Presented at the Shrine Auditorium, Los Angeles, on Wednesday the 29th of March 1989, The 61st Annual Academy Awards ceremony was to have been, according to its producer Allan Carr in a piece printed in that day’s Hollywood Reporter, “the most beautiful Academy Awards of all time. It will be the antithesis of tacky. It will be the most beautiful people wearing the most beautiful clothes, with the most beautiful music”. Ten years later its opening musical number was described by Joseph McBride in The Book of Movie Lists as being “a non-stop parade of bad taste and unintentional hilarity”. So what happened?
Devised by Carr and choreographed by Steve Merritt, the concept for the ten-minute routine - said by Miles Beller in his review of the broadcast in the Thursday 30th March 1989 issue of the Hollywood Reporter to be “prior to transmission as hush-hush a secret as plans for the stealth bomber” - was to set it in a recreation of The Cocoanut Grove nightclub, primarily so that it could open with Merv Griffin singing in a poor cockney accent his hit single I’ve Got A Lovely Bunch Of Cocoanuts. Griffin was inexplicably treated like royalty by the Academy that night, according to the Backstage Notes section of the Friday 31st March 1989 issue of the Hollywood Reporter - not only was he the only star on the night to have his own dressing room to himself, but his room was even uniquely equipped with a monitor providing live feed of the event.
The musical number continued with Merv Griffin introducing a string of awkwardly positioned and very old Hollywood stars. In order of appearance they were Charles “Buddy” Rogers (the male lead in the first Best Picture Oscar winner, 1927’s Wings), Alice Faye, Tony Martin [who is, incidentally, a distant relative of mine], Cyd Charisse, Dorothy Lamour, Roy Rogers, Dale Evans, Vincent Price and Coral Browne. According to Robert Osbourne’s preview of the night’s event in the Wednesday 29th March 1989 edition of the Hollywood Reporter, also supposed to perform as part of this number were Dick Van Dyke, the Nicholas Brothers and Hollywood agent Irving “Swifty” Lazar. Lazar was actually watching the broadcast on television at Wolfgang Puck’s restaurant Spago’s; he famously used to hold an Oscar night party at an LA restaurant every year for non-nominated actors and other luminaries to watch the ceremony being broadcast live, and this year was no exception. More sensible were the actors and actresses who were asked to perform during the sequence by Allan Carr and talent coordinator Danette Herman but turned it down - among this list were Loretta Young, Maureen O’Hara, Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Lana Turner, Ava Gardner, Barbra Streisand, Mia Farrow and Rex Harrison. (This list, as printed in the Wednesday 29th March 1989 issue of the Hollywood Reporter, ends with the name Julie Harrison - this is more than likely a misprinting of Julie Andrews, which would be Allan Carr, with the event’s theme of reuniting real-life and movie couples, trying to bring back together either the leads from the Broadway show of My Fair Lady or the title character and Bert from Mary Poppins.)
Throughout all this, meanwhile, Snow White has been twittering around the stage having just wandered through the auditorium singing a rewritten version of I Only Have Eyes For You and interacting with highly embarrassed stars like Tom Hanks and Dustin Hoffman. (This section was cut for the UK transmission of ceremony highlights when it was broadcast on BBC2 the following day.) Snow White was played by Eileen Bowman with a voice more similar to that of Betty Boop, although others were less generous - in the Saturday 8th April 1989 edition of Screen International one unnamed Disney employee said she sounded like “a martian”. Ms Bowman had previously played Snow White in a long-running San Francisco revue created by Steve Silver called Beach Blanket Babylon, a favourite of Allan Carr when it played Las Vegas and the inspiration for this Oscar night opening, which was adapted from the revue. (Carr seemed to be a fan of camp performers and performances - as well as producing films for The Village People and Kenny Everett he also produced the highly successful Broadway version of La Cage aux Folles.) The Oscar night performance featured a number of dancers from Beach Blanket Babylon - Val Diamond, Shelly Werk, Lillian Colon and Holly Vonk among them - and Silver, as well as conceiving the original number, created some new costumes specially for this version.
As if Merv Griffin and the chorus of Beach Blanket Babylon wasn’t enough, Griffin then introduces Snow (yes, he calls her “Snow”) to her blind date for the evening, who turns out to be none other than Rob Lowe. Teaming Rob Lowe up with Snow White may seem like an odd idea, but so was the unlikely duo of Tom Selleck and an animated Mickey Mouse presenting the award for Best Animated Short at the previous year’s Academy Awards and that was very well-received. In the weeks leading up to the show Lowe was obviously expecting similar success, remarking excitedly that “Being asked to perform at the Academy Awards is like being asked to the White House”.
