Friday, February 22, 2019

Envelope Please - Unwrapping Oscar's Origin Stories

The “Oscar” – the golden statuette handed out annually since 1929 by the American Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences to reward outstanding artistic and scientific achievement in motion pictures – is arguably one of the most recognizable images in American pop-culture.  And yet, despite the glare of the spotlight through nearly nine decades of interest in the subject, the origin of the familiar name is still unknown.

The Academy itself does not seem to know.[i]  Its website merely notes that the origins “aren’t clear.”  They do, however, briefly mention one popular story involving a long-time Executive Secretary of the Academy, Margaret Herrick, who is rumored to have said upon first seeing the statuettes that they reminded her of her “Uncle Oscar.”  They also suggest that the name was “widely known enough” by 1934 that a Hollywood columnist used the name in print in 1934.

The earliest known example of “Oscar” in print is from Sidney Skolsky’s report of the sixth-annual Academy Awards ceremonies held in 1934.  Skolsky had been an entertainment columnist for the New York Daily News since 1929, working out of New York and concentrating, for the most part, on Broadway, but also covering Hollywood news from a distance.  But in July 1933, Skolsky moved out to Hollywood to cover the growing industry up close and personal. 

In March of 1934, he attended his first Academy Awards ceremony in person.  His column the next day includes the earliest known example of “Oscar” in print. 

Films Crown Hepburn, Laughton Year’s Best
By Sidney Skolsky.

Hollywood, March 16. – The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences made its annual awards for the outstanding achievements in the motion picture field at their banquet in the Ambassador Hotel this evening.

These awards mean to Hollywood what the Pulitzer prize means to the dramatists and novelists.  It is the picture people’s main incentive to strive for an “artistic achievement” in an industry where their worth is judged by box office figures.

At tonight’s banquet the winners, while movieland looked on and applauded, were presented with bronze statues.  To the profession these statues are called Oscars.

Daily News (New York), March 17, 1934, page 3.

Despite his initial suggestion that the name was already known in “the profession,” Skolsky later took credit for coining the name himself, motivated, he claims, by a desire to take some starch out of a pompous, stuffy affair.

“It happened the year Katharine Hepburn won the Award for ‘Morning Glory’ and Laughton won for ‘King Henry VIII.’” Skolsky enlightened us.  “Everyone kept writing and prattling about the gold statuette and the gleaming  statuette and everyone invested the entire Award with too much dignity . . . So I decided to give the statuette a simpler name, and also one that would kid it good-naturedly.  I thought of the most unlikely name, Oscar, and referred to it as such.  The name caught on.”

Modern Screen, Volume 23, Number 6, November 1941, page 85.

Years later, Skolsky added more detail to the story.  He explained why he initially avoided taking credit for the name – to avoid criticism if people were offended.  He suggested an additional motivation to coin the name – journalistic efficiency, he didn’t like referring to it as “the gold statuette” over and over.  And he added an additional detail about the specific motivation to use the name “Oscar” – “a pit orchestra leader named Oscar.”

I remember clearly that I named Oscar.  I swear on a stack of Oscars my story is true.  I had been transferred by the New York Daily News to Hollywood.  Covering my first Academy Awards banquet and still regarding myself as a Broadwayite, I though Hollywood was taking their awards too seriously.  In particular, I couldn’t tolerate speaker after speaker referring to the Award as “the gold statuette.”  It continued for hours: “The gold statuette for the best performance by an actress to Katharine Hepburn for Morning Glory.  The gold statuette for the best performance by an actor to Charles Laughton for Henry VIII.  The gold statuette for the best motion picture to Cavalcade.”

After the Awards, I rushed to Western Union to file my story.  I decided to give the readers as little of the “gold statuette” as possible.  I tried to think of a comedy name, in a hurry.  A name that would remove some of the pompousness from the entire affair.  I remembered a pit orchestra leader named Oscar.  The vaudevillians got laughs when they’d call him Oscar.  I’d do it.  But I better be a little careful; poking fun at Hollywood’s most important event my first time at bat.  I covered myself by writing that “to the profession these statues are called Oscars.”  They weren’t going to catch me with my gold statuette down.

. . .  If anyone can produce a clipping in which the gold statuette is called Oscar before the year 1934, I’ll deliver Marlon Brando to her personally.

Modern Screen,  Volume 50, Number 4, April, 1956, page 80.

No one ever claimed the reward. 

Two decades later, Skolsky provided additional details which explained why the audience laughed when the vaudevillians called the orchestra leader Oscar.

In his book Don’t Get Me Wrong—I Love Hollywood (1975), Skolsky wrote:

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.

