christopher likes to remember a conversation he had once with "Frasier" co-creator David Angell, who died with his wife in the Sept. 11 terrorist plane crashes. "David asked me a few years ago if I was doing the Oscars, and I joked that on my tombstone, it would say, 'Here lies Roy Christopher. He designed the Oscars and Frasier.' David looked at me in all seriousness and asked, 'Well, that's not really so bad, is it?' And I said, 'No, it isn't.' "

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