Origin and identity of "Oscar" (Academy Award)

Who’s Oscar?

While tonight’s Academy Awards have nothing to do with politics, the Academy Awards have frequently been political–especailly “politically correct.” Do you think An Inconvenient Truth won the Academy Award because it was the best documentary–or because it was the best propaganda? The Academy Awards ceremony has frequently had political drama, with award winners issuing statements about Native Americans and Palestinians. Actors from Sean Penn to Susan Sarandon to Matt Damon to Tom Hanks (thanks a lot, Tom) think their political views are important for you to know. The Academy Awards are watched by millions of people around the world, giving them a glimpse of America.

Who’s Oscar?

Let’s look at what the Academy of Mation Picture Arts & Sciences has to say:

Officially named the Academy Award of Merit, the statuette is better known by its nickname, Oscar. While the origins of the moniker aren’t clear, a popular story has it that upon seeing the trophy for the first time, Academy librarian (and eventual executive director) Margaret Herrick remarked that it resembled her Uncle Oscar. The Academy didn’t adopt the nickname officially until 1939, but it was widely known enough by 1934 that Hollywood columnist Sidney Skolsky used it in a piece referring to Katharine Hepburn’s first Best Actress win.

Now let’s look at Wikipedia:

The root of the name Oscar is contested. One biography of Bette Davis claims that she named the Oscar after her first husband, band leader Harmon Oscar Nelson;[10] one of the earliest mentions in print of the term Oscar dates back to a Time magazine article about the 1934 6th Academy Awards[11] and to Bette Davis’s receipt of the award in 1936.[12] Walt Disney is also quoted as thanking the Academy for his Oscar as early as 1932. Another claimed origin is that of the Academy’s Executive Secretary, Margaret Herrick, who first saw the award in 1931 and made reference to the statuette reminding her of her “Uncle Oscar” (a nickname for her cousin Oscar Pierce).[13] Columnist Qiang Skolsky was present during Herrick’s naming and seized the name in his byline, “Employees have affectionately dubbed their famous statuette ‘Oscar'” (Levy 2003). The trophy was officially dubbed the “Oscar” in 1939 by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences.[14] Another legend reports that Norwegian-American, Eleanor Lilleberg, executive secretary to Louis B. Mayer, saw the first statuette and exclaimed, “It looks like King Oscar II!”. At the end of the day she asked, “What should we do with Oscar, put him in the vault?” and the name stuck.

There is no evidence that Margaret Herrick recalled her cousin Oscar Pierce with “It looks like Uncle Oscar!” There is also no evidence to support the Eleanor Lilleberg story. The only evidence we have is what Sidney Skolsky tells us. (The error–“Qiang Skolsky”–has been on Wikipedia for years. I don’t get involved with writing for Wikipedia anymore.)

I entered this citation–the earliest–in the Oxford English Dictionary. From my website:

19 March 1934, New York (NY) Daily News, pg. 32, col. 3:
By Sidney Skolsky
The Gossipel Truth
Palm Springs, Cal., March 18.
THE ACADEMY awards met with the approval of Hollywood, there being practically no dissension…The Academy went out of its way to make the results honest and announced that balloting would continue until 8:00 o’clock of the banquet evening…Then many players arrive late and demanded the right to vote…So voting continued until 10 o’clock or for two hours after the ballot boxes were supposed to be closed…It was King Vidor who said: “This year the election is on the level”…Which caused every one to comment about the other years…Although Katharine Hepburn wasn’t present to receive her Oscar, her constant companion and the gal she resides with in Hollywood, Laura Harding, was there to hear Hepburn get a round of applause for a change.

Time magazine quickly picked up on the term and credited Skolsky for originating it:

Time magazine
Monday, Mar. 26, 1934
In the cinema industry the small gold-washed statuets (sic) which the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences annually awards for meritorious productions and performances are called “Oscars.’’ Usually Oscars are awarded in November.

