How Snow White and some coconuts killed 1989's Oscars

Stuart Heritage
Snow problem... Rob Lowe and Eileen Bowman. Photograph: Reed Saxon/AP

Tucked away in the history of the Academy Awards is a moment so horrible, so astoundingly, objectively, bewilderingly awful, that it remains breathtaking.

In 1989, producer Allan Carr was handed the keys to the ceremony. Driven berserk with unchecked power, Carr’s first move was to do away with the traditional role of Oscar host and replace it with a nebulous smattering of performances from well-known figures. Astonishingly, Carr decided that the first of these would be Snow White. Not Snow White exactly. A woman dressed as Snow White. Not a big-name actor or a singer, either. No, instead Carr picked an unknown and visibly petrified newcomer called Eileen Bowman.

Bowman ran on to the stage singing a bastardised version of I Only Have Eyes for You as she glad-handed visibly embarrassed A-listers such as Tom Hanks and Sigourney Weaver. Once that was done, there was an interminable samba routine. Then, presumably to mark its 40th anniversary, Merv Griffin popped up and sang I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts. And then it happened. Griffin introduced Snow White to her blind date for the night: Rob Lowe, then best known for St Elmo’s Fire and a bootlegged tape of him having sex with a teenager. Together, Snow and Lowe performed a rewritten version of Proud Mary together. “Used to work a lot for Walt Disney,” Snow White began, “starring in cartoons every night and day.”

And then, in a voice that can only be described as “Nick Knowles having an asthma attack while watching a cow fall into a canyon”, Lowe joined in: “But you said goodbye to Grumpy and Sleepy / Left the dwarves behind, came to town to stay.”

Then, together: “Rolling, rolling, keep the cameras rolling.” On and on it went. During a saxophone break, dancers dressed as Carmen Miranda stormed the stage. Some tables grew legs and started dancing. The big finish, insanely, involved Snow White dancing to Hooray for Hollywood with the entire Grauman’s Chinese Theatre balanced on her head.

Lowe has subsequently seen the humour in this disaster, although his reminiscences tend to ignore the fact that, for the duration of the performance, he very clearly wants to hump Snow White. The whole thing is extraordinarily creepy to witness.

The backlash was swift. Disney, having realised that the Oscars hadn’t licensed Snow White, sued for copyright infringement and dilution of business reputation. Carr never worked again. Lowe’s reputation wouldn’t recover for a decade. Bowman was immediately forced to sign a gagging order about her experience and vanished into obscurity (she described the ordeal in a rare interview with the Hollywood Reporter: “That number was 15 minutes long from start to end, and I remember looking at Rob Lowe, going: ‘It’s finally over!’”). The whole thing was an obscene mess and, having learned from its mistakes, the Oscars never went without a host again. Until this year.