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How the Oscar winners' names were kept secret. Price Waterhouse enjoys its role as guarantor of genuine surprises

When the award presenters at last night's Oscar ceremony opened their envelopes, not one of them knew what was inside. In fact, nobody in the entire show-business world knew who the winners were, until the names were read from the stage of the Music Center in Los Angeles and heard by an estimated 1 billion television viewers around the world.

How does Oscar keep up such suspense? What's the secret to his secrecy?

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That's the business of Price Waterhouse, the national accounting firm that has tallied votes for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for more than half a century.

The person in charge of this delicate operation is Frank R. Johnson, a Price Waterhouse partner who has been involved with the counting procedure since he joined the firm 26 years ago. He and one of his colleagues are the only people who know the results of the Oscar race in advance. On the evening of the Academy Awards ceremony, Mr. Johnson told the Monitor by telephone from his Los Angeles office, he personally brings the celebrated envelopes to the Music Center offices. His partner holds a duplicate set ``just as a backup,'' he added.

Both the voting and counting processes are devised to ensure secrecy, suspense, and genuinely surprised looks on Oscar night.

Each year, Academy members - all 4,355 of them - mail their ballots directly to Price Waterhouse, which must receive them by 5 p.m. on the Tuesday before Oscar night. The count itself lasts about three days, Johnson says, and takes place behind closed doors with the ballots locked in a vault overnight. Although several assistants help out, they only relay partial counts to Johnson and his partner, who do the final addition themselves.

``We try to save the most important categories for last - like best picture, best actor, and best actress - to minimize the time that even two of us know the results,'' Johnson notes.

The 58-year-old Oscar competition hasn't always been conducted this elaborately. The results of the first Academy Awards vote were announced on Feb. 17, 1929, three months before the ceremony itself - which was not a media event, just a banquet for Hollywood insiders.

In subsequent years, ballots were counted on the evening of the ceremony. In 1932, according to Academy press information, the tally went on until 8:30 p.m. and ended with stars Frederic March and Wallace Beery in a dead heat. A speedy employee raced to the Academy offices, grabbed an additional Oscar statuette, and whizzed back to the banquet so both could be duly honored.

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It was in 1935 that the Academy decided to ward off potential mistrust of in-house counting and brought Price Waterhouse into the picture. At first, accountants tallied votes during the pre-awards dinner. To allow more time, the count was then rescheduled to daytime hours, with the press embargoed from printing the outcome until 11 in the evening. After an overzealous newspaper broke the rule in 1940 - allowing Academy members to read the results on their way to the ceremony! - the ``sealed envelope system'' was inaugurated and has stayed in effect to this day.

Do curious movie fans try to pump accountant Johnson for sneak previews of the Oscar-race results?

``No,'' says the veteran vote-counter. ``They know they aren't going to get it,'' he adds with a satisfied chuckle.

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