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Keeping Secrets: They Count Oscar Votes : Awards: Price, Waterhouse's Frank Johnson and Dan Lyle are the only ones who know the results in advance.

March 30, 1993|BOB THOMAS | ASSOCIATED PRESS

A few years ago a team of accountants in a downtown tower was tallying votes for the Academy Awards when window washers suddenly swung into view.

"I suspected that something was up," recalls Frank Johnson, who supervises the vote-counting for Price, Waterhouse. "But it wasn't. They were just going about their normal business."

Johnson, 56, is entitled to a touch of paranoia. After all, he and colleague Dan Lyle, 47, are the sole keepers of the Academy Award results for two days before the Oscars are dispensed. Wouldn't the Vegas bookies love to know what the two accountants know? Not a chance. Johnson and Lyle don't even tell their wives.

Price, Waterhouse has been handling the Academy vote-counting since 1935. In those innocent days, the firm merely conveyed the results to the academy, which issued the press releases.

The system broke down in 1940, when the academy sent out a pre-release to accommodate early edition newspapers. Late arrivals at the Cocoanut Grove could buy a Los Angeles Times that proclaimed a "Gone With the Wind" triumph. So much for suspense.

"That's when they changed to the envelopes," says Johnson, a 32-year veteran of Price, Waterhouse, 17 of them on the academy account. Managing director of the entertainment group, he normally handles financial matters for film companies.

To emphasize the secrecy, Price, Waterhouse men for years came onstage during the ceremonies and handed presenters envelopes containing the winners. "And the envelope, please," became a catch-phrase. To speed the telecast along, presenters now carry the envelopes to the podium.

"Dan and I attend the rehearsal on Sunday so we will know who the presenters are," explains Johnson, a broad-faced smiling man with spectacles. "At the ceremonies, we stand in the wings and hand the envelopes to the presenters before they walk onstage."

The pair have avoided mishaps such as the time Sammy Davis Jr. exclaimed onstage: "They gave me the wrong envelope! Wait until the NAACP hears about this!"

Laurence Olivier created an anxious moment when he was presenting the best picture award in 1985. "I hope I won't let the occasion down too badly," he told the Music Center audience.

"Olivier was not well," said Johnson. "He was supposed to read the five nominations that were on the cue cards. Instead, he just said, 'The winner is "Amadeus."' (The producers) were very fearful that he had not opened the envelope and that 'Amadeus' had not been the right result. But he had opened the envelope before he was supposed to read the nominees."

Counting the ballots for the nominations is a complex affair, Johnson commented, because of the unlimited number of choices. Eight people are given portions of the ballots, and the results are funneled to Johnson and Lyle.

Final ballots for this year's awards were mailed to voters residing out of state and out of country on March 3, local members a week later. Ballots must be received at the Price, Waterhouse downtown offices by 5 p.m. Tuesday, March 23. Anything later will not be counted.

Johnson and Lyle do their own tallies, finishing Friday night. Close votes are subjected to a recount. Don't even think about pilfering the results. They are kept in a bank-style safe behind three locked doors.

"I try to remain incommunicado on Saturday," Johnson admitted. "At the rehearsal on Sunday, the people involved with the show know that Dan and I know the results by then. We get teased, but nobody seriously tries to find anything out."

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