My Night at the Oscars. Outrageous!
So how did a guy with absolutely no television experience at all get a behind the scenes press pass to the Oscars?
In the early 1970’s there was a fledging television station in Toronto Canada know as ‘CITY-TV.’ The station was formed by thirty-six investors who proposed to cover local news and events and would broadcast live from 4;00pm to midnight then repeat the same programming between 8:00 am and 4:00pm. CITY -TV operated on UHF channel 79 with 31,000 watts of audio and video using an antennae 403 feet tall. They signed on the air in September 1972 operating out of a former night club called ‘The Electric Circus.’
I know nothing about technical specs but the figures above seem kind of puny with the programming resembling an electric circus.
Nevertheless, the channel was carried on all of Toronto’s existing cable companies and developed a strong enough following that two years later they were allowed to move their transmitting antennae to the top of Toronto’s new CN tower which was, when completed, the highest free standing structure in the world.
CITY was by then doing twenty-four hours of full programming and had become a force to be reckoned with, especially in the area of local news.
In 1974 I was involved in the real estate industry to pay the bills, but was also moonlighting as an entertainment promoter and music store operator. To look the part for my new enterprises, I grew my hair long, added a blond goat-tee, and basically looked like a fine upstanding hippie.
I had a good friend that was a producer/director at CITY, David Koyle, who was on his way up the ladder and would eventually end up working prime time gigs for the CBC, Canada’s national and biggest broadcaster at the time.
One day I got a call from David and he told me that CITY was sending him to Los Angles to cover the Academy Awards but they couldn’t afford to send a camera man to shoot the event. His boss told David that either he could find someone in L.A. to do the job or if he could get somebody to go with him, they would provide the equipment.
One way or another the tape had to be flown back to Toronto the night of the event and be in the studio for the 7:00am news.
The deal turned out to be that if I paid for my flights with a red-eye home David would cover all my other expenses as well as teach me how to use a T.V. camera.
Who could pass up something like this? I was in!
So on Saturday March 30th, 1974, off we flew to L.A. What happened in the next few days was beyond my wildest expectations.
We checked into the Holiday Inn right in the heart of Hollywood with a view of the famous ‘HOLLYWOOD’ sign right out of our window. David knew a couple from his university days in Miami that were now living in Malibu so we jumped in our rented car and off we went to the surf and sun.
Monday morning found us at the Los Angeles County Music Centre to pick up our press credentials. The L.A. Centre is a huge complex that includes the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the 3,200 seat auditorium where the Academy Awards were to take place the next evening. It felt like the calm before the storm.
The author, left, with David Koyle, far right, out in Malibu with friends.
Our next job was to rent formal attire for the big event. A classy affair like the Oscars expected even the press to formally dressed. David’s Malibu friend suggested a funky little haberdashery in Westwood, right by the U.C.L.A. campus. It turned out to be a great choice because after all, this was the 70’s, and the fashion was outlandish. I ended up with a brown bell-bottomed tuxedo ensemble and cream frilly shirt. David was equally stylish in his choice.
Then a most interesting thing happened while we were being fitted. One of the congenial staff tipped us off to be on the lookout for “something very unusual” that might happen during the awards ceremony. Thusly warned, we promised to keep a sharp eye out.
As you can see from the picture above, leather hats were very much en vogue for gentlemen, and as we were leaving the tux shop, I happened to see the most amazing leather top hat one could ever imagine. Sold!
On the day of the really big show even though we were only lowly hacks we were were chauffered to the Pavilion in our own limousine. It wasn’t that we were so special, it was that the Academy had strict procedures for every facet of the night and getting the press there on time was one of them. Besides, have you ever tried to park in downtown Los Angeles?
David had taught me how to load and operate the large, somewhat unwieldy video camera that we had brought with us and I practiced shooting interviews with the Malibu gang while David asked the questions. I felt pretty confident that I could perform my required duties, right up until I stepped into the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.
The first thing that happen was that we were surrounded by security agents.
One has to realize that even though it was the 1970’s ninety-nine percent of the people working or attending the Oscars that night did not look like displaced hippies, even well dressed ones. Short haircuts and no facial hair were the acceptable grooming style for gentlemen that evening and we definitely did not fit into that regimen.
Nevertheless, we had valid credentials that were scrutinized time and time again and finally, with a great amount of disgust, we were allowed into the sanctum sanctorum of the Hollywood Gods.
One thing to realize is that the Oscar ‘Red Carpet’ didn’t start until 1979 when Regis Philbin originated the first broadcast on a local L.A. television station. Today the Red Carpet is just as popular as the actual ceremonies.
There was a huge waiting room with lots of food and drink where all the stars and their entourages would co-mingle and the press was given complete access.
We were milling around trying to find our first target to interview when suddenly we were standing right in front of Paul and Linda McCartney. They were nominated together for writing and performing their song ‘Live and Let Die’ from the movie of the same name.
Paul looked at me and said “I like your ‘at mate!”
Well, boll me over with a feather. I was speechless, but David stepped right in and I quickly recovered and turned the camera on for an extended light-hearted interview with both of them.
I still have that tophat.
Unfortunately, their song lost to Marvin Hamlisch’s ‘ The Way We Were, ‘ sung by Barbra Streisand.
The Best Actress nominees.
This was a blockbuster year for movies with hits like American Graffiti, The Sting, The Exorcist, (which really scared the @#$$%%^&&* out of me) Last Tango in Paris, Paper Moon, The Way We Were, and Al Pacino’s Serpico.
Maybe because we looked so unusual we had no problem getting interviews. Burt Reynolds was one of four cohosts, along with Diana Ross, David Nevin and John Huston, and Burt was at his charismatic best.
Jack Nicholson, Ellen Burstyn, Madeline Kahn, Robert Redford, Jack Lemmon and even the reclusive God Father Al, were all caught on my camera.
The experience was overwhelming.
When it was time for the stars to take their seats the press was ushered into the press centre where after each star won an award they would be brought in for their interview on a large riser. These would be mass interviews with the press and camera men trying to ask questions and get the best shots. Of course the big three U.S. networks had the prime spots for their crews, so David and I had to experience the mosh pit routine.
The Exorcist and The Sting had lead the pack with ten nominations, followed by The Way We Were with six, and American Graffiti five.
The Sting was the big triumph of the night with seven wins including Best Picture. The Exorcist took home two statues.
Jack Lemmon won his second Oscar as Best Actor in Paper Tiger, Glenda Jackson, Best Actress for A Touch of Class, and ten year old Tatum O’Neal won Best Supporting Actress for Paper Moon, becoming the youngest person to ever win an Oscar.
The press were watching the ceremony on large monitors throughout the press hall so we could see who would be up next on the podium.
David Niven, the suave British actor was about to announce Elizabeth Taylor onto the stage as a presenter, when the unexpected occurred…
Robert Opel, a thirty-four year old part time actor and activist was the culprit but instead of being arrested and thrown out of the building he was given the opportunity to have a press conference after the event ended, full clothed of course.
As the evening wound down it was time for me to head to the airport to catch the red-eye with my precious cargo. Although we didn’t get any footage of the streaker there was more than enough first class film to keep the city execs happy.
David stayed in L.A. for a few days to visit with his friends and I sped eastward into the dark night.
When I handed my tape to the front door security guard at CITY a little after 5:00am, there was plenty of time to get our Oscar footage edited and on the air for the first newscast.
What a thrill it was later that morning to turn on the T.V. watch our interviews and footage there on the screen.
A once in a lifetime experience at the most outrageous Oscars ever!
Here is a photo of me in Paul’s favourite hat.