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When Oscar Met Puck

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Celebrity Chef Wolfgang Puck teamed up with Ambrosia Productions to add Spago to the Academy Awards Board of Governors Ball.

BY SUSAN TERPENING

Edible Oscars: Gold-dusted, white chocolate versions of the original topped individual coffee crunch cakes for dessert.

Carl Bendix and David Corwin, co-owners of Santa Monica, California-based Ambrosia Productions, had a clever idea for the 67th Annual Academy Awards Board of Governors Ball in Los Angeles—hire chef Wolfgang Puck to do the catering and then recreate the chic, orange-walled celebrity-soaked back room of L.A’s Famous SPago restaurant. Since this was, after all, a post-Academy Awards party, the concept seemed an ideal theme.

Hiring Puck to design the menu was “a stoke of genius on our part.” Says Corwin. Attaching the celebrated chef was easy. Ambrosia had worked with Puck in the past. “We had a proven track record with Puck from other events we had produced.”

Though the Spago theme seemed a natural, the Academy had the last word. “The Academy never reveals what the theme [of the show] will be until the very last minute,” says Corwin. But when it finally spoke, the word was “comedy.” So, orange in honor of Oscar, became Gold. And the Shrine Exposition Hall, in honor of Academy, became a shrine to Hollywood’s finest and funniest comedians.

But the Spago concept wasn’t lost yet.

With Chef Puck at the culinary helm of an event it’s nearly impossible not to see, feel, taste and smell the influence of Hollywood’s most celebrated restaurant. Known for his signature dishes ( he practically invented the now ubiquitous gourmet pizza and baby field greens salad) and gregarious personality, Puck’s presence at an event is as potent as one of his duck sausage pizzas. The Shrine Exposition Hall might look like a tribute to Hollywood’s comedic legacy, but it would like hollywood’s favorite hangout.

SETTING IT WITH ART

The most obvious reflection of the comedy theme took the form of painted spandex panels that were swagged across the 40-foot ceiling. With the use of fabric dye, a spray gun and the help of several assistants, Los Angeles-based artists Silvia Jahnsans painted 36 larger-than-life, portrait-quality likenesses of comedians ranging from Lucille Ball to Peter Sellers onto 15-by-90 foot Lycra panels. The pioneer of spandex painting, Jahnsans finished the panels in three weeks.

“Alan Bergman [chair of the event] wanted the panels to have impressionistic feel, which Silvia achieved with a spray gun,” says Bendix, who had seen Jahnsans create similar panels for the wedding of actor Geena Davis and director Renny Harlin, an event Ambrosia produced. “Yet, when you look at the faces, they’re perfect portraits. She says its like channeling experience. She feels the people inside her and paints them onto the fabric. And everything is a one-take. She’s Amazing. I compare her to Michelangelo.”

Indeed, the placement of the panels created a Sistine Chapel effect in the Shrine Exposition Hall. Many celebrity heads turned upward upon entering the room, which is exactly the effect both Corwin and Bendix desired. “I believe in extensive treatment of the overhead plan,” says Bendix. “At the 7-foot level, there were table lights, then came the painted panels, then the chandeliers. The result was a layered, firelight glow.”

Art wasn’t limited to the overhead space. The dance floor was also hand-painted. Los Angeles-based artist Gail Taylor created colorful abstractions that swirled and glowed under the golden light. “With the food, the flowers and the custom art installation, this really was a couture event,” says Bendix. “There’s never been anything like it.”

LIGHTING THE STARS

Lighting played a crucial role in designing the space. When it came to the overall room lighting, Bendix and Corwin had a definite look in mind. Says Bendix “I thought, ‘What melts people the most?’ Candlelight.” However , due to fire marshal codes, the use of candles was prohibited. To simulate the look and feel of candlelight, Bendix and Corwin installed flicker bulbs in paper cone table lamps to illuminate the tables much as candles would. Similar paper cones also lighted with flicker bulbs dangled from geometrical. Spago-esque chandliers crafted of foamboard and painted gold.

Ambrosia hired Hollywood, California-based Angstrom Stage Lighting to co-engineer the ambient lighting. In several instances, lighting camouflaged certain aspects of the room that the designers couldn’t change. For example, an “ugly mezzanine,” as Corwin calls it, was hidden behind sheets of sheer fabric back lighted by banks of colored lights. And unsightly columns were fitted with white spandex sleeves and lighted from inside.

The golden glow extended onto the tables and chairs, both of which were covered in gold crushed velvet. Orange and peach-hued garden roses imported from France made up the centerpieces. White china rimmed with gold and gold flatware completed the tabletops. The amber-toned lighting, if not a subtle allusion to Spago’s back room, was a courteous gesture toward the honored guests. “We chose bright oranges because everyone arrives [at these events] dressed in black, and orange light complements dark clothing,” says Bendix. “When they [the guests] entered the room, it was like walking onto a set. They responded, they came to life.

“He was our star, we were the producers,” says Carl Bendix, center, and David Corwin,right, of chef Wolfgang Puck, left.

THE LUXURY OF TIME

Though it would seem that Midas had his fingers firmly affixed to Ambrosia’s budget, Bendix and Corwin did not have unlimited spending power. What they did have was a generous amount of lead time. “The advantage we had was that we had a longer lead time then usual for the installation,” says Bendix. “We had 10 days, which meant the committee could view it in stages. We had two days ust to install the pained panels, whereas we usually have 48 hours to do everything.

“When you’re doing a signature, couture event, try to have the client pay for a few extra days on the installation end,” Bendix advises. “When you have a long lead time, it makes a difference.” When money is tight, Bendix also suggests investing the majority of it in lighting design. “When you have a limited budget, light is the best way to accomplish the best effect,” he says. “Light is one of the vital components in design. But when its used correctly, it moves past its function and becomes art.”

IN PRODUCTION

Producing an event of this magnitude, however, presented some logistical challenges. Due to the size of some of the sets and props used in the awards ceremony, many of them, including a helicopter, were stored in the Exposition Hall. “An hour and a half before the party started, we had to shoot [photos] around the helicopter,” says Corwin. “We were moving big set pieces in and out of the hall.”

Even Chef Puck had to make concessions. “The Kitchen was set up in the bottom floor of the parking garage,” Corwin continues. “It was very cold down here. We had to bring in heaters to keep people warm.”

Regardless of the commissary’s cool clime, Puck, along with a staff of 500 hired by Ambrosia, prepared and served an award-wining dinner that included Chinois Lamb Chops with Cilantro-Mint Vinaigrette and Roasted Salmon with Potato Puree and Tomato Fondue. The Oscar statue appeared in two of Puck’s creations—an Oscar-shaped smoked salmon appetizer and a gold-dusted, white chocolate statuette that topped a coffee crunch cake.

BASKING IN THE AFTERGLOW

Through claiming he does no measure an event’s success by how long people stay, rather “by the pulse of the evening.” Bendix admits that the typical on-the-move, post-Oscar crowd lingered longer than anticipated. “The Academy considered this event to be the most successful ever because people stayed long than usual,” he says. Hmmm… Could it be they were reminded of a particular back room in a certain L.A. restaurant?