Sidney Skolsky’s basic story didn’t change with each retelling, but it is curious that he added details with each retelling, instead of giving a full account in the first place.  He swore on a stack of Oscars and offered a tongue-in-cheek reward for evidence of earlier use.  Tongue-in-cheek or not, no one claimed the reward and no one in the six decades since has come up with contemporary evidence disproving his claim. 

But that’s not to say there aren’t other stories, written years after 1934, suggesting that Skolsky’s original claim was true and the name was known in the profession before he wrote his first Academy Award column in 1934.

Walt Disney

Walt Disney did not coin the name, “Oscar,” but may have restored the shine of an otherwise simple, undignified name.  Nearly four decades after the fact, Frances Marion, an early two-time Academy Award winning screenwriter (1931 best screenplay, The Big House; 1932 best story, The Champ), wrote that Walt Disney, who received the award for Best Animated Short for The Three Little Pigs at the same March 1934 awards ceremony Skolsky attended, referred to his golden statuette as “Oscar” in his acceptance speech that night. 

As 1935 dawned, the American producers began to draw more talent from England. . . . Perhaps it was one of the reasons why some of the glitter had worn off this former gala event, and those who had never won the gold-plated honor now referred to it disparagingly as the “Oscar.” . . .

Up went a roar of approval for Walt Disney, and momentarily all the petty ills of human nature seemed to vanish as he smiled upon the audience.  Who could be envious of this young man who had again brought our childhood back to us with his Three Little Pigs?  When Walt referred to the “Oscar,” that name took on a different meaning, now that we had heard it spoken with sincere appreciation.”

Frances Marion, Off With Their Heads: A Serio-comic Tale of Hollywood, New York, Macmillan, 1972, pages 242-243.

If her recollection were correct, Sidney Skolsky’s claim would be in jeopardy.  It’s possible, however, that Marion may have misremembered the ceremony at which she recalls Disney having called his golden statuette “Oscar.”  Walt Disney won a lot of Osacars.  Walt Disney received an Academy Award every year from 1932 through 1940, took the year off in 1941 and won two more in 1942 and 1943.

Assuming she’s right, or taking Sidney Skolsky’s first “Oscar” reference on its face, someone else must have coined the name.  The leading candidate is Margaret Herrick.  She was certainly in a position to name the statuette.  But her story is problematic, changing over the years on various details.  At first she said the name came from a silly expression, “Uncle Oscar,” she and her husband would say to each other.  Later, she said the statue looked like an actual uncle named Oscar.  Later still, the uncle became a first cousin, once removed.  The changes are curious, given that Herrick’s long-standing association with the Academy as librarian and later Executive Secretary of the Academy put her in position to control the story.

Herrick’s story first appeared at the same time reports surfaced of the Academy’s resistance to others using the name, suggesting, perhaps, that the Academy created the story in an effort to reclaim or control an increasingly valuable trademark. 

Margaret (Gledhill) Herrick

Margaret Buck was born in Spokane, Washington in 1902.  In 1930, she lived with her parents in Yakima, Washington,[ii] where she was head librarian for the city’s library.  She came from a long line of strong and successful men and women, so perhaps it’s not surprising that she would rise to the top of such an influential organization, even if she had to start at the bottom, without pay, supporting her husband’s career. 

Her great-grandfather, Chauncey Kellogg, wrote the first and last drafts of the Wisconsin state constitution before statehood in 1848.  His daughter Francena (Margaret’s grandmother) was in the first graduating class of Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin, and joined its faculty after graduation in 1857.  Margaret’s grandfather, Norman Buck, may have been one of Francena’s students; he graduated from Lawrence in 1859, after which they were engaged.[iii] 

His law school and the Civil War got in the way and their engagement stretched out to six years.  Norman served as an officer in the Union Army and Francena was a wartime nurse in Tennessee and Washington DC.  They moved to Minnesota after the war, where Norman became a prosecuting attorney for Winona County, where  he is said to have been a “member of the party . . . that captured a couple of the bold, bad James boys [(Jesse James’ gang)] after they had penetrated as far north as Northfield, Minnesota.”[iv]
Margaret Herrick with her father, Nathan K. Buck, at the 100th anniversary of Lawrence University’s first graduating class.

The Bucks eventually left Minnesota for Lewiston, Idaho and later Spokane, Washington, with Norman serving as a Judge in both cities.  His son, Nathaniel Buck (Margaret’s father), followed in his father’s footsteps, becoming an attorney and eventually a judge in Yakima, Washington.

In about 1931, Margaret Buck of Yakima married Donald Gledhill of Hollywood.  Donald had been working as an assistant to Lester Cowan, the Executive Secretary of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, since early 1929, after having worked for newspapers in Denver, Colorado and San Jose, California.  He arrived at about the same time the Academy handed out its first awards in May 1929, but it’s not clear whether he arrived just before or just after the affair. 

