Sneaking into Academy Awards rehearsals with Sammy
Did I ever tell you about the time I snuck into a rehearsal for the Academy Awards?
It was a warm, humid Sunday evening in downtown Los Angeles. The rehearsals were held at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in preparation for the live broadcast of the actual ceremonies the next evening.
Bob Hope, who hosted the awards for his eighteenth and last time, hosted the awards that year. Two of the year’s biggest winners were “Star Wars”, which swept the technical categories by winning six out of ten nominations, and “Annie Hall,” winning four out of five nominations, including Best Picture, Best Actress and Best Director. “The Turning Point” set the record for the most nominations (eleven) without a win.
The year was 1978, and I was working for the California State Department of Education as an analyst. I was staying in a cheap motel approximately one mile from downtown. I was hungry and intended to drive to Glendale, to grab a quick bite to eat, and to take in the movie, “The Deer Hunter.”
On my way to Glendale, I passed by the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and thought: the Academy Awards are in rehearsal right now… maybe I’ll just drive around the block to see what I can see. What I saw was a small group of women waiting outside the stage entrance at the rear of the Pavilion. I circled the block again, found a parking spot, and walked over to the group.
“What’s going on,” I asked. One of the women said, “We’re waiting for celebrities to be let off.”
That sounded like fun. Since I had already parked the car, I decided to stick around for a while. After five minutes, a limousine drove up stopped in front of us. The back window rolled down and Barry Manilow stared at me. Just before the window went back up I heard him say to his chauffer, “Get out of here.” The limousine quickly took off.
I turned to one of the others and asked, “What just happened?”
“Sometimes the celebrities get out, and sometimes they get disgusted, taking off to look for another entrance,” she said.
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Barry Manilow, instead of getting out of the limo and maybe saying hello, took off. He rudely took off. Unbelievable.
After another 15 minutes, a Rolls Royce Silver Cloud slowly drove up and stopped. Instead rolling down the window, Steve Lawrence bounded out carrying a metal briefcase. Sammy Davis, Jr. slid out, right after Steve, and stumbled into me. As I caught him, I expected him to push off and go through the entrance to the theater. I was surprised that he just clung to my arm.
“Here kid,” Steve said to me, “You take Sammy, I’ve got his booze” pointing to the briefcase. Sammy looked up at me and smiled his trademark lopsided grin as we followed Steve into the theater. Once inside, I handed Sammy off to one of the guards, and turned around to go back outside. I felt a hand on my shoulder and a friendly voice said, “Thanks, man.” Sammy waved to me over his shoulder as he ambled over to the stage and I headed out the door.
In the next half hour, I saw Aretha Franklin drive by and wave to the six of us standing there. Soon after, Debbie Boone and one of her sisters drove up and got out of her car, leaving it parked in front of us as they walked into the theater.
By this time I’m wondering how I could get into the theater to watch the rehearsals up close and personal. I decided to walk around the block to the front of the theater. As I was walking up the outside stairs, I noticed a nicely dressed woman walking up and asked if I could join her. She smiled, nodded yes, and before I knew it, she and I were walking into the theater (and past the two guards at the door) as if we were best friends.
Once inside, I noticed security guards at all the entrances to the stage area. My new acquaintance (who had an ID badge) peeled off to the left. I headed for the stairs leading down to the men’s room. I had no idea how I was going to walk into the theater to see the rehearsals without a proper ID.
As I entered the men’s room there were three young men, about my same age, laughing and talking about UCLA’s film school while washing their hands. They ignored me and turned around to walk out when, seizing the moment, I said, “I could use your help.”
You know guys don’t generally talk to, or even acknowledge, one another in the men’s room. My plea for help could have been taken a number of ways, but instead of looking at me in disgust, one of the guys said, “What do you need?”
“I need,” I replied, “a way to get past the guards so I can watch the rehearsals.”
They looked at each other, and one of them said, “Ah. No badge. No problem. Follow us.”
As they walked out of the men’s room, I walked with them and before you could say, “Bob’s my uncle,” we were past the guards and taking seats center stage. Debbie Boone was on the stage rehearsing “You Light Up My Life.” She spent the next 25 minutes rehearsing and as she finished, the guys got up, leaving me alone. I was sitting in the middle of the third row with no one in front and only a handful of others sitting somewhere in the back. After Debbie left the stage, Sammy and Steve Lawrence came on to practice a tap dance routine.
I felt safe and was just starting to relax and enjoy the show when, for the second time that night, I felt a hand on my shoulder. I then heard a deep, powerful male voice. It was not friendly as it whispered in my ear, “Don’t move and don’t turn around.” There was a pause before the voice continued, “I want you to slowly get up, turn to your left, and exit through the doors there. Do you see the doors?” I nodded my head yes and did not, of course, turn around. The voice the said, “OK. Let’s go. Now!”
I rose on weak legs and exited as requested. He kept his hand on my shoulder. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Sammy wave goodbye to me as he and Steve danced on stage. When I walked through the doors I was told, “Turn to your right and go into the office.”
Once inside the office, I heard the door close and dared to look back over my shoulder. Standing a foot behind me was one of the biggest dudes I’ve ever seen. He was dressed in a nicely cut suit that enhanced his ginormous biceps. He asked me to take a seat as he walked around me to sit at the desk. He looked like a large (I mean LARGE) Richard Roundtree. He also looked scary. He had the kind of steely-cold eyes that I was not to see again until many years later when I met Presidential Candidate Bob Dole at a reception on Capitol Hill and one of his Secret Service men gave me a look that still makes me shiver to this day.
“I am the head of security for the Academy Awards,” my new best friend said, “and you are in my theater without a badge.”
He then asked my name. When I told him my name, he asked for my drivers license. He looked at the license, turned around, made a copy, and returned it to me. He then asked how I got into the theater, why I did so, and did I know that he could have me arrested for trespassing.
I thought I did well in answering his questions without wetting my pants. After what seemed like an eternity (maybe five minutes?), he told me it was my lucky day.
“I’m going to let you go and not press charges,” he said. “You are to leave and once outside, you are to keep going. Get off the property. I don’t want to see you again.”
After lamely replying, “Yes sir, thank you, sir,” I got up and did as I was told. Once outside I heard someone say, “How did he get inside?” I looked around to see the group of women I had stood with 45 minutes earlier. To my surprise, I had exited through the same door where I had helped Sammy Davis Jr. enter earlier. Because I am a law-abiding citizen (but mostly because I was scared witless) I kept walking, made my way to the rental car, and drove to my motel.
The next evening I returned to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and finagled my way into the outdoors bleachers where I watched celebrities walk the Red Carpet. After the last of the stars were escorted inside, I went back to my motel room to watch the live broadcast on TV.
I’ve watched all of the Academy Awards broadcasts since then. I can’t really recall much about those broadcasts, but I will always remember the rehearsal for the 50th Annual Academy Awards.
[This is one of a number of short stories written for my son,
Robert, and bound into a book titled, All My Love, Dad]