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Master of ceremonies

One of Roy Christopher's bold designs will again set the scene for the Oscars.

March 21, 2003|Barbara Isenberg | Special to The Times

Roy Christopher has the same dream every year he designs the Academy Awards show: "I walk into the theater, I look at the stage and it is the most hideous, banal flat, amateur, cliched set you could possibly imagine. My heart just sinks, and I think how could I have let this happen? How could I possibly have not paid attention?"

With clouds of war hanging over Hollywood's big night, he's dealing with a different kind of nightmare this year. "Hopefully," Christopher said Wednesday, a day after Oscars organizers announced they would roll up the red carpet in deference to political events of the day, "the joyous celebratory tone of this year's tribute to the movies will be a brief relief from the reality of the current world situation."

Although it was unclear at press time whether the Sunday show would proceed as planned, there was never any question that Christopher would be its designer.

"I always go to Roy for the Oscars first," says Oscars producer Gil Cates. "He is the master of the grand theme. Many designers don't have the courage to use the entire stage without cutting it up into small, bite-size pieces. What I love about Roy is that he's capable of these bold architectural statements."

The centerpiece of Christopher's Streamline Moderne set for the 75th anniversary show -- his 14th -- is a huge silver globe that will hang over the orchestra and a few of the front rows of Hollywood's Kodak Theatre. The globe is 14 feet in diameter, weighs 3 tons and has "Oscar 75" in 4-foot-tall letters revolving around it.

When the custom-made Art Deco curtain opens onstage, it will reveal a huge elliptical sculpture, shaped like a giant inverted champagne flute, made of iron and covered with a pale gray silk-like fabric. The 35-foot-high flute will be onstage through the entire show, sometimes surrounding a giant Oscar statue, other times used as a film screen.

"Every time I do the Oscars, I say I'm never going to do this again," says Christopher. "I've just done it too many times. It takes too much out of me. Then Gil calls. He says, 'Let's do it one more time,' and I say, 'OK.' "

Inspiration comes from everywhere. Some of his ideas for 1999's neo-classical dome came from a book of 16th century etchings, while an earlier set was prompted by a design exhibition he saw at New York's Whitney Museum of American Art. In 2001, Christopher thought of Stanley Kubrick's film "2001: A Space Odyssey," and this year's concept, he says, sweeps in all sorts of research he did on architecture, fashion, product and motion picture design circa 1929 on.

"I think Roy Christopher is much too good a designer to be doing awards," said Robin Wagner, a Tony Award-winning Broadway set designer who has worked on "A Chorus Line," "The Producers" and "City of Angels." "I'd like to see what he would do with a spectacular Broadway musical."

Visual tribute to the movies

This year, as every year, Christopher and Cates started working on the show around the end of October. "We talked about the fact it was the 75th anniversary, and that Gil wanted it to be joyful, a ... celebration of the movies," says Christopher, who gives his age as "between 50 and death."

The designer's ideas take shape during what he calls his "doodle phase." He sits on a couch or chair in his Hollywood Hills home, not at his drawing board, with a writing tablet and pen. The television is on as background, and, he says, "I just free flow, think 'Oscar, 2003,' and what the show should represent at this place in time."

Each of those doodles takes just a few minutes, and Christopher says he usually turns out 200 to 400 of them. Then, in early December, he packs up his favorites, takes them to Cates' office in Westwood and lays them out on the producer's conference table. After an hour or so, they've come up with several concepts they both like, usually with a common theme. This year, it was the flute shape.

The designer next sits at his drawing board, making floor plans to scale and trying to come up with a few basic design concepts that are endlessly versatile and integrated.

Art directors come on board just before the holidays, help him assemble rough models of the sets, and start figuring out things like just how this year's flute and globe could actually be engineered, much less set into place.

Once the set is constructed, Christopher turns to designing musical numbers and what he calls "star shrines." The year Cher wore her barely there Bob Mackie outfit, for instance, Christopher heard about it and designed the special archway she came through. ("Nobody paid any attention to the archway," he concedes.) He sent Shirley MacLaine onstage in a spaceship, and the year Jamie Lee Curtis starred in "True Lies," he dropped her onstage in a helicopter.

He has earned Emmy nominations for all 13 Oscar shows he designed, and won for five of them, plus a sixth for a Richard Pryor comedy special. And he's also designed eight Emmy broadcasts, seven Tony Awards shows and two Grammy shows.

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