The new Mrs. Gledhill put her library experience to good use as the Academy’s first part-time librarian in about 1931, a job that soon became full-time but remained unpaid.  

Both Don and Margaret Gledhill seem to have had some experience or interest in photography, or at least acquired those skills after they started working at the Academy.  Donald, for example, wrote technical articles about cameras and film for industry magazines.  And in 1939, the two of them developed an early micro-fiche-style camera system for reducing the storage space of library card-catalogues and books, to be read through a slide viewer.

Bakersfield Californian, April 24, 1939, page 14.

Margaret Gledhill did not confine her volunteer efforts to the Academy.  She was the “state chairman of motion pictures” for the American Association of University Women and lectured and advocated for the use of educational films in the classroom.  If you are of a certain age and recall the hypnotic clickity-clack of a flickering projector in the back of a darkened classroom, she may have played a role in making it possible for you to take a nap in class now and then.

Don Gledhill was promoted to Executive Secretary of the Academy in 1933, continuing in that position until his induction into the Army Signal Corps in January 1943. 

Don Gledhill informing Bette Davis of her election as President of the Adacemy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Los Angeles Times, November 8, 1941, page 5.

With her husband off at war, and with her intimate knowledge of the inner workings of the Academy, she stepped into his shoes and out of his shadow as the “temporary” Executive Secretary in his absence.  And with her husband off at war, they would divorce, she remarried, temporary became permanent, and Mrs. Margaret Herrick became Executive Secretary of the Academy, a position she held until her retirement in 1971.  The Academy’s library bears her name  – the Margaret Herrick Library.  Some now credit her with giving the Oscar its name, but it wasn’t always that way.

In 1936, two years after Sidney Skolsky first used the name “Oscar” in print, Betty Davis famously referred to her award for Jezebel as “Oscar” during the post-awards interviews, sparking the long-lasting rumor that she coined the name that evening.  It didn’t hurt that her husband’s middle name was Oscar. 

Oscar – the name bestowed by Hollywood’s irreverent upon the gold-plated brass statuettes awarded by the movie academy for achievement – went to Bette with an unexpressed apology from filmland. . . . [She should have won a year earlier] 

“Oscar”, the name given the gold-plated little statue the movie academy gives for the year’s best film acting, now decorates the home of Mr. and Mrs. Harmon O. Nelson, where Bette Davis manages the meals.

The Record (Hackensack, New Jersey), March 17, 1936, page 5.

Contemporary accounts of the event did not suggest that she named the award for her husband.  Later accounts, however, filled the narrative void, while mixing up other facts.

Bette Davis called her Academy statuette “Oscar” at the presentation because that’s hubby “Ham” Nelson’s middle name.  Sid Skolsky picked it up and made much of it in his column, and now everyone calls the little jiggers “Oscar.”

“Cinemacaroni,” Robert Tobey, International Photographer, Volume 8, Number 3, April 1936, page 32.

The myth persisted.

Motion Picture Daily, February 27, 1939, page 11.

But despite Bette Davis’ recent, widely reported public use of the name, the name itself was still commonly seen as “irreverent.”

Reno Gazette-Journal, March 6, 1937, page 9.

Nevertheless, and despite the Academy’s best efforts and better judgment, the name stuck.  Interest in the name and its origins was on the rise in 1939 – much to the chagrin of the Academy.

For reasons not apparent, persons and press within and outside the motion picture industry disclosed at the time of last week’s awards presentation much more than the usual curiosity in the reason why the Academy of Motion Picture Arts’ awards statuettes are called “Oscars.”

. . . Academy awards officials this year were quite perturbed by the continuance of the use of the word “Oscar” but couldn’t do anything about it.

Motion Picture Herald, Volume 134, Number 9, March 4, 1939, page 47.

To set the record straight or perhaps to reclaim and control an increasingly valuable name, an “authentic source” released a new story placing Academy insiders in the middle of the action.  The name started as a pet expression playfully exchanged between the Gledhills, and was soon adopted by the “whole staff”.

One authentic source says that it started in a bit of badinage between Donald Gledhill, Academy executive secretary, and his wife.

According to this story, Mrs. Gledhill and Don would exchange flippant remarks, such as “How’s your Uncle Oscar?”

One time, Mrs. Gledhill visited Don at his Academy office, and he asked, “How’s your Uncle Oscar?”

Mrs. Gledhill, the story continues, hesitated for a bit, and then pointed to one of the Academy statuettes: “There’s Uncle Oscar now. Why don’t you ask him?”

An Academy staff member happened to be in the room, and soon the whole staff took up the word.  It spread, until now virtually everyone in Hollywood knows the name refers to the statuette.

