A Hostless Oscars? The Last Time the Academy Tried That, Things Got Ugly

The story of Allan Carr’s hostless train wreck in 1989 ought to be a cautionary tale for this year’s show producers

Rob Lowe Snow White oscar
61st Academy Awards

But be careful what you wish for, all you who have longed for a hostless Oscars after Kevin Hart dropped out in December — and the Academy failed to line up a replacement.

After all, the last Academy Awards show that didn’t have a host, the 61st Oscars in 1989, is widely considered the worst Oscars ever. No, the lack of a host didn’t really have much to do with the show’s multitudinous failures. And no, this year’s producer, Donna Gigliotti, and co-producer and director, Glenn Weiss, aren’t likely to make the kind of mistakes that Allan Carr made back then.

But looking at that show, it’s hard not to think that a steady hand at the helm would have helped. (For the record, the show gone hostless a few other times in the past, in the late ’60s and early ’70s.)

If you remember that 1989 show, you probably don’t remember it as the Oscars that brought awards to Jodie Foster, Dustin Hoffman and “Rain Man.” Or as the first Oscars to replace the words “and the winner is…” with the less exclusionary “and the Oscar goes to…” Or as the first to hire writer Bruce Vilanch, the Oscars’ chief comic voice for the next two decades. Or as the first to find corporate partners for promotional tie-ins.

Or as the Oscars that gave awards to Marcel Ophuls’ landmark documentary “Hotel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie,” to Bille August’s classic “Pelle the Conqueror” and to John Lasseter for the early Pixar short “Tin Toy,” the first CGI film to win an Oscar.

No, you remember it as the Academy Awards where Rob Lowe danced with Snow White.

That is the misfortune of the Oscars of March 29, 1989, a show that was launched into the realm of hapless legend by Allan Carr. The producer, whom everybody called “a showman,” had managed stars like Ann-Margret and Dyan Cannon, run the Oscar campaign that helped secure the Best Picture award for “The Deer Hunter” in 1978, produced movies like “Grease” and “Where the Boys Are ’84” and won a Tony for the Broadway adaptation of the French film “La Cage Aux Folles.”

Carr was short and rotund, swathed in custom caftans when he wasn’t wrapped in a robe or smoking jacket. “He was the ringmaster of the whole ’70s party scene, which took place on the East Coast in nightclubs like Studio 54, but on the West Coast at Allan’s house,” Vilanch once old me.

Carr desperately wanted to produce the Oscars, and in the fall of 1988 Academy President Richard Kahn offered him what was at the time an unpaid job. In interview after interview, the excitable producer said it would be the biggest, the most glamorous, the most fabulous Oscars ever. He did most of his planning at Hillhaven Lodge, his Beverly Hills estate, where he placed a six-foot Oscar statue by the front door. (It had previously belonged to Ingrid Bergman and Kim Novak; more recently, Brett Ratner lived there when he had his own crash-and-burn Oscars experience.)

Carr’s priority was glamour. “I remember going with him for our first survey of the Shrine,” said Jeff Margolis, the director of that show, which was held at the aging Shrine Auditorium in downtown Los Angeles. “He walked in and [said] ‘I’m not doing the show here unless they redo all the bathrooms. And I want all the hallways and the lobby painted. I want it to smell like it’s brand new.’”

Carr got his renovations, whereupon he had a million tulips flown in from the Netherlands and 50,000 glass beads affixed to the Shrine’s curtain.

Backstage, Carr created the most elaborate green room the Oscars had ever seen — “Club Oscar,” he called it — and planned to fill it with presenters who fit his theme of couples, costars, companions and compadres. He got Demi Moore and Bruce Willis, Michael Caine and Sean Connery and Roger Moore, Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson, Bob Hope and Lucille Ball, though some other notables turned him down: Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward said they didn’t like to fly, Brigitte Bardot said she’d do it only if she could talk about animal rights, Loretta Young only if she could give out Best Picture by herself.

Carr positioned the stars to be “Friends of Oscar,” glorified presenters who would take the place of the usual host. But without an emcee, he needed to kick things off with something particularly fabulous, so he turned to a satirical, campy musical revue, “Beach Blanket Babylon,” which had been playing in San Francisco. Carr persuaded that show’s creator, Steve Silver, to whip up an Oscars opening number that employed his usual array of pop-culture icons taking a tour through Hollywood history. Snow White would be the tour guide.

