You all know this photo. It's the Oscar streaker. And it's David Niven looking at who knows what. I've searched the internet far and wide and, for the life of me, can not find one image of streaker Robert Opel's uncropped, unblurred "statuette." It might be for the best (maybe he was just born with a blurry penis), but you'd think that at one of the most photographed events in America, there might have been more than two photos of Opel's legendary jaunt. Ah, but here's the thing. Many people believe that the famous incident, where this naked man ran through the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion past David Niven at the 46th annual Academy Awards, was staged. This theory of planned spontaneity receives most of its weight from the fact that Opel wasn't even arrested for trespassing on Hollywood's most exclusive event, but instead got dressed (with clothes provided for him by the Academy) and had security promptly escort him to "winner's row" where he held a press conference! Opel was sporting a blue jumpsuit when he showed up, and still managed to remain undetected. But a little bit of investigation lays the conspiracy theories to rest - it also opens up a fascinating story about a man most know only as a photograph.
Robert Opel (sometimes Opal) was born completely naked on October 23rd, 1939. He was thirty-three years old when he crashed the gate of the Oscars. Moustached, long-haired, flashing the peace sign - he was a member of the fleeting Los Angeles hippy scene and a key figure in the burgeoning gay liberation movement of the early nineteen seventies. Opel was a mover and a shaker (spare me your obvious jokes) in underground art movements on both coasts. His Oscar stunt gave him immense publicity and in art circles, strange as it might seem, a significant amount of credibility.
Opel's streaking tendencies had started several months prior to the Oscar ceremonies. He had appeared naked, on more than one occasion, at Los Angeles City Council meetings. The purpose was to protest the City Council's plan to place a ban on nudity at local beaches. He stood with his balls strategically swaying in front of the seated Los Angeles Police Chief Ed Davis' face. "I thought the Council should see what an actual nude person looks like," he said. When he appeared at his court trial after being arrested for the display, he showed up dressed as Uncle Sam. He was sentenced to four months in prison for public lewdness (later diminished to probation). A 1979 San Francisco Chronicle profile spoke of his advocacy for "sexual freedom." The article stated, "He wanted people to be absolutely free sexually ... He saw sexual repression everywhere. And he believed it was politically motivated ..."
At the start of 1974, Opel was a freelance photographer for the gay newspaper The Advocate (now a leading national magazine). When he showed up at the Academy Awards he used these credentials, and a great deal of exaggeration, to make himself appear a more significant journalist than he actually was (nobody questioned the validity of a long-haired journalist in a blue jump suit?). Once Opel was in, he knew that his incongruous appearance could have potentially raised red flags before the stunt was attempted. He made his way backstage and hid inside an enormous piece of scenery. According to Jack Fritscher, a fellow artist and confidant of Opel's, "He said he thought he was going to die in there because there were electrical cables feeding all around him and he had to stand on them and at any moment they would move around." Before the big moment occurred David Niven had been in the process of introducing Elizabeth Taylor who was to hand out the Oscar for Best Picture. (After Bob Hope's tenure as the regular Oscar host had ended in the late sixties, the Academy reverted to their former multiple-host format. Niven had previously co-hosted the Oscars twice in the late fifties. For his latest stint, Niven hosted the last quarter of the show. The first half was presented by John Huston, followed by Diana Ross and Burt Reynolds). Niven was only able to announce, "...a very important contributor to world entertainment and someone quite likely..." before being drowned out by audience roars. Opel jogged from one side of the stage to the other. Henry Mancini cued his orchestra to play Sunny Side Up from the film of the same name. According to Inside Oscar by Mason Wiley and Damien Bona (1986, Ballantine Books) Raquel Welch shouted, "Streak, honey, streak!" Fritscher explained more of what Opel had told him. "He waited specifically until Elizabeth Taylor came out because he thought if he was going to do it, what greater movie star? I asked him if he was part of any kind of inside joke because David Niven was so quick witted, but Opel said that he was on his own and that he did it as a piece of performance art." The quick wit in question refers to Niven's line, which has been quoted in various forms over the years, "Just think ... the only laugh that man will ever get is for stripping and showing off his shortcomings." I guess you had to be there.