Motion Picture Herald, Volume 134, Number 9, March 4, 1939, page 47.

A similar story a few years later repeated most of the same details, but got the date wrong by at least a couple years.  

First to use the name Oscar was Mrs. Donald Gledhill, wife of the academy’s executive secretary.

She and her husband kidded each other with the expression “How’s your Uncle Oscar?”  Visiting her husband’s office one day in 1936, Mrs. Gledhill saw one of the statuettes on his desk.  “Oh!” she exclaimed, “so that’s your Uncle Oscar!”  Officials of the academy took up the name.  Bette’s press agent heard about it and credited it to the actress.

Ithaca Journal (Ithaca, New York), February 11, 1943, page 14.

Another version of the same story appeared a few years later with a timeline that made more sense, but this time the statue looked like an actual uncle named Oscar, instead of being just a flippant, kidding expression.  And instead of staff members overhearing the name and taking it up, it was a newspaper columnist.

In 1931, Donald Gledhill, executive secretary of the Academy, brought his new bride to the office for the first time, and showed her a gold statuette on his desk.  Mrs. Gledhill, who now serves as secretary while her husband fights for Uncle Sam as a captain, studied the statuette carefully.  She noted its square jaw and sharp, mannish features.

“Reminds me of my Uncle Oscar,” she remarked.  Outside the door sat a newspaper columnist, waiting for a friend.  Overhearing the reference to Oscar, he published a single line in his column next day:

“Academy employes have affectionately dubbed their famous gold statuette – Oscar.”

Arizona Republic (Phoenix, Arizona), April 9, 1944, page 30.

If a newspaper columnist did use the word the next day, no one has been able to find it. 

A later version of the story shared the same timeline, but changed the uncle to a first cousin once-removed.

Back in 1931 when Mrs. Herrick was first introduced to the statuette, she took a quick look and then, in a flurry of surprise, remarked, “He reminds me of my Uncle Oscar”.

As a matter of record, Uncle Oscar Pierce wasn’t actually Mrs. Herrick’s uncle at all, but a first cousin of Mrs. Herrick’s mother.

Motion Picture Herald, Volume 168, Number 10, September 6, 1947, page 29.  

By 1947, the Academy reportedly adopted the actual “Uncle Oscar” story as its “official” version of events.  This version supports the suggestion that “Oscar” was first used facetiously.

Who is Oscar – and why?  It’s the name attached to the golden statuette, of course, that is annually awarded to Academy champions. . . .

Officially, the Academy itself attributes its origin to Margaret Herrick, executive secretary, who, in 1931, is credited with having said of a statuette, “Oh, he reminds me of my Uncle Oscar.”

. . . In the early days Oscar was a facetious term; today it has acquired far more dignity.  Anyway, Oscar it is, until a better nickname is found.

Los Angeles Times, January 12, 1947, page 27.

Mrs. Herrick was still telling the story in 1956, this time with more genealogical information to identify the “uncle” who purportedly inspired the name.  This version adds the detail that she named it on her first day as the Academy’s librarian in 1931.

The golden figure was still without a name that day in 1931 when Mrs. Margaret Herrick, present executive secretary of the Academy, reported for her first day’s work as librarian.  A copy of the statuette stood on an executive’s desk and she was formally introduced to it as the foremost member of the organization.

She regarded it a moment.  “He reminds me,” she observed, “of my Uncle Oscar.”

Nearby sat a newspaper columnist and the next day his syndicated copy contained the line “Employes have affectionately dubbed their famous statuette ‘Oscar.’”  From that day on he has been Oscar.

Mrs. Herrick’s “Uncle Oscar,” is not her uncle at all, but is in fact a second cousin.  This man who so vicariously came into fame around the world is Oscar Pierce, of a wealthy Western pioneer family, formerly living in Texas.  He did well in wheat and fruit and some years ago retired in California.  The relationship is through first cousinship to Ada Morie, now Mrs. N. K. Buck of Yakima, Wash., mother of Mrs. Herrick of the Academy.

Mrs. Herrick disclaims any marked resemblance between Oscar and Uncle Oscar, and admits now her history-making words were voiced in utter whimsy.  Lots of history is made that way.

The Times (Shreveport, Louisiana), March 16, 1956, page 18.

Margaret Herrick’s account of the naming raises several questions.  If it is true, as some versions of the story claim, that a reporter, gossip columnist or syndicated columnist overheard the name and wrote about it the next day, where is the evidence of that first article?  And if others picked it up after that article in 1931, why did it not appear in print for three more years?  Which version of the story would be more reliable, the earliest version (1939) in which “Uncle Oscar” was just an inside joke of sorts between her and her husband, or later versions, in which “Uncle Oscar” is said to be an actual human?  Furthermore, if the Gledhills are in the perfect position to control the story and ensure its accuracy, why did it change over time?  A cynic (or any rational person) might consider it suspicious that the Academy first circulated a story about their own officials coining the name at the same time they reportedly resisted its use by others.  Might they have been trying to manufacture a case for first use of an emerging, valuable trademark?

