Carr had one shot at orchestrating the finery and folly of Oscar night. It came in 1989, and it was a disaster -- by consensus, the Worst Oscars Show Ever. Afterward came recriminations, lawsuits, apologies and a committee deputized to figure out how it all went so wrong.
And afterward came a sad denouement for Carr, whose public humiliation cost him the rest of his career, and maybe more. Before he produced the 61st Academy Awards, Carr had managed stars (Ann-Margret, Dyan Cannon), run Oscar campaigns (his tactics helped secure the best picture award for "The Deer Hunter"), written and produced movies (from the huge hit "Grease" to the more forgettable "Where the Boys Are '84") and won a Tony for the Broadway version of "La Cage aux Folles." After the show, there was almost nothing. Carr lived 10 more years, talked about other projects and resurfaced for the 20th anniversary of "Grease" -- but his creative output had essentially come to an end.
"It's a true tragedy," says Michael Seligman, the associate producer of Carr's Oscars show and more than two dozen others. "Frankly, I think, more than anything else, the reaction to that show really killed him."
But the story resists such easy summation. However deeply the Oscars debacle wounded him, the cause of Carr's death was liver cancer. And however much his show is now seen as a disaster, it was more interesting than a simple flop: It was a visionary production that paved the way for every show since. In ways both positive and negative, Carr helped create the modern Academy Awards.
A heavy man with a bum hip, Carr moved slowly through the rooms of Hillhaven Lodge, his sprawling brick mansion down a private road in Benedict Canyon. His feet dragged and his cane squeaked, then thwacked, on the polished hardwood floors. Staff members for the 61st Academy Awards often found themselves in the study waiting for Carr, and they heard him several rooms away: the shuffle of his feet, but mostly the sound of the cane skidding, then slamming down. He arrived in his robe and in pain, but the man knew how to make an entrance.
Everyone says the same thing about Carr: He was a showman. He was short and rotund, swathed in custom caftans when he wasn't wrapped in a robe or a smoking jacket; his baby face was topped with a tousled blond mop and framed by oversized designer glasses. At 51, he had been a manager, a publicist, a producer and a promoter, self- and otherwise. He knew how to attract attention, and especially how to throw a party. In fact, he'd installed a fully functioning disco in the basement of Hillhaven Lodge. "He was the ringmaster of that whole '70s party scene, which took place on the East Coast in nightclubs [like Studio 54], and on the West Coast at Allan's house," says veteran Oscars show writer Bruce Vilanch.
"I wanted to invest our show with the kind of excitement he brought to everything he did," says Richard Kahn, then-president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, who offered Carr the unpaid job in the fall of 1988. "And we got a lot of excitement, much of which we did not expect."
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Friends say Carr expected the show to be his crowning achievement; in interviews, he promised that it would be the biggest, the most glamorous, the most fabulous Oscars ever. "I remember going with him for our first survey of the Shrine," says Jeff Margolis, the director of the show, the second to be held at the aging Shrine Auditorium after a 19-year run at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. "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.
Offstage, occupying a corner of the adjoining Shrine Exhibition Hall, was perhaps the grandest space of all. Until then, the greenroom had been a utilitarian area where stars could relax during the show; Carr dubbed his version Club Oscar and turned it into the most elaborate greenroom anyone had ever seen. "You never would have known that you were backstage in a theater," says Margolis. "It was like you were in some highfalutin club in West Hollywood or New York City."
Some staffers wondered about the producer's fanatical attention to Club Oscar, but Carr was proud of the stars he'd signed up as presenters, and proud of the way he was putting them together as part of an overall theme: couples, costars, companions and compadres. Sure, not all of his plans worked out: Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson declined his offer, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward didn't want to fly, Loretta Young would do it only if she could give the best picture award by herself. But Demi Moore and Bruce Willis said yes, as did Michael Caine and Sean Connery and Roger Moore, Kim Novak and Jimmy Stewart, Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson, Bob Hope and Lucille Ball.
To kick off this fabulous assemblage, Carr knew he needed a particularly fabulous opening number. So he looked to San Francisco, where the campy musical revue "Beach Blanket Babylon" had been a hit for 15 years. Simultaneously satirizing and celebrating pop culture, creator Steve Silver had thrown together dozens of pop icons in a deliriously silly extravaganza. Carr, a fan who had frequented "BBB" for a decade, persuaded Silver to apply his giddy sensibility to the Oscars -- whereupon, says Seligman, "that hellacious opening number just grew and grew."
The number became a trip through old Hollywood as taken by a wide-eyed Snow White, a central character in Silver's show. "Steve kept expanding it, and Allan did not take charge and tell him when to stop," Seligman says. Silver's widow, Jo Schuman Silver, remembers it differently. "Everything that Steve laid out became bigger, crazier and more extreme when Allan got his hands on it," she says. "Steve wanted it to be five or six minutes long at the most, but Allan got nervous and threw in everything but the kitchen sink."
As the broadcast began on the evening of March 29, 1989, elaborately costumed and coiffed dancers congregated in the aisles of the Shrine Auditorium. Bruce Davis, soon to be the academy's executive director, didn't know what to expect. "He wanted it to all be a surprise, not only to the audience but to us," says Davis. "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."
The squeaky-voiced princess was played by a 22-year-old actress named Eileen Bowman. She greeted stars in the front rows, a bit that Silver had opposed but Carr insisted would be "gold," according to Jo Schuman Silver. Then she sauntered onstage to sing what quickly became an infamous duet with the young star Rob Lowe, who looked shellshocked as he butchered a showbizzy rewrite of "Proud Mary." They were soon joined by others wearing enormous hats, a trademark of "Beach Blanket Babylon." "I'd never in my life been that scared," says Val Diamond, a "BBB" veteran. "The front row was full of people I idolized, and there I was with a pineapple on my head."
The impossibly cheesy number also included dancing cocktail tables, a high-kicking chorus line of movie theater usherettes and Merv Griffin singing "I've Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts" to an audience of legendary stars--Doris Day, Dorothy Lamour, Cyd Charisse, Vincent Price -- sprinkled across the stage like so much window dressing. It lasted an agonizing 12 minutes.
"His mistake was having that first number go on for so long," says Gilbert Cates, who would in subsequent years produce the Academy Awards himself. "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."
Midway through the evening, a second, even longer production number showcased 20 "stars of tomorrow" singing a misbegotten anthem titled "I Wanna Be an Oscar Winner." The youngsters included Corey Feldman doing a Michael Jackson impersonation, Christian Slater sword fighting with Tyrone Power Jr., Chad Lowe emoting ("I'm a thespian in the classic sense!") and 15-year-old Savion Glover tap-dancing, one bit of actual talent on display.
The chitchat between Carr's carefully matched costars was equally cutesy and interminable. Reading from the TelePrompTer and addressing his then wife, Geena Davis, Jeff Goldblum could have been speaking for many of the participants when he asked: "Have we lost our sense of dignity as presenters here?"