Throughout rehearsals, the number grew and grew; Margolis said Silver was the one who kept expanding it, while Silver’s widow, Jo Schuman Silver, said Carr super-sized it himself over her husband’s objections. Late in the game, though, even Carr realized it had grown too big, and killed segments featuring the tap-dancing legends the Nicholas Brothers and the young actress Mayim Bialik.

On Oscar night, dancers filled the aisles as the show began. “The curtain was a dazzling, shimmering, huge piece of sequins and velvet,” said Doug Stewart, who created video packages for the show. “Then these characters filled up the aisles. The whole house was just so intrigued, so curious, so excited about what was going to happen.”

Bruce Davis, soon to be the Academy’s executive director, sat nearby not knowing what to expect. “He wanted it to all be a surprise, not only to the audience but to us,” Davis said. “And when I saw Snow White walk down the aisle, I thought, ‘Oh, my God, I wonder if anybody’s cleared that.’ I knew there were some things you have to do some checking around on.”

What everybody remembers is that Snow White – played by a 22-year-old San Diego actress named Eileen Bowman – danced with Rob Lowe as they “sang” (to use that word generously) a rewritten version of “Proud Mary.” But that was only a portion of the 12-minute extravaganza, which also featured Merv Griffin singing “I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts” while a batch of legendary stars (Dorothy Lamour, Cyd Charisse, Vincent Price, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans…) were sprinkled across the Shrine stage like so much window dressing.

“His mistake was having that first number go on for so long,” said Gil Cates, the late producer who would produce 14 Oscar shows after Carr. “When you see something that doesn’t work, by four minutes it’s terrible, by five minutes it’s outrageous, by eight minutes it’s the kiss of death and by 12 minutes it’s the worst thing you’ve ever seen in your life.”

Another, even longer production number came midway through the show, with a dozen young “stars of tomorrow” singing a misbegotten would-be anthem titled “I Wanna Be an Oscar Winner.” For the record, none of the participants ever have become an Oscar winner; they included Christian Slater sword-fighting with Tyrone Power, Jr., Patrick Dempsey undertaking a soft shoe, Chad Lowe hollering “I’m a thespian in the classic sense!,” 15-year-old Savion Glover tap dancing, Corey Feldman trotting out his Michael Jackson impersonation and other offerings from Blair Underwood, Joely Fisher, Ricki Lake and others, most of whom looked vaguely embarrassed to be there.

The rest of the show had a few nice moments, but for the most part the chit-chat between the “Friends of Oscar” was cutesy and interminable. Still, Jeff Margolis remembered that spirits were high after the show. But things got ugly the next morning, when the reviews were mostly savage and Richard Kahn got a 9:00 a.m. call from Disney president Frank Wells, who said, “I think we have a real problem.”

It turned out that Bruce Davis’ suspicions were correct: Carr had neglected to get Disney’s permission to use Snow White. Disney sued for copyright infringement, though they dropped the suit 11 days later when the Academy formally apologized at a press conference.

Meanwhile, Gregory Peck wrote a scathing letter to Kahn, threatening to give back his two Oscars if future shows looked like Carr’s. And 17 Academy members, including Paul Newman, Billy Wilder and Julie Andrews, signed an open letter calling the show “an embarrassment both to the Academy and the motion picture industry.”

The Academy convened a committee to study the show and figure out how to keep anything like it from happening again. Chaired by Gil Cates, the panel came back with a series of recommendations, which included paying the producer, using single presenters rather than couples to eliminate the chit-chat, relying more on film clips than production numbers – and, yes, hiring a single host.

Carr, meanwhile, was shell-shocked by the reaction to his show, and spent much of the next 10 years in relative seclusion. “Allan was blindsided completely, and it devastated him,” said associate producer Michael Seligman. “He never got over that.” The producer died of liver cancer at the age of 62 in 1999.

And yet his touches live on at the Oscars: the promotional tie-ins, the fancy green room, “and the Oscar goes to …” “That was widely felt to be a disastrous show, both inside and outside the Academy,” Davis said. “But it’s amazing how many of the innovations that Mr. Carr introduced are still with us today.”

But not the hostless Oscars. Nobody has dared try that again.

Interviews used in this story were conducted for Steve Pond’s book “The Big Show: High Times and Dirty Dealings Backstage at the Academy Awards” (Faber and Faber, 2005).