If we accept the earliest version of events, that it was a pet phrase and not an actual person, it raises the question of whether there was some pop-culture source of “Uncle Oscar” that might have contributed to it becoming a funny pet expression used by the Gledhills.

I looked for one – and I found a candidate; a candidate which is in all likelihood unrelated, but which presents a tantalizingly seductive, striking and uncanny coincidence that almost makes me want to believe.

The cast of characters in Frank Willard’s  syndicated comic strip, Moon Mullins, included a character named “Uncle Oscar” and his niece (Moon Mullins’ sister) “Emmy”.   “Uncle Oscar” and “Emmy” appeared together in Moon Mullins from 1925 through 1933. 

Los Angeles Times, February 13, 1928, page 10.

Daily News (New York), September 28, 1933, page 47.

“Uncle Oscar” and “Emmy.”  What are the chances?   I guess in hindsight the chances are 100%, but that’s not to say there is an actual causal connection.  Still, it’s an interesting coincidence, but not unprecedented.    In another cosmic coincidence, the original image that served as the model for Mad Magazine’s iconic Alfred E. Neuman was taken from a poster advertising a play entitled, “The New Boy”; Neuman (New Man) – “New Boy”; almost certainly unrelated, but still a head-scratcher. See my earlier piece, The Real Alfred E.

For the record, “Emmy” is said to come from “Immy,” in reference to the Image-Orthicon tube, an important technical innovation in television.[v]  With Oscar then a well-established name, the television academy set out intentionally to find a name for their own statuette.  Their statuette was a woman, calling for a woman’s name. 

In 1948 Charles Brown, then president of the fledgling academy, named a committee to select award-winners for that year.  He also asked for suggestions as to what the symbol would be called and what it would look like.

Many people thought “Iconoscope” (for image orthicon tube) would be an impressive title . . . but it was pointed out that folks would invariably shorten that to “Ike” a name reserved for Dwight Eisenhower.

“Tilly” (would you believe . . . for television?) was another favorite in the race.  But in the end “Emmy”, a derivative of “Immy” (a nickname for the image orthicon tube) was chosen.  The name was suggested by pioneer television engineer Harry Lubcke (president of the academy in 1949-1950).

Fort Lauderdale News (Fort Lauderdale, Florida), May 22, 1970, page 40F.

The name was associated with the statue even before it was awarded.

Actress Adele Mara holds the “Emmy,” television’s version of the movies’ “Oscar.”  The statuette will be awarded at Los Angeles tonight to the most outstanding television program at the first annual awards dinner of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.

Press and Sun-Bulletin (Binghamton, New York), January 25, 1949, page 21.

Moon Mullins would have been a more interesting story.

Sadly, without similarly detailed account of how “Oscar” got its name, we are left to sift through the various, competing stories and unanswered questions.

Other Oscars

If we consider the Herrick story unreliable and the Skolsky story true, it raises further questions.  If we buy his first version of the story, that he merely selected a simple, undignified name, then why “Oscar”?  Oscar Hammerstein was already a famous, successful, distinguished writer.   There were plenty of other distinguished Oscars around.  What was so undignified about Oscar? 

If we buy his second version of the story, that he remembered a pit orchestra conductor named Oscar, who was that conductor?

If we discount Herrick’s story and take Skolsky’s original Oscar article at face value (that the name was already in use in the profession), then are there any other likely candidates? 

Oscar Baum

Oscar Baum was a movie palace and Vaudeville orchestra conductor who regularly performed in the largest movie houses in Hollywood and Los Angeles during the period in which “Oscar” was coined.  If Sidney Skolsky did, in fact, remember a pit orchestra conductor named Oscar, he might easily have seen Oscar Baum perform in Hollywood or Los Angeles.  He might even have seen him in New York before moving out to Hollywood.  There’s no direct evidence that Oscar Baum is THE Oscar, but his story is interesting in its own right and illustrates a lost corner of pop-culture.  And perhaps he is THE Oscar, even if we may never know for certain.

Before motion pictures, Vaudeville houses provided nightly entertainment.  The shows would typically include singers, acrobats, comedians, skits and a play.  The first motion pictures were typically shown as one act of many in a full evening of otherwise live Vaudeville entertainment.  Over time, as film became main draw, many theaters continued providing live, Vaudeville entertainment before or after the show.  People were accustomed to seeing live performances and did not have television sit-coms or a music listening devices to go home to, so they might as well hang out at the theater and sit through a film and then enjoy all of the old jokes or a new skit or a song and dance.

