That was Feb. 29, 1940, as Bob Hope was getting ready to host his first of many Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences award banquets at one of the hottest spots in Hollywood, the Cocoanut Grove.
This was the platinum place to be during Hollywood's golden age, a cavernous ultra-club of Moorish arches and high ceilings lit with stars. It was filled with the gigantic, papier-mache palm trees straight from the set of Rudolph Valentino's The Sheik. A real waterfall flowed down the back wall, and mechanical monkeys with glowing eyes swung from Valentino's trees.
But it wasn't just the venue that electrified the guests that night. It was the first time the event would be filmed - a game changer. Warner Bros. paid $30,000 for the rights to film the whole gala and planned to make a short film of it.
Naturally, Hollywood knows that when the cameras are on, it's time to amp up the glam. What had once been a company dinner turned into a bacchanal of diamonds, furs, jewels and gowns.
The nominated films were already legends - Gone with the Wind, Wuthering Heights,Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, The Wizard of Oz and Of Mice and Men were in the mix.
It was the first time that two cinematography awards would be given, one for black and white and one for color. And it was the first time an award would be given for special effects.
The night would also be the third time that the tiny, seven-inch version of the Oscar - the Juvenile Award - was up for grabs. First awarded to Shirley Temple, then both Deanna Durbin and Mickey Rooney, it went to Judy Garland that night.
It was also the first time in the ceremony's 12 years that an African-American participant was sitting at the banquet. That was Hattie McDaniel, who did more than make history with her mere presence; she won the award for best supporting actress.
"It is a tribute to a country where people are free to honor noteworthy achievements regardless of creed, race or color," she said when she accepted the award.
Her achievement was noted and the congratulations were hearty and emotional.
But aside from her genuine emotion, something was off in the other speeches. Although they were actors, some of the folks didn't act surprised.
And in turns out they weren't.
The Los Angeles Times, flagrantly and brazenly, had spoiled it.
At the very first ceremony in 1929, winners were announced three months before the event, a $5-a-plate dinner with 270 people and a ceremony that lasted just 15 minutes. So much for stagecraft. That was Dullsville.
So in 1930, the organizers decided to keep the winners a secret. And on the day of the ceremony, the only folks who knew ahead of time were the reporters. They got a preview list of Oscar winners with the condition that they would embargo the winners until 11 p.m. the night of the show.
That way, they had some lead time to write their copy and get it to the typesetters in time for the morning edition, because the Oscar shows usually ran late and Hollywood wanted to be the talk of the town early the next morning.
And for years, it worked.
The stars of the 1930s silver screen didn't have to work hard to appear surprised when their names were called - the winners were a pretty well-kept secret.
"But in 1940, much to the Academy's dismay, the Los Angeles Times broke the embargo and announced the winning achievements in its evening edition, which was readily available to guests arriving for the event," according to the Academy's website.
And of all things, it happened on the first night that cameras would be rolling.
Other folks weren't so smooth, and some amateur-hour speeches spilled the beans on losers and winners before the Oscars were handed out.
So the Academy rethought it all.
Gone were the newspaper exclusives.
"As a result, the Academy adopted the sealed-envelope system the next year, and the system remains in use today," the Academy explained.
Today, each envelope is handcrafted by paper artisans in California. It is made of metallic gold paper created in a small paper mill in Germany, and the red-lacquered lining is waxed so that it isn't too slippery and could lead to on-stage fumbles. Each envelope weighs a quarter-pound, costs $200 and takes 110 hours to make, according to designer, Marc Friedland, whose company, Marc Friedland's Couture Communications, has been in charge of making the envelopes for nearly a decade.
That's the craftsmanship part of the story.
The spycraft involves all the machinations to keep the winners secret. It started with using envelopes in 1941, keeping each winner separate and sealed and away from any news editors with itchy typesetting fingers.
The envelopes became thicker, so they weren't translucent, and they were guarded and secreted away until mere minutes before the big night began. Over 84 years, the accountants at PricewaterhouseCooper, now known as PwC, have tallied hundreds of thousands of votes.
The accountants keep track of the tallies, but only two of them know the winners. And they never write or record the information anywhere. They have to memorize all the winners, and the only confirmation of a win is their act of putting the ecru card with the winner's name inside the golden envelope and sealing it.
How do they make sure a printer doesn't give it away? The printers make an identical card for every nominee. And in the end, the accountants assemble three full sets of the envelopes - 72 total - and stash each set in a briefcase. Each briefcase is secured in a secret location. All of this happens a week before the ceremony.
Of course, most folks learned about PwC's involvement in the process because of the monumental screw-up last year, when one of those accountants, who was giddily tweeting about his mind-blowing time backstage, handed the wrong envelope to Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, leading to Envelopegate.
The presenters got one of the extra envelopes for best actress, rather than the grand finale award, best picture. They improvised on stage and said that "La La Land" had won the award - rather than "Moonlight" - because they saw Emma Stone's name on that fancy, ecru card.
It was the accountants, not the journalists, who caused chaos this time.
The venerable PwC got to keep the job but promised it would put new measures in place to prevent another Envelopegate this year.
And get this - the key part of the plan is pretty simple. No cellphones. Anywhere.
Just the way it was back in 1941.
(c) 2018, The Washington Post
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