Oscar's strange showstopper: See 1989 musical number with Patrick Dempsey, Christian Slater, Ricki Lake, and more

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Long before anyone worried about keeping the Oscars at a tolerable length, the show used to feature lavish song-and-dance numbers that had almost nothing to do with the year’s nominees. The most notorious example was at the 61st Academy Awards in 1989, when a tone-deaf Rob Lowe, together with Snow White, performed an awkward rendition of “Proud Mary” (“Rollin’, rollin’, keep the cameras rollin’”) that single-handedly sunk the career of Allan Carr, that year’s Oscar producer.

But there was another, equally bizarre number in the program that night — a nine-minute tribute to future Oscar recipients called “The Stars of Tomorrow.” Introduced by Bob Hope and Lucille Ball and written by Marvin Hamlisch and Fred Ebb, the number saw up-and-comers like Patrick Dempsey, Ricki Lake, Chad Lowe, Keith Coogan, Corey Feldman, Christian Slater, and Joely Fisher sing and dance about an award that, so far, none of them has been nominated for. Still, for some it was an unforgettable experience.

Almost Famous

In 1989, hot new choreographer Kenny Ortega (Dirty Dancing) set about finding 19 young actors who were willing and able to sing and dance in front of 42.6 million viewers

BLAIR UNDERWOOD: I was doing L.A. Law at the time, and Holly Robinson Peete asked me if I wanted to be a part of it. It was an opportunity to be on the Academy Awards stage. I may never make it back, so why not?

RICKI LAKE: I had just done Hairspray the year before, so I literally moved to L.A. when I was 19. As soon as I landed, Kenny Ortega reached out. We did a thing on Oprah. I was doing dances from Hairspray. He was there for Dirty Dancing. We met and became friends.

KEITH COOGAN: I had done a morning appearance on A.M. Los Angeles to promote Cousins, the Joel Schumacher film with Ted Danson. In Cousins I had a dance sequence with Lloyd Bridges where I wound up doing the splits. Kenny Ortega’s assistant director happened to be watching that live program, and since I was also Jackie Coogan’s grandson, they gave me a call. I was through the roof.

COREY FELDMAN: It was right after I finished Dream a Little Dream and I was about to start production on The ’Burbs opposite Tom Hanks. It was a great time in my life. I was dating Drew Barrymore.

JOELY FISHER: There may have been some haters who said they didn’t recognize any of the people. All I could think of is “Who gives a s—? I’m gonna be dancing and singing on the Oscars.” I had only done a few things before that, so the promise of a career afterwards was definitely something I was after.

Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage

Don’t Fence Me In  

Though Ortega ended up assembling an eclectic mix of performers, not everyone was trained in musical theater. So he tailored the number to fit everyone’s strengths. Chad Lowe, for example, spoke his solo, and Feldman re-created Michael Jackson dance moves. There was also ballet from Tracy Nelson, tap from Savion Glover, and fencing with Coogan and Slater. 

LAKE: Going to rehearsal was like summer camp. I was completely in love with Patrick Dempsey. I hung out with Carrie Hamilton and Holly Robinson Peete and the Fisher girls, who stayed friends with me through the years. It was like landing in Hollywood and being in the cool club.

FISHER: The parts were doled out according to what everybody was capable of or what would make them shine. Some were worried that we [Lake and Joely’s sister, Tricia Leigh Fisher] were brought in as ringers ’cause we could sing and dance.

COOGAN: I had some practice in martial arts so I felt very comfortable with fencing. They brought in the same fight coordinator who worked on Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. He was like a master fencer.

FELDMAN: [Ortega] asked what can I do dance-wise and I said, “Well, I heard you worked with Michael Jackson. Michael and I have been friends for many years, I’ve learned a lot from him. So pretty much most of what Michael can do, I can do too.”

UNDERWOOD: I performed at Busch Gardens [theme park] for two summers during college. There was a little choreography that I never got a chance to do on the Busch Gardens stage, so I asked Kenny if I could do them there. You see it for a split second — it’s a leap and a turn and I land in a crouched position, kind of like a Marvel character today.

FELDMAN: At dress rehearsal, Sammy Davis Jr. walked in. He wasn’t even in the show. He just decided to come visit everybody. He worked the room! “Hey, babe, how you doin’, love ya, love ya.” It was surreal.

Courtesy of AMPAS

Big Night

After a generous buildup by Hope in the intro (“Make a note of their names now. You’re going to be hearing a lot from these kids,” he said), the number began with an Underwood solo before everyone began to descend a classic Hollywood staircase. 

LAKE: I remember not being able to find something to wear because I was so big. This woman who used to be a big girl brought me home to her closet and gave me an oversized man-suit kind of thing that I wore. I also wore a hat because I was big on hats then.

FISHER: When the curtains went up, the first face I saw was Melanie Griffith. She was in this white puffy cloud of a dress.

COOGAN: I’m sad that Carrie Hamilton [who died in 2002] is no longer with us. I remember I stole her joke at the end where she exclaims, “You like me, you really like me.” She had done it in rehearsal, but I thought it was too good. So, Carrie, I want to acknowledge that I stole your joke.

FELDMAN: I remember looking at Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, and seeing the faces of people I kind of already knew and getting that pit in my stomach, thinking, “Oh, God, I can’t mess up or I’ll never work again.”

Courtesy of AMPAS

LAKE: Afterwards I went to this backstage room. I was sitting next to Meg Ryan and Winona Ryder and I see a guy looking at me. It was Tom Cruise and he had seen Hairspray. He told me how much he loved that movie and then he goes, “You want to meet someone?” He pulls me over and he introduces me to Dustin Hoffman. I was, like, fainting.

FISHER: The greatest part of the story for me is that Oscars are always during pilot season. They didn’t know who they wanted yet for a role in Mulberry Street, which was Moonstruck for television. They brought me in the next day, and I got the job.

UNDERWOOD: I haven’t been nominated yet, so I don’t know what to tell you.

COOGAN: What an amazing, weird, and unique thing it was. Yes, it was the same year as the Rob Lowe number, but thankfully people don’t necessarily remember our nine minutes.

LAKE: The Rob Lowe thing with Snow White was so painful, like a car accident that you can’t look away from. But it didn’t matter. It was like a dream come true that I could never have dreamt up. If I had to do it over again I would do it in a heartbeat. In a heartbeat!

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