Before synchronized sound reproduction in movies, many silent movie theaters provided mood music or sound effects to accompany the films.  In small towns, the music might be a piano, automated player piano or organ.  In larger towns, the music might come from a “Fotoplayer,” an elaborate combination player piano/organ/sound effects device.  A larger theater in a large city might provide a full orchestra; or if a Vaudeville troupe were in town with their own band or orchestra, they might provide the musical accompaniment.

Combination film/Vaudeville entertainments continued even after sound film started to dominate the industry.  Some of the larger movie houses in the bigger cities even provided full orchestral musical accompaniment to augment sound motion pictures with higher quality and richer sound than could be achieved by early sound playback techniques.  This was the world in which Oscar Baum’s career took off.

Oscar Baum started his career in Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota.  He had been a decent violinist of some local note, but he found his true calling in writing, arranging and conducting music for large motion picture palaces. 

His talents secured an invitation to work at Paramount theaters in New York City, where he spent less than a year before being transferred to the Paramount theaters in Hollywood in late-1930.

Oscar Baum’s L. A. debut.  Los Angeles Times, December 4, 1930, page 29.

Los Angeles Times, December 12, 1930.

Throughout the early and mid-1930s, Oscar Baum performed at various times at Publix, Paramount, Grauman’s Chinese, and Warner Brothers’ Theaters in Los Angeles and Hollywood, including several Grand Openings of major films at Grauman’s Chinese[vi] and at least one appearance on film, “leading an orchestra in a sequence of the picture,” Footlight Parade, starring James Cagney and Joan Blondell.  At times he arranged and staged original “Prologues,” musical reviews performed before a feature movie; at times he gave directed live orchestras supplementing the soundtrack of a sound film; at other times he performed through a six-act Vaudeville show before or after a feature film; and sometimes did all three on the same bill. 

(Reviewed Feb. 12)

Oscar Baum still welding a graceful baton.  When he slices the air with that stick of his’n you hear music.

Inside Facts of Stage and Screen, February 21, 1931, page 10.

Spectacular in Thrilla and Beauty, “DAMES and DOUGHBOYS”
Bobby Gilbert
And a gala cast of other artists.

Los Angeles Times, September 25, 1931, page 11.

. . . Six acts vaudeville, Oscar Baum and his orchestra.

Motion Picture Daily, November 16, 1934, page 13.

. . . 6 acts Vaudeville, Oscar Baum and orchestra.

Motion Picture Daily, January 4, 1935, page 12.

Selecting an orchestra director of nation-wide reputation to feature his return as producer to the Chinese Theater, Sid Grauman named Oscar Baum, formerly of the Paramount Theater, New York, to wield the baton with a largely augmented orchestra.

Baum directs the music of the elaborate prologue of “Hell Divers,” the current attraction at the theater.  He has had symphony orchestra experience, being a violinist of note.  He has directed orchestras for a number of years, including the organization at the Minnesota Theater, Minneapolis, one of the largest theaters in the Middle West.  From there he went to the Paramount Theater, New York, playing there and at the Brooklyn Paramount alternately.  He brings a wide experience of showmanship with him to the Chinese and his experience will be in line with the spectacular events which feature this house.

Los Angeles Times, January 3, 1932, part III, page 15.

If, as Sidney Skolsky suggests, a pit orchestra conductor named “Oscar” inspired the name of the Academy Award statuette, Oscar Baum is as good (or better) a candidate as any. 

And to top it all off, the only photograph of Oscar Baum in action I could dig up shows him wielding an over-sized conductor’s baton, perhaps reminiscent of the long sword held by an Oscar statuette. 

Coincidence or clue?

The “Have a Cigar” Bit

The 1975 version of Sidney Skolsky’s “Oscar” origin story refers to comedians saying, “Will you have a cigar, Oscar?” to an orchestra leader who reached for it, they backed away, and the audience laughed at Oscar.  As noted above, there was, in fact, an orchestra leader named Oscar who worked with Vaudeville comedians. 

There was also at one time a Vaudeville or Burlesque routine referred to as the, “’Have a cigar’ bit”; a bit that involved the musical director.  Might this be the act, or an earlier version of a similar act, that Skolsky remembered, if in fact he coined the expression as he claims.

Brief references to the “’have a cigar’ bit” appear in reviews of two different Burlesque acts in The New York Clipper in 1921.

Johnny Kane sang “Save Your Daylight” with the chorus and did it well.

In the “Have a Cigar” bit given by Jordan, Kane and the musical director they put it over well.

New York Clipper, June 15, 1921, page 16.

The “husband” bit was performed by Barrett, Mitchell, Blodgett, Johnson and the misses Hamilton and Stewart.