Unfortunately, star though he may be, Rob Lowe is not a singer and during this performance he bravely starts off singing live but very quickly switches to miming to a prerecorded tape when the song speeds up. He realised his performance was a stinker when, according to Robert Osborne in the Wednesday 23rd February 2000 edition of the New York Times, during the performance he “looked out at the audience and saw Meryl Streep making a face”. Three years later Rob Lowe would laugh about the performance in an interview with the New York Times, in a piece printed Monday 20th January 1992: “Look, the Academy asked me to take that role, so I was a good soldier and did it. You can’t be your own manager and agent and soothsayer - you have to take risks. And on that one I got shot in the foot”.
Rob and Snow then sang a duet of Ike and Tina Turner’s Proud Mary with lyrics altered so as to be about working for Walt Disney (“Starring in cartoons every night and day…”). This then merged into a huge tap dance to Hooray For Hollywood which ended with Snow White wearing an enormous recreation of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre on her head, a holdover from the original Beach Blanket Babylon stage show. Host Lily Tomlin (who herself once dressed as Snow White for a fantasy sequence in the 1980 film Nine To Five) then stepped out of this headworn recreation of Grauman’s and joked about the whole damn thing: “Think of it - more than a billion-and-a-half people just watched that, and at this very moment they’re trying to make sense of it. And in how many different languages? It’s mindboggling”. But the performance was no joke for its instigator - Robert Osbourne recalls going to an industry party at Morton’s after the ceremony where Allan Carr sat at the front of the restaurant awaiting congratulations. ”All the big stars were almost crawling past the table so they wouldn’t have to say anything to him,” recalled Osbourne to the New York Times in a piece printed 23rd February 2000, ”It was awful for Allan”. An after-the-event incident with Carr is recalled in the Backstage Notes section of the Thursday 30th March 1989 edition of the Hollywood Reporter: “‘Allan! Don’t you think the Snow White opening was a bit… over the top?’ a pesky reporter asked Oscar producer Allan Carr. ‘Are you kidding? Did you hear the ovations out there? It was magical,’ Carr replied. Carr had just finished introducing the dewy-eyed dancers in the ‘Young Hollywood’ production number to the assembled throngs of press people, and he wasn’t too thrilled with the tenor of these questions. ‘But Allan - why Snow White? What’s the connection between her and, well, the whole Cocoanut Grove theme of the show?’ With a laser glare from Carr: ‘It’s called theatrical.” He moved further down the aisle away from the press, but there was time for one more question: ‘So, Allan, tell us - would you do it all again?’ He replied, ‘Ask me tomorrow’”. Carr, once a major producer responsible for films like Grease and Can’t Stop The Music and manager to stars like Tony Curtis, Peter Sellers and Ann-Margret, was destroyed by the reaction to his musical number and, effectively banned from working at all future Oscar ceremonies, left the film business and would produce only in the theatre until his death ten years later.
Not long after the ceremony - watched, incidentally, by seventy-five million US viewers plus another estimated seventy-five million worldwide- a letter signed by seventeen Hollywood dignitaries, including Julie Andrews, Sidney Lumet, Paul Newman, Gregory Peck and Billy Wilder, was sent to the Academy complaining that the show was “an embarrassment to both the Academy and the entire motion picture industry”, adding that it was “neither fitting nor acceptable that the best work in motion pictures be acknowledged in such a demeaning fashion”. By the end of April the Academy had formed a committee to stop such atrocities from happening again. They achieved this the following year by having Billy Crystal host the show and open it by directly referencing the Rob Lowe and Snow White debacle. “Where is that big, terrible number that usually opens the Oscars?” he asked, before parodying such things with a comic medley about the Best Picture nominations, thus sparking a much-needed deflation of the Academy’s ego which continues to this day.
Allan Carr was fond of telling people at the time that Ronald Reagan said that year’s Oscar ceremony was “the best television show I’ve ever seen”. The Disney corporation were far less impressed than the newly ex-President, however, mainly with the fact that the performance evolved out of a tawdry, parodic and, let’s face it, homosexual musical revue - an anonymous Disney employee is quoted as saying in the Friday 31st March 1989 edition of the Hollywood Reporter that the performance was in “questionable and inappropriate tastes” for any Disney character, let alone one as pure as Snow White. (Indeed it was this performance which led Disney to investigate taking legal action against Beach Blanket Babylon, but no such suit ever emerged.) To make matters even worse, a month or so later, at the same time as the Cannes Film Festival, videotapes started to circulate showing Snow White’s dancing partner Rob Lowe having sex with two females, one of whom was underage. (Ironically the rest of the 1989 Oscar ceremony was rather good for Disney - Who Framed Roger Rabbit matched Rain Man to win four awards including a Special Award for Richard Williams, Touchstone’s Beaches had been nominated for Best Art Direction, many promotional mentions of Disney theme parks were planted throughout the evening, and Robin Williams dressed up as Mickey Mouse for a few friendly jibes at Michael Eisner and a comment about the popularity of animated stars over human ones - ”You don’t see Robert De Niro’s face on a watch!”.)