The Oscars had experienced a clothed stage crasher back in 1962 when Bob Hope was host. The award for cinematography was about to be presented by Shelley Winters when a man rushed the stage and seized the microphone with the intensity of a Latin American revolutionary. "Ladies and gentleman ... I am the world's greatest gate crasher and I just came here to present Bob Hope with his 1938 trophy. This is for Bob," he said as he handed a homemade Oscar to the actress before running to the wings. The year mentioned was, presumably, a reference to Hope's first appearance in a feature-length film, The Big Broadcast of 1938.
The Big Show: High Times and Dirty Dealings Backstage at the Academy Awards by Steve Pond (2005, Faber and Faber) speaks of the bizarre measures implemented after the Opel affair to prevent such a situation from ever happening again. "The Academy Awards had security measures designed to deal with gate-crashers and overzealous winners who wouldn't relinquish the stage - measures that began with blinding spotlights aimed at the stage and went as far as rubber bullets..." Today they prefer playing music over a long speech instead of opening fire on the winner.
At the aforementioned press conference Opel responded to a flurry of questions from the media. When asked his occupation he fibbed and said, "advertising executive." The L.A. Times asked him his reasons for the stunt. "... it might've been an educative thing to do. You know, people shouldn't be ashamed of being nude in public. Besides - it is a hell of a way to launch a career." Indeed, the incident did launch Opel into a brief period of fame. He appeared as a guest on The Mike Douglas Show and was hired by the future producer of Grease, Allan Carr, to streak at a party in honor of Russian dancer Rudolf Nureyev and composer Marvin Hamlisch (who had won all three of the music related Oscars that year). Robert Opel is said to have tried his hand at stand-up comedy sometime between 1975 and 1978, although no account of these performances has ever been relayed. Presumably, Niven was right about "the only laugh of his career" since no one can recall anything about Opel's stand-up act.
It is amazing that the Academy took the streak in such good stride. Today, Opel would have been beaten by the police, perhaps deported under the PATRIOT Act. The FCC would slap NBC with a huge fine. Although the Opel press conference was a welcome conclusion to the incident for many, Daily Variety gave the affair a scathing indictment. "The incident was a most unfortunate lapse of judgement on the part of the Academy people responsible for the show, for they destroyed in a few seconds a forty-six year history - often characterized by pomposity but nevertheless marked by propriety."
Opel moved to San Francisco to live out the rest of the decade. He felt that the LAPD had been unfairly targeting him after having been issued over one hundred tickets for various infractions. March of 1978 marked the opening of Robert's FEY-WAY Studios - the first gallery devoted exclusively to gay art. It often showcased his works of
moody collage and the dark homoerotic works of countless others. His gallery was one of the very first to showcase the works of legendary photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. He gave Tom of Finland his first show in America (he's the guy largely responsible for the homoerotic cowboy/sailor motifs that have since become somewhat of a cliché). Opel also dabbled
in experimental film projects and performance art. By 1978 he was an enormous presence in America's gay art scene. He stated that everything he did contained a political message.
During this period he staged an Anita Bryant look-alike contest in mockery of the famed singer who had become openly homophobic. Bryant had announced, "I will lead such a crusade to stop [homosexuality] as this country has [never] seen before." She started her own anti-gay organization with the ridiculous name Save Our Children. She told reporters that her group's mandate was to curb the threat of "homosexual recruitment of children and child molestation." Bryant's loud opinions would influence the political arena in Florida, the state she was then residing in, when she campaigned against gay couples being allowed to adopt. The law passed (for a remarkable and amusing list of Anita Bryant's homophobia referenced in popular culture look here). However, Anita's controversial nature would result in her being dropped as the spokesperson for Florida orange juice. Just under twenty years later, Rush Limbaugh was rewarded that gig.
July 7th, 1979 a guy named Maurice Keenan entered the gallery with Robert E. Kelly demanding money and drugs. Two people, Anthony Rogers and Camille O'Grady, were with Opel at the time. They recalled what was said. Keenan shouted at Opel, "I'm going to blow your head off." "You're going to have to. There's no money here," Opel responded. A handgun was drawn and all three were tied up in the back of the gallery. In a matter of moments, Robert Opel was murdered - shot in the head. The killers ominously told the two witnesses, "If you see us again you're dead." They made off with five dollars and a camera. It was revealed during a 1982 court trial that the men were drug dealers to whom Opel owed a great deal of money. They were sentenced to life in prison for the crime.
BECAUSE YOU DEMANDED IT ... A GALLERY OF STREAKERS