The “have a cigar” bit was the next.  Barrett, Blodgett and the musical director were in it.

New York Clipper, March 16, 1921, page 27.

Sidney Skolsky may well have seen a version of the “Have a Cigar” bit somewhere along the way, and given the reputation of Burlesque and Vaudeville performers for recycling all of the old jokes and bits, it’s not impossible to imagine that Sidney Skolsky might have seen Oscar Baum in just such an act before writing about his first Academy Awards ceremony. 

Coincidence or clue?

Oscar the Microphone Dummy

The advent of sound and further technical improvements in sound recording and reproduction spelled trouble for the careers of movie palace musicians like Oscar Baum.  But the advent of sound and technical improvements in sound recording and reproduction gave birth to another “Oscar” who may or may not have something to do with inspiring the name “Oscar” for the Academy Award.

Oscar – Term for “electrical oscillations.”

Los Angeles Times, November 24, 1929, part III, page 26.[vii]

In New Jersey, scientists trying to perfect high fidelity sound transmission developed a sound-recording device shaped like a human head for use in early experiments to provide “surround sound”, naturalistic sound reproduction.  By placing microphones where the ears were, they hoped to record and reproduce sound as it would sound naturally to a human listener.  Inspired, presumably, by the new technical jargon for electrical oscillations, “Oscar,” they named their sound recording dummy “Oscar.”

A wax dummy serves as critic during the orchestra rehearsals of Leopold Stokowski, famous conductor.  Named “Oscar,” it sits through a performance at the Philadelphia Academy of Music with an impassive expression on its molded face.  But its ears never miss a note, for they are twin microphones connected to an amplifying system and earphones.  By listening in, engineers can determine the best arrangement of the orchestra for radio broadcasting purposes.

Popular Science, April 1932, page 48.

The technology, developed by Dr. Henry Fletcher of Bell Laboratories in New Jersey, made its public debut in a series of three demonstrations in 1933 and 1934.  Leopold Stokowski, director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, participated in the first two exhibitions; the first at the Philadelphia Academy of Music, and the second before the National academy of Sciences in Constitution Hall in Washington DC.  

Pittsburgh Press, April 13, 1933, page 23.

On both occasions a great hall full of people was treated to music from an invisible orchestra and an invisible singer.  These, while being eagerly listened to in the auditorium of the academy, were in a soundproof room in another part of the building;  and at the second test they again were in the Philadelphia Academy while their program was being enjoyed and applauded in Washington.

Baltimore Sun, May 7, 1933, magazine section, page 7.

A third demonstration, for a “terrified audience” at the winter convention of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers in New York City, displayed power of stereo-phonic sound.

Keyport Enterprise (Keyport, New Jersey), March 8, 1934, page 7.
Three dimensional sound has been accomplished with such a sense of reality that an audience in New York felt spooky during a demonstration.

This “stereo-phonic” exhibition contained all the elements that have made magic and wizardry so popular among certain types of people, but was the more terrifying because it was known to be of a truly scientific nature. . . .

Such things as throwing the noise of an airplane over the heads of the audience, having a trumpeter play before the audience, leave and the music continue from the spot he recently occupied, a play given by a full cast in absentia, the voices moving about as if the bodies were there and the other things equally as fantastic, from our old point of view, were demonstrated.

Star Gazette (Elmira, New York), January 30, 1934, page 8.

Ten years later, they were still using the same “Oscar” dummy to make more and better advancements in sound.
Asbury Park Press, (Asbury Park, New Jersey), May 10, 1942, page 12.

The full-length “Oscar” dummy actually looks a bit like an Academy Award; broad shoulders, narrow hips, tapering down to small feet on a wide base.  

Asbury Park Press, (Asbury Park, New Jersey), May 10, 1942, page 12.
 Coincidence or clue?

Without more evidence, I would rate this possibility as unlikely.  It’s not impossible, however.  The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and “Sciences” was always interested in technological advancements in film and sound, and some members would likely have been aware of the experiments in New Jersey and demonstrations along the East Coast.   

But the first commercial film in stereo would not be released until Walt Disney’s Fantasia in 1940, in which Leopold Stokowski put all of his hard work and experimentation to practical use.  In 1934, stereophonic sound and the dummy used to perfect it may have been more of a niche technology, not generally familiar to most of the recipients of Academy Awards or members of the Academy.

There was one other Oscar, however, who was generally familiar with many, if not most, of the early Academy Award winners. 

Oscar Smith

A little man who shined, Oscar Smith bore a physical and metaphorical resemblance to the “Little Oscar” who shined at Academy Award ceremonies.  This headline about the actual Academy Awards might easily have been written about him - if he had been invited.