At April’s start the furious Disney company demanded a public apology be made by the Academy’s executive administrator Bruce Davis. The Academy were said to have been thinking of formally apologising to Disney on the morning of Thursday the 30th of March 1989, the morning after the ceremony, but ultimately decided against it, and so Disney took steps to sue the Academy for misappropriation of their Snow White character, claiming copyright infringement, unfair competition and violation of California’s anti-dilution law. Disney president Frank Wells explained their intentions in a statement, partially reprinted as part of a front page article of the Friday 31st March 1989 edition of the Hollywood Reporter: “We have great respect for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and for all that it does. We were therefore greatly surprised and dismayed when we viewed last evening’s Academy Awards ceremonies to see that our Snow White character had been used extensively without our permission”. In the rest of the statement Wells revealed why Disney decided to take such drastic action: “We requested of the Academy only that it admit to its unauthorized portrayal of Snow White and for a public apology for having used our copyrighted works without first receiving Disney’s consent. If such a statement had been agreed to by the Academy, we would have considered the matter ended. For its own reasons, however, the Academy unfortunately did not accede to our request. We have reluctantly taken this action against the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to make sure that our rights are fully protected under the law. We hope the public will learn through the action that Disney had nothing to do with the opening segment of the Academy Awards”.
Quoted on page three of the Saturday 1st April 1989 edition of the Daily Telegraph (one wonders how many readers thought that this piece, titled “Disney sues over Oscars Snow White”, was an April Fools joke), Disney spokesman Erwin Okun explained the Academy had no permission to create such an unflattering version of Disney’s beloved character, saying that: “It was a total misrepresentation of our copyright characters, and those copyright characters are the heart and soul of our business. Anyone watching would reasonably conclude that Disney had sanctioned the routine. We thought it was extremely unrepresentative of our creative work”. Okun held no credence with Allan Carr’s argument that “Snow White was a public domain character - we don’t need permission”, and explained in the Friday 31st March 1989 edition of the Hollywood Reporter that “We have created the distinct visual elements of Snow White, and if you compare the Snow White on stage last night to the Snow White you see at Disneyland, you see distinct similarities in appearance - from her hair to her dress style. It’s obvious. We believe that was definitely our character”. He concluded by reiterating the company’s opinion: “Our characters are the heart and soul of the Disney Co… and Snow White was presented totally out of character”. (Disney had no problem with Robin Williams dressing as Mickey Mouse, however; “We think Robin’s use was fair parody”, Okun told the New York Times in a piece printed Friday 7th April 1989.)
Both the Hollywood Reporter and Variety invited Bruce Davis to comment on the events - the Hollywood Reporter of Friday 31st March 1989 found him “unavailable for comment” and that an Academy representative “said the organisation had no comment”, while in Variety’s Wednesday 5th to Tuesday 11th April 1989 issue, Davis “said no statement would be made until a copy of the suit is received”. The publication also attempted to reach Academy president Richard Kahn but with no success. “Maybe he’s being Bashful,” joked Variety reporter Jane Galbraith.
On Sunday the 9th of April 1989 the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences publicly released the following statement, signed by its president Richard Kahn: “The Academy sincerely apologizes to Disney for the unauthorized use of Disney’s copyrighted Snow White character and for unintentionally creating the impression that Disney had participated in or sanctioned the opening production number on the Academy Awards telecast. We pride ourselves on our meticulousness in obtaining the proper legal clearances for all music, film and other material used on our show and regret that we didn’t do it with Disney. As copyright owners ourselves (of the Oscar statuette), we have a keen appreciation of such matters”. Disney were satisfied by the apology, with Frank Wells quoted in the Monday 10th April 1989 issue of the Hollywood Reporter as saying: “We feel the Academy’s apology and the court stipulation… adequately address our concern that the public understand that Disney did not authorize this use and had nothing whatsoever to do with this production”. But the belatedness of the apology still rankled, and as a mild form of revenge Disney issued a further statement saying it would drop its lawsuit only on the condition that the Academy never rebroadcast the footage or “use Disney’s Snow White character in future without Disney’s permission”. The Academy instantly, and sheepishly, agreed.
Which is why it came as rather a shock for viewers watching this year’s Academy Awards ceremony, presented at the Kodak Theater, Hollywood, on Sunday the 24th of February 2008, when in the middle of a compilation of past Oscar ceremony highlights was a brief clip of a starstruck Snow White telling Rob Lowe that she was “such a fan”. How did this long-buried piece of shamefulness find its way into the homes of over thirty million American viewers nearly twenty years after the Academy’s promise to Disney to never reuse it under threat of legal action?
