The Birth of Oscar
By Allan R. Ellenberger
Oscar – the name on everyone’s lips in Hollywood at this time of year. Once again on February 22, nominees will stroll down the red carpet at the Kodak Theatre to attend the 81st Annual Academy Awards. There, the phrase, “And the Oscar goes to…” will be repeated numerous times, but who originally coined the term, Oscar? Depending on who you talk to, it could be any one of several suspects, but first, some history.
Oscar’s parents, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was chartered on May 4, 1927, when 36 film industry leaders met and organized the non-profit corporation dedicated to improving the artistic quality of the film medium.
Academy banquet at the Biltmore Hotel (LAPL)
A week later on May 11, a banquet was held in the Crystal Ballroom at the Biltmore Hotel where more than 300 gathered, and Douglas Fairbanks, the Academy’s first president, presided. Film industry leaders such as Louis B. Mayer, Joseph M. Schenck, Will Hays, Mary Pickford, Cecil B. DeMille, Frank Lloyd and Conrad Nagel gave their support.
It was Louis B. Mayer who suggested handing out awards as a way of focusing attention on films. Conrad Nagel agreed, saying, “Whatever we give, it should be a symbol of continuing progress – militant, dynamic.”
Inspired by the evenings proceedings, MGM art director, Cedric Gibbons began sketching a form on the tablecloth (some versions say a napkin). The figure was a brawny man standing on a reel of film gripping a crusader’s sword. Gibbons transferred the sketch to paper and it was given to sculptor George Stanley, who molded the trophy in clay. Since then very few changes have been made.
“They are a little distorted now because the original mold has been used so often,” Stanley said in 1957. The sculptor later designed and worked on the three well-known statues at the entrance of the Hollywood Bowl.
As with many actors, Oscar’s birth name would have been hard to fit on a marquee – the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences Award of Merit – more than a mouthful. So perhaps this fated him to a moniker, but just how Oscar received its unusual name is debatable. Several Hollywood notables have claimed the distinction of originating the name.
Margaret Herrick and Col. W. N. Selig (LAPL)
On their website, the Academy does not attribute the nickname to a specific person, however, one version of the story gives credit to the Academy’s executive secretary, Margaret Herrick. The story goes that in 1931, she reportedly saw the statuette, studied it carefully and exclaimed, “Why he looks like my Uncle Oscar.”
Sitting in an adjoining office was a newspaper correspondent who, the following day, printed the line: “Academy employees have affectionately dubbed their famous gold statuette Oscar.” (unfortunately there is no known published validation for this story)
Irving Thalberg, Bette Davis and Frank Capra (LAPL)
Two-time Oscar winner, Bette Davis believed that she created the term Oscar to describe the golden trophy.
“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,” Davis said in 1955.
Bette Davis and her then-husband, Harmon Oscar Nelson, Jr.
Was the coveted award named for him?
“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.”
Davis, knowing there were other petitioners to the name, hinted that she would be willing to resort to fisticuffs to support her contention.
“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.”
Still other stories say that John Barrymore first coined the name – in the early days Oscar was reportedly a facetious term. Animation pioneer, Walt Disney has also been quoted as thanking the Academy for his Oscar as early as 1932. However, the person who may have the best claim for originating the name is columnist Sidney Skolsky.
Many references credit Skolsky for using the term “Oscar” in a 1934 column in reference to Katharine Hepburn’s Best Actress award for Morning Glory (1933). Still another names Skolsky as the anonymous reporter who supposedly overheard Margaret Herrick christen the statue in 1931; but since Skolsky had not arrived in Hollywood until 1932, that part is unlikely.
Skolsky claimed the term referenced an old vaudeville joke that began, “Will you have a cigar, Oscar?”
Though Oscars true beginning is unknown, what can be proven is the use of “Oscar” in Time magazine on March 26, 1934. If it’s not the original, it certainly is one of the first times the term was used:
“In the cinema industry the small gold-washed statuettes which the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science annually awards for meritorious productions and performances are called ‘Oscars,’” the article stated.
This also negates Bette Davis’ claim of naming the award when she received hers in 1936 – by then the term Oscar had already been in use for two years.
Whatever its origin, it definitely will not to be an issue when this years nominees walk the red carpet in hopes of getting their own Oscar.