It’s a certainty that he plays one of the most pivotal roles in the entire Academy Awards folderol. But how did this highly coveted symbol of Movieland success come into being? Formally known as the Academy Award of Merit statuette, Oscar has played a significant role in the proceedings since the ceremony’s inception in 1929 at a dinner party for around 250 people held in the Blossom Room of the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood. The musical “Broadway Melody” received the first Oscar for Best Picture.
The brainchild of Louis B. Mayer, head of the powerful MGM film studio, the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) was organized in May 1927 as a non-profit organization dedicated to the advancement and improvement of the film industry. Its first president and the host of the May 1929 ceremony was the actor Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. Unlike today, the winners of the first Oscars – as the gold-plated statuettes later became known – were announced before the awards ceremony itself.
Designed by MGM art director Cedric Gibbons, this iconic trophy depicts a knight holding a sword, standing on a film reel with 5 spokes each of which represents one of the Academy’s five original branches: actors, directors, producers, technicians and writers. The statuette is 13.5 inches high, weighs 8.5 pounds and was officially nicknamed “Oscar” in 1939.
Austin Cedric Gibbons (March 23, 1893 – July 26, 1960) was an Irish art director and production designer for the film industry. He also made a significant contribution to motion picture theater architecture from the 1930’s to 1950’s. Nominated for thirty-eight Oscars himself for Best Art Design, he won eleven.
Gibbons was one of the original 36 founding members of AMPAS and as such was appointed by the Academy to design the award. No one else was invited to submit designs.
How the Oscar came to be known as “Oscar” is uncertain, but there are two prevalent stories. Credit for the name Oscar is often attributed to Academy Executive Secretary and Librarian Margaret Herrick, who upon first seeing the statuette in 1931 reportedly claimed it looked like her Uncle Oscar.
However, one of the biographies of Bette Davis who was also a president of the Academy in the early years claims to have named the statuette after her first husband, bandleader Harmon Oscar Nelson.
Whatever the origin, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences officially dubbed the trophy the “Oscar” in 1939. The term “Oscar” is a registered trademark of the AMPAS; however, in Italian language, it is used generically to refer to any award or award ceremony, regardless of which field, an activity the AMPAS discourages.
Secrecy worthy of the NSA surrounds the Oscars Awards ceremony. To prevent information identifying the Oscar winners from leaking ahead of time, Oscar statuettes presented at the ceremony have blank base plaques. Until 2010, winners were expected to return the statuettes to the Academy afterwards and wait several weeks to have inscriptions applied.
In 2010 things changed when the R.S. Owens Company initiated the process of making 197 engraved nameplates ahead of the ceremony, bearing the names of every nominee in all categories. Since that time, winners enjoy the option of having engraved nameplates affixed to their statuettes at an inscription station at the Governor’s Ball, a party held immediately after the Oscars ceremony. What happens to the rest of them? The 175 or so nameplates for non- winning nominees are recycled in what is probably called the Better Luck Next Time file.
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