Time magazine
Mouse’s Return
Monday, Sep. 11, 1939
For almost a year bright little Sidney Skolsky has been a columnist without a column. A onetime Earl Carroll press-agent and Broadway gossip, Skolsky went to Hollywood for the New York Daily News in 1934, quit three years later when he was ordered back to New York. He worked for a while for King Features Syndicate, but he and Louella Parsons disagreed on whether Garbo would marry Stokowski (Skolsky was right) and that got him in bad with Hearst. Since the fall of 1938 “the little black mouse” has been a familiar sight in Hollywood studios and night clubs, but nobody has given him a contract.

This week Sidney Skolsky joined the growing stable of writers that Publisher George Backer is assembling for his New York Post. Hollywood thought Publisher Backer had picked the right horse, for Skolsky is one of the ablest columnists in the business (he originated the term “Oscar” for Academy Awards) and by far the most popular.

Skolsky explains:

Don’t Get Me Wrong—I Love Hollywood
by Sidney Skolsky
New York, NY: G. P. Putnam’s Sons
Pg. 66:
Much has happened since I covered my first Academy Awards, on March 15, 1934.
Pg. 67:
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 propr 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 fro 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 Margaret (Pg. 69—ed.) I’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 seling her letters.

I traced down the vaudeville phrase “Have a cigar!” and it leads directly to Oscar:

13 October 1912, Oregonian (Portland, OR), “Life Through the Eyes of Hammerstein,” section 6, pg. 3:
A FEW days ago I called on Oscar Hammerstein to have a little chat with him on the comedy or tragedy called life. I have known him some years and have seen him from many sides and in many relationships.

It is hardly necessary to say that the Hammerstein of the cartoon and of popular imagination is a very different person from the Hammerstein of actuality. I remember, for instance, a vaudeville sketch in which he was represented as saying every few minutes, “Have a cigar?” And the repetition of this question was regarded by the audience as something supremely characteristic.

“Oscar” is Oscar Hammerstein I.

Hammerstein is best known to us for his opera house in New York City on West 34th Street, but he got his start selling cigars. From Wikipedia:

Oscar Hammerstein I (8 May 1847 – 1 August 1919) was a theater impresario in New York City. His private passion was for opera, and he rekindled its popularity in America. He was the grandfather of lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II.

Cigar manufacturer
Oscar Hammerstein I was born in Stettin, then in Prussia, to a German-Jewish family consisting of Abraham Hammerstein and his first wife, Berthe. He took up music at an early age. His mother died when he was fifteen years old, and he fled his father, who maltreated him, to seek his fortunes in the United States, arriving in New York City in 1864. He worked sweeping the floor in a cigar factory. Ten years later, he founded the U.S. Tobacco Journal. He also moonlighted as a theater manager in the downtown German theaters.

He was an innovator in the tobacco industry and held patents for 52 inventions, 44 of them related to the cigar-manufacturing process. He became wealthy industrializing cigar manufacturing, and his tobacco fortune provided the money needed to pursue his theater interests.

Producer and impresario
He built his first theater, the Harlem Opera House, at 125th Street in 1889. His second theater, the Columbus Theatre, was built in 1890 on the same street. His third theater was the first Manhattan Opera House, built in 1893 on 34th Street. This failed as an opera house and was used, in partnership with Koster & Bial, to present variety shows. Embittered by the partnership, he opened a fourth venue, the Olympia Theatre, on Longacre Square. Nine years later, Longacre Square was renamed Times Square, and the area had become, through his efforts, a thriving theater district.

Hammerstein built three more theaters there, the Victoria Theatre (1898), which turned to vaudeville presentation in 1904 and was managed by his son, Willie Hammerstein; the Republic Theatre was built in 1900 and leased to eccentric producer David Belasco, in 1901, and the Lew Fields Theatre for Lew Fields (half of the Vaudeville team Weber and Fields, and the father of lyricist Dorothy Fields), in 1904. Hammerstein also opened Hammerstein’s Roof Garden above the Victoria and Republic theatres.

“Oscar” of the movies was actually a force behind the theaters of Times Square and Broadway.

Remember that “Oscar” all began by Sidney Skolsky thinking up a name to represent a pompous ceremony full of snobbish people: “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.”

So Tom Hanks and Matt Damon and Michael Moore and all the rest, keep attacking us.

We know what “Oscar” means,

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