risky business


"We're here tonight in celebration of an end of an era at the Academy," Bruce Davis, executive director of Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, said Monday night to a packed house of well-wishers gathered at Musso & Frank in Hollywood. "I don't know if historians will look back and call it the Pavlik era, but we will."

The Academy insiders present did not need to be told that Davis was referring to John Pavlik, the Academy's longtime director of communications, whose retirement they had gathered to toast.

While his name might not be known to the millions who tune in to the annual Oscarcast, the imperturbable Pavlik, a native of Iowa who started out as a newspaperman before moving into public relations, has been at the center of the Oscar storm for years. He served as the Academy's executive administrator from 1979-82, was director of the endowment campaign for the Margaret Herrick Library that began in 1989 and in 1992 became the organization's first director of communications.

The Oscars always attracted attention, but during Pavlik's time, that attention has grown exponentially. In the 1970s, the Oscars still were fairly freewheeling, with reporters roaming the red carpet at will. Today, they are assigned to carefully demarcated spots. Actresses did not routinely promote designers, and so a columnist like the late Shirley Eder would reach across the rope and grab the back of an actress' gown to read its label. Then, the press numbered about 550. Today, that has tripled to about 1,500 bodies representing about 350 outlets.

"The last time I looked, we were able to accommodate about 46% of the requests," Pavlik says.

Pavlik has weathered any number of tense moments. On March 30, 1981, as Norman Jewison was overseeing final run-throughs at Los Angeles' Dorothy Chandler Pavilion for the 53rd Annual Academy Awards, which he was producing, John Hinkley fired a gun at President Reagan in Washington. For several hours, nobody knew the president's fate. At the Chandler, while everyone knew the show could not go on that night, no one was sure if it could be postponed or if it would have to be canceled altogether.

Eventually, with the help of an Academy lawyer working his sources at the White House, word came that the president had survived and the decision was made to postpone the ceremony for 24 hours.

In Pavlik's experience, the run-up to the 75th Annual Academy Awards was more fraught. With war plans pending, "we were trying to play with a lot of different possibilities," Pavlik says. "We didn't know if the show could go on, if it would have to be canceled or if it might be pre-empted by the network's news division. As it turned out, the day of the show was the day we went into Baghdad."

In response, over just a two-day period, the Academy canceled all the red-carpet hoopla that requires months of planning, and the stars entered the Kodak Theatre with as little fanfare as possible.

This year, with his able second-in-command Leslie Unger taking on his responsibilities as the Academy's new communications chief, Pavlik was able to relax. "I knew I didn't have to worry," he says with some relief. Instead, he took a seat in the audience and actually got to watch the show.