My Backstage Beat at the `Oscars'

ON Monday evening, March 30, the 64th Annual Academy Awards ceremony will take place at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion of the Los Angeles Music Center. One billion people around the world will see it. I will be viewing it backstage in the press area, giving on-the-spot coverage to the listeners of my worldwide radio report.

Soon the nominees will hear, "May I have the envelope, please," and they'll learn who will receive the highest award in filmmaking. A corps of academy personnel will bring the winners to the press pavilion. The winners will come, foreheads glistening, throats dry, hands clammy but still clutching that all-important 10-inch statuette known as Oscar.

I remember Elizabeth Taylor backstage after winning the Best Actress Award for "Butterfield 8" in 1960. She needed a tissue to dab the chorus line of perspiration dancing across her upper lip.

"Will this help?" I asked, handing her a tissue. "Oh, thanks," she said. Juggling her purse, program, and award, she smiled. "Do you mind?" she asked, handing me the large program and her evening bag with the diamond clasp. She hung onto Oscar like a trucker clutching the steering wheel of an 18-wheeler.

You can't help but catch the excited energy of the winners as they enjoy their moment of triumph. My thoughts go winging back to the first time my sister Reba and I covered the Academy Awards.

She was 18 and I was 14, and the fact that we were actually standing in the foyer of the Pantages Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard, press badges on our chests, and pads and pencils in our hands, was a bit of movie magic in itself.

That morning, at 5 a.m. Los Angeles time, the shrill ringing of the phone had awakened us. It was an editor calling from New York. "It's last minute, I know, but we want a story on a teenager's view of the awards. Can you do it?"

Could we! He'd heard about our Hollywood column - it had started on the youth page of the Los Angeles Times and then had been picked up by papers across the country. We were the town's youngest columnists, and the editor thought we'd be ideal. We did too!

The fact that we'd never covered the Oscars was what was most appealing to him. When Reba hung up the phone, she exploded, "We're going to the Oscars, tonight!"

I was so excited that I stood up in our Murphy bed, the kind that pulls down from the wall, and started jumping up and down. My jubilation must have peaked, for the bed suddenly flipped up into the wall, carrying me with it.

All of the commotion woke up our parents, and they were delighted at our excitement. "It's formal, isn't it?" our mother asked. Our elation deflated faster than a souffle in a cold oven. Who had an evening gown? "Well, I can wear my prom dress," Reba began. Then, Mother and Reba looked at me, "What about you?"

At 14, my closet was full of shirts, skirts, and jeans. "We'll go shopping soon as the stores open," mother said, giving my dejected shoulders a hug.

Early we boarded the bus to downtown L. A., but by midafternoon, we were still looking. Finding an evening gown that didn't need to be shortened for a barely 5-foot, 2-inch teenager wasn't easy.

It was 3 p.m., and we were leaving the third department store when we saw a dress on the mannequin. It was white and strapless, with organdy butterflies stitched across the bodice. "Wait!" the saleswoman said. "That's ballerina length. It goes to the ankles, but on her it will hit the floor. You won't have to alter it."

The idea that I would have my very first strapless dress was enough to sit me on cloud nine permanently, at least until I was reminded, "It's cold, you'll need a wrap." That's when I saw a white crocheted stole that would be "just right."

It wasn't the warmest, but our dad would drive us to the theater, we'd meet the newspaper photographer who had our credentials and would be inside the theater the rest of the time.

Our first hurdle was to get to the photographer, for the police kept saying, "You bobby-soxers are so pushy. Get back of the ropes!" The photographer, seeing our predicament, charged through the crowd, gave us our badges, and we became part of the "working press." At least we thought we were. Kirk Douglas brushed our questions aside with, "I'll give you kids my autograph when I leave." Bill Holden gave us a kindly smile, calling back, "It's great to have fans like you." Only Clark Gable stopped to talk. When the security guards started pushing us away, he countered, "Leave 'em alone, they're just learning their craft."

Grace Kelly arrived looking cool, confident, and beautiful. As the security guard, posted at the entrance, opened the door for her to walk down the aisle to her seat, Kelly paused. She took her long mink stole and dramatically tossed it over her shoulder.

My eager little eyes took it all in - such style, such charisma. As Reba and I came to the door, I, too, waited, then tossed my crocheted stole over one shoulder with a dramatic fling. We walked to our seats, which were down front and off to the side.

I did notice quite a stir of interest as we went down the aisle, even a few fingers pointing in my direction. Of course, it was the sight of me in my first strapless gown that caused the excitement. My teenage heart beat even faster. What I didn't know was, several threads from my crocheted stole had caught in the belt buckle of the policeman as I'd tossed it around my shoulder.

He told me later he felt a tug on his stomach, and then saw the yarn in the buckle. But by the time he'd got it untangled, several star couples had gone between us. He was racing after me, as my stole unraveled down the aisle.

"Here, Miss," he'd said just as I'd reached my seat. "This is yours!" I looked at the ball of yarn he handed me, and then at where my wrap should have been. A few seconds earlier it was a full length stole. Now it balanced on my shoulders like two doilies.

History will record Marlon Brando received the Best Actor's Award in 1954 for "On the Waterfront," and Brando may remember it as his first award, and that his dad was at his side, but I remember that Academy Awards ceremony for different reasons.

When we got home, our mother was waiting for us to relive each moment of the evening. We sat around the dining room table, and Reba began. I interrupted with the unraveling experience. To my surprise, there was no "poor baby" understanding. Mother was very quiet, then I saw her shoulders begin to shake, and Reba's apple cheeks vainly tried to conceal the smile riding up to her eyes. Quietly, they began to giggle, then like an uncapped oil gusher, they couldn't hold it. They threw back their heads into fu ll-blown laughter.

My tears of embarrassment and flush of humiliation were stopped. How could they? Couldn't they see my career was over? Didn't they realize it was finished before it had actually begun?

The sight of them laughing, the tears rolling down Reba's cheeks, the hands of my mother hugging me advising, "Things will look different tomorrow," proved too much. I dried my eyes and grudgingly admitted, "Maybe it is just a little bit funny."

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