Escanaba Daily Press (Escanaba, Michigan), March 11, 1937, page 8.

Everyone who was anyone in Hollywood knew Oscar Smith, and he knew them.

The man in Hollywood who knows the greatest number of picture people is Oscar Smith . . . .  

Daily Republican (Rushville, Indiana), October 23, 1928, page 6. 

In Hollywood Oscar Smith is more than a name; he's an institution.

The Tampa Times, April 14, 1929, page 19

Unless you've met Oscar, you don't know your Hollywood.

Indianapolis Star, August 29, 1934, page 5.

Many of the earliest Academy Award nominees and winners met with Oscar on a regular basis.

Hollywood has a unique academy of motion picture acting.  It has but one regular student, and yet it boasts a faculty embracing the greatest names and minds of the film industry.  The academy is a shoe shining stand at the Paramount studios and Oscar Smith, Negro bootblack and contract player, is the lone student.

Resident members of the faculty include Ernest Lubitsch, Emil Jannings, William Wellman, George Bancroft, Josef von Sternberg, Adolph Menjou, Victor Fleming, Richard Dix, Charles “Buddy” Rogers and other stars, directors and featured players under contract to Paramount.  Associate professors include such “greats” of the screen as Charles Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, John Gilbert, Theodore Roberts, Ronald Colman and Wallace Reid.  Classes at the shoe stand school of motion picture technique are held every day except those when Oscar works before the cameras.

Detroit Free Press, March 17, 1929, Part 4, page 1.

Several of these “faculty” members were associated with or won early Academy Awards.  Emil Jannings won the first award for Best Actor; Josef von Sternberg, who directed a film for which Jannings won his award, was nominated as Best Director in 1930 and 1932; Ernst Lubitsch was nominated for Best Picture in 1929 and 1930; Adoph Menjou starred in a Best Picture nominated film in 1929 and was nominated for Best Actor in 1931; William Wellman directed the first Best Picture winning film, Wings; George Bancroft was nominated for Best Actor in 1929; Richard Dix was nominated Best Actor in 1930; Charles “Buddy” Rogers starred in the first Best Picture winning file.

A Paramount production, The Patriot, won the Academy Award for Best Writing in 1930.  Although those writers were not specifically mentioned by name in any article connecting them with Oscar Smith, writers at Paramount were known to stop by Oscar’s shoe shine stand on a regular basis.  A new writer on the Paramount lot described the ritual in an article about his first few days on the job. 

To dash in at once and begin writing would be too crude.  There is a ritual to be complied with.  You first get your shoes shined at Oscar’s.  He is the negro bootblack who has the stand near the gate, and you mount the chair to look around, listen and get in tune with the spirit of the place.

Oscar shine, jests and capers.  He sells soft drinks, candy and tobacco.  His stand is the clearing-house of the studio, the forum, the market-place.  You hear all that is going on, and what will happen tomorrow.  Steady shoe-shine clients never have to buy newspapers.  Paul Gerard Smith, the scenarist, sits here daily to pick up the newest slang.  The dark corpulent man with black goggles in your adjoining chair looks asleep, but he listens to the sounds and whistling about him.  He is Mack Gordon, who wrote “Did You Ever See a Dream Walking?”

“I Write for the Movies,” Idwal Jones, Oakland Tribune (Oakland, California), December 8, 1935, Screen & Radio Weekly, page 8.

Of the two writers mentioned by name in the article, Paul Gerard Smith was a prolific writer of B-movies with no nominations or awards, but Mack Gordon would be nominated for eleven Academy Awards in his career, although none during the first several years.

I can imagine any one of the winners sitting down at Oscar's stand the next mrning saying something like, "Hey Oscar, look what they gave me last night.  It's about your size, and 'shines' like you - ha, ha, ha" (or something to that effect).

To be clear, there is no direct evidence suggesting Oscar Smith inspired the naming of the “Oscar” statuette.  I ran across his name and story while casting about for possible inspirations for the name that would have been known in and around Hollywood at the time “Oscar” got its name.  The gold / "shine" pun gives a possible impetus for the connection or association, as does his short stature - like the statue, he is a small Oscar who "shines".  And regardless of whether or not his name is associated, his story is interesting enough in its own right that it deserves to be told, so why not here.

Oscar Smith was born in Topeka, Kansas and moved to Phoenix, Arizona with his parents after finishing grammar school.  A pronounced stutterer, he claims not to have been able to speak at all until he was sixteen years old.  In Phoenix, he shined shoes for five years before moving to Los Angeles, where he became the head porter at Cooksie’s Barber Shop.

It was at Cooksie’s where he got his start in show business.  In about 1919, Wallace Reid, the early film star and matinee idol, came into Cooksies for a haircut and a shