The Mystery Behind The Oscars

February 17, 2013 — 2 Comments

By Ed Nash

The Academy Awards have come a long way since the first ceremony was held in 1929 at the Roosevelt Hotel. Tickets then were $5. Adjusted for inflation, that would be approximately $63.00 today– a far cry from the near-priceless tickets for the internationally influential event the awards have become. The ceremony was first broadcast on radio in 1930, television in 1953, and is now seen on TV by viewers in more than 200 countries. 

But who the heck is Oscar? The organization that puts on the award ceremony is called the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. And the ceremony is formally referred to as The Academy Awards. So where did the name Oscar come from? The trophy that is given to award recipients was officially named Oscar in 1939 by the Academy, but the name was used as early as 1934  in the press, and Walt Disney used the term the same year in his acceptance speech. So who is Oscar, and who deserves credit for dubbing the name? The origins of the name have been contested, and there is much rumor and speculation. Before I reveal my choice, these are the four most popular possibilities:

  • Currently, the most widely-accepted theory for the origin of the name credits then-Academy librarian Margaret Herrick (eventually she became the Academy’s executive director). In 1931 upon seeing the statuette, she apparently remarked that it resembled her “Uncle Oscar,” an apparent nickname for her cousin Oscar Pierce.
  • Most agree that Hollywood columnist Sidney Skolsky first used the term in print in several of his 1934 columns, and in 1939 Time magazine even credited him with originating the name. While some reports claim that Skolsky overheard Margaret Herrick coin the term, Skolsky himself publicly refuted that and claimed that the name was used in reference to an old vaudeville joke that began, “Will you have a cigar, Oscar?” This joke can be traced back to Oscar Hammerstein I, who opened several opera houses in New York City before his death in 1919. Hammerstein, however, got his start as a successful inventor and businessman in the cigar and tobacco industry.
  • It was written in a Bette Davis biography that she named the Oscar for band leader Harmon Oscar Nelson, her first husband. In 1955 Davis was quoted as saying, “I am convinced that I was the first to give the statuette its name when I received one for my performance in Dangerous, made in 1935. I was married at that time to Harmon O. Nelson, Jr. For a long time I did not know what his middle name was. I found out one day that it was Oscar, and it seemed a very suitable nickname for the Academy statuette. Of course, that’s all so very long ago – who knows? But I’d suggest that if the other claimants become very insistent we settle the whole thing with a duel.”
  • Another interesting theory is that Norwegian-American Eleanor Lilleberg, executive secretary to Louis B. Mayer, saw the first statuette and exclaimed, “It looks like King Oscar II!”. King Oscar II was the king of Sweden from 1872 until his death in 1907, and the King of Norway from 1872 until 1905. Additionally, he was a strong supporter of theatre and the arts.

Though the Academy itself seems to lean towards the Margaret Herrick explanation, a little further digging into Sidney Skolsky’s claim has me voting for Skolsky. In 1975, Skolsky published his autobiography with the title being the tagline of most of his columns, “Don’t get me wrong–I love Hollywood.” In it he went into detail regarding the Oscar name. Like they did for me, the following words from Skolsky’s autobiography might convince you:

Sidney Skolsky, from “Don’t get me wrong–I love Hollywood” 1975:

Much has happened since I covered my first Academy Awards, on March 15, 1934. It was my first Academy Awards night when I gave the gold statuette a name. I wasn’t trying to make it legitimate. The snobbery of that particular Academy Award annoyed me. I wanted to make the gold statuette human. I had witnessed the proper table bit for the first time. I returned to my table to eat the chicken, now cold. I listened to the long speeches by the Academy president and leaders of the industry. I listened to the acceptance speeches I had heard at the prop banquet table, now spoken with false surprise. The best actor, Charles Laughton (Henry VII), and the best actress, Katharine Hepburn (Morning Glory), weren’t present. The people who accepted for them took advantage of the opportunity. It was twelve thirty when I finally arrived at the Western Union office on Wilcox to write and file my story. I had listened to Academy, industry, and acceptance talk since seven-thirty. Raymond Chandler described the Academy Awards as “the motion picture industry’s frantic desire to kiss itself on the back of the neck.” There I was with my notes, a typewriter, blank paper, and that Chandler feeling. I’m not a good speller, and I didn’t have my dictionary with me. When it came to write gold statuette, I had to get up and ask the Western Union (Pg. 68—ed.) manager how to spell statuette. His spelling of the word lasted for a page. After I had filed the page and couldn’t refer to it for the spelling of statuette, I had to walk over and ask the manager again. The word “statuette” really threw me. Freud would explain that I resented the word and didn’t want to know how to spell it. You know how people can rub you the wrong way. The word was a crowd of people. I’d show them, acting so high and mighty about their prize. I’d give it a name. A name that would erase their phony dignity. I needed the magic name fast. But fast! I remembered the vaudeville shows I’d seen. The comedians having fun with the orchestra leader in the pit would say, “Will you have a cigar, Oscar?” The orchestra leader reached for it; the comedians backed away, making a comical remark. The audience laughed at Oscar. I started hitting the keys. “Katharine Hepburn won the Oscar for her performance as Eva Lovelace in Morning Glory, her third Hollywood film.” I felt better. I was having fun. I filed and forgot.

During the next year of columns, whenever referring to the Academy Award, I used the word “Oscar.” In a few years Oscar was the accepted name. It proved to be the magic name.

I didn’t give it another thought until reading that two women, Bette Davis and Margaret Herrick (executive director of the Academy), claimed they had named the gold statuette Oscar. Bette’s claim was that she had named her first award after her first husband, H. Oscar Nelson. Margaret’s claim was she had named the statuette after her uncle, Oscar Pierce, because the golden boy resembled her uncle, “a Texas wheat farmer of dignity, austerity, and commanding authority.”

I don’t like to argue with women, especially when they’re talented and friends. I registered my complaint and staked my claim. About the time of her third marriage, Bette Davis realized that although she received her first Oscar statuette for her 1935 film Dangerous, she really didn’t get the award until 1936. Thus, she had christened the statuette two years after my story appeared in the New York Daily News. Betty relinquished her claim as gracefully as she relinquished H. Oscar Nelson.

Margaret Herrick still persists, in a friendly manner. I have yet to see a photograph of Uncle Oscar Pierce. I’ve told MargaretI’d buy her Rudolph Valentino’s Falcon Lair or seal all her envelopes for a year if she can show me the gold statuette referred to as Oscar in print before March 16, 1934. To date, I don’t have to save to buy Falcon’s Lair or worry about selling her letters.

Don’t get me wrong—I love Hollywood
by Sidney Skolsky
pages 66-69
New York, NY: G. P. Putnam’s Sons

Whether it was, as I believe, Skolsky, who named the statuette or Herrick or Davis or Lilleberg, I doubt that any one of them could imagine the amount of impact that the Academy recognition would have for years to come. The award was named Oscar years before the ceremony was broadcast on television; this year, the Oscars will be broadcast to more than 200 countries and an expected audience of over 40 million people. I may never win an Oscar for my work in the entertainment industry, but if I do, I will certainly offer Oscar a cigar, and in fact, I’ll smoke one with him.

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2 responses to The Mystery Behind The Oscars

  1. I loved your article!!!!!! Quite convincing and well done!!!

  2. Well researched and well written. You are becoming quite the freelance journalist! Go with it!

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