The answer comes in the form of the Writer’s Strike. When the Writer’s Guild of America went on strike on Monday the 5th of November 2007, with many major Hollywood stars boycotting award ceremonies in solidarity, there was no sign that the strike would be over by the time of the following year’s Oscar ceremony. In case of the 2008 Academy Awards broadcast needing to be abandoned the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences decided to compile a series of clips and specially-created short documentaries to play in the place of the usual lavish, star-packed ceremony. There was a problem, however - in order to play any clip from a motion picture they would have needed a release form signed by the featured actors, and since these were the same actors who were to boycott the ceremony should the Writer’s Strike continue they certainly would not have given any such permission.
The way around this was to play clips from previous Academy Award ceremonies, as to attend or perform at one of these events is to automatically allow permission for the Academy to use and reuse footage of the attendee however they see fit. Because of this legal loophole many of the clip compilations centred around highlights from previous ceremonies.
The obvious clips for inclusion came easily - Charlie Chaplin accepting his Lifetime Achievement Award, David Niven’s witty handling of a streaker, Johnny Carson’s line “I see a lot of new faces, especially on the old faces” - but to fill out the compilations the members of the Academy were asked which moments from the Oscars’ history they found particularly memorable. Perhaps inevitably, the Rob Lowe and Snow White duet was mentioned again and again and again. Eventually the Academy board couldn’t ignore the suggestions and so inserted a flash of the memorable routine into one of their compilations.
The Writer’s Strike, as you know, did abate by the time of the 2008 Academy Awards and a full ceremony did go ahead, but many of the completed compilations and documentaries were included as part of it so that all the hard work that went into creating these pieces wouldn’t go to waste. (Indeed, the odd decision to show them was sent up by host Jon Stewart on the night when he introduced two mock compilations: “Oscars’ Salute to Binoculars and Periscopes” and “Bad Dreams: An Oscar Salute”.) This meant that, despite their promise to Disney, an extract from the infamous, ghastly opening number from the 1989 Academy Awards was broadcast by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
So the question is: will Disney keep their promise of nearly twenty years ago and sue the Academy? And the answer is: no, probably not. If there’s one thing Disney doesn’t like it’s controversy, and if any controversy rears its ugly head Disney will - as those that have read Carl Hiaasen’s Team Rodent are well aware - stamp it out quietly before it has a chance to become public. Bob Crane being sacked after making two pictures for Disney when they heard that he made home movies of his sexual antics is one example. Another is the photographs of female patrons exposing themselves on Disneyland’s Splash Mountain which are regularly, and swiftly, deleted from the photo sales booth at the ride’s end. And as we already know the Disney corporation threatened legal action should the Academy ever rebroadcast their supposed misuse of Snow White. Indeed, Disney are so against any bad press that - and I heard this from an ex-employee, or rather ex-Cast Member, of The Disney Store - no branch of The Disney Store will prosecute shoplifters, no matter how blatant they are. There are tales of people wandering into Disney Stores across the world, filling their arms with cuddly toys and expensive electrical toys and waltzing out again, straight past the store’s powerless security guard. [None of us here at Smarter Than The Average have been brave enough to attempt such a crime ourselves, but if any of you readers have a go do email and tell us how you get on. Also, I could do with a new watch.]
With all these past experiences it seems very unlikely that Disney would want to draw any attention to a three-second extract in a four-hour broadcast that most people wouldn’t have acknowledged anyway. Besides which, lengthy clips of the musical number had previously been broadcast without incident on Monday the 13th of December 2003 on cable pop culture channel Trio as part of an acerbic documentary called The Award Show Awards Show.
Nowadays the full clip has made its way onto YouTube (and indeed onto Eileen Bowman’s own official website, eileenbowman.com), but to date the entire grotesque musical performance has been broadcast in its entirety (or at least in the entirety of its British cutdown version) only once since its initial television transmission, and we are proud to say that it was as part of our second radio programme Smarter Than The Average 2: The New Batch, transmitted on Resonance 104.4fm on Monday the 3rd of April 2006.
The final word on the Rob Lowe and Snow White duet must go to Allan Carr. As he told the Hollywood Reporter in a piece printed the day of the ceremony: “America wants the Academy Awards; America loves the Academy Awards. And this year we’ve definitely given them something to read about”.
P.S. As a follow-up to our broadcasting of this infamous musical number, Jules and I attended a recording of terrible Channel 4 variety programme The Friday Night Project at the London Studios, Waterloo, on Thursday the 29th of June 2006 (the show was broadcast the following evening) on account of Rob Lowe being the guest host - we thought we might get a chance to bring up the subject of his duet with Snow White during the “Ask Me Anything” segment. Sadly the questions from the audience had been selected in advance of the recording so we never received the opportunity.