Oscar week, 1969: The Beverly Hills Hotel. Pool manager Svend Petersen’s telephone rings. Director Dino De Laurentiis is on the line. “I want a cabana next to Simone Signoret.” An unruffled Petersen makes it happen.
Later that morning, Sylvia Miles, nominated for supporting actress in “Midnight Cowboy,” arrives at the pool. “Svend, darling, where do you want to put me today?” asks the star.
“Ya. I have the second and third row,” responds the Danish-born Petersen. “She looks at me and says, ‘Svend, the second and the third row is for presenters. I am a nominee. I want to sit in front.”
For the two weeks before the Academy Awards, the much-coveted 13 lower and eight upper poolside cabanas were the hottest properties in Beverly Hills for celeb-watching celebs as nominees and presenters draped themselves on chaise lounges, sipped Dom Perignon and sized up the creme de la competition.
And, for 43 years, Petersen was the key holder to this see-and-be-seen slice of heaven. “They would call me from Paris and say, ‘Who’s there?’ ” says the ultimate pool man. “And they all wanted their special cabana.”
Those demanding water babies included Ingrid Bergman, Elizabeth Taylor, Cary Grant and Fred Astaire. Faye Dunaway hugged her golden statuette by the pool. Esther Williams did a bit of synchronized swimming. It was a time when Rex Harrison sunbathed in the buff, out of view. “When I came up, he would put a silk handkerchief over his private. Every day it was a different color. That was Rex Harrison for you,” Petersen says.
“Those were stars with names. I call it the Golden Years — the 1960s and 1970s.”
Fashion czar Fred Hayman couldn’t agree more. Fred Hayman Beverly Hills was a Rodeo Drive candy store filled with goodies by Giorgio Sant’Angelo, Halston and Zandra Rhodes. “It was the 1960s, and it was very glamorous. At Oscar time, the stars came in — on their own. And they selected their gowns. They took nothing. They bought it,” he recalls.
“Some were amusing in what they did because they didn’t know any better,” Hayman adds. “But, they were individualistic in their style. Now stars select from whatever is given them.”
Associated Press reporter Bob Thomas has covered the game since the mid-1940s, when it was held at Grauman’s Chinese Theater. Oscar was on the radio. It was 1945, and Bing Crosby won for “Going My Way.”
“People didn’t come in fancy clothes then,” says Thomas. “Bing was just wearing a suit and hat because he wasn’t planning to come to the Oscars. The studio had tracked him down on the golf course on the 12th hole and said, ‘You gotta go. In case you win.’ ”
The awards show was first telecast on NBC in 1953. Things got more glam, glitzier.
Oscar night, 1955: Thomas remembers a glam couple. Marlon Brando won for “On the Waterfront” and Grace Kelly for “The Country Girl.”
“I recall going backstage with the two of them after they had won. They were such an odd couple,” Thomas says. “They were facing these dozens of photographers, and one shouted out, ‘Why don’t you kiss him?’ And Kelly, who was very prim, said, ‘I think he should kiss me.’ So, Brando kissed her.”
But it was Marilyn Monroe who gets the veteran reporter’s personal award for most beautiful. “She was always late, but when she arrived, Wow! She knocked you out.”
Publicist Dale Olson began his career with Walter Matthau and “The Fortune Cookie.” “Oscar campaigns were almost non-existent then,” Olson says. “We only had four Academy Award ads for Walter. In those days, the big deal was Rona Barrett. If you could get Rona behind your picture, that was your big publicity break.”
Wolfgang Puck has to chuckle when he recalls the “olden days” when he would schlep everything from Spago over to the Shrine. “It was hard,” he recalls. “It was crazy, but it was fun.” Today, Pucks’ army of 300 whips up 1,600 dishes of such Oscar faves as braised ribs, potatoes with caviar and chocolate Oscars — all in the convenience of the Kodak kitchen.
Twenty-five years ago there were basically two parties: Swifty Lazar’s and the Governors Ball. Now there is an endless list of after-parties. “For a while, when the Vanity Fair party started, nobody wanted to stay at the Governors Ball,” photographer Alex Berliner recalls. “They all wanted to hightail it out to the Vanity Fair party. But some of these parties have started to get tired. And the Governors Ball has become more important again.”
One reason may be that the Governors Ball is now held at the purpose-built Kodak Theater in its party-friendly Grand Ballroom.
Berliner began covering the Oscars in 1989 when Allan Carr produced the show. “Other parties are going to come and go,” Berliner says. “But the people attending the Governors Ball are going to be the most beautiful people. And the food that you get at the Governors Ball is going to be the best food.”
From the first Academy Awards ceremony in 1929 at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel to the upcoming 81st Awards show, a lot has changed, but a lot hasn’t. As Hayman says, “The Oscars will always be the Oscars. It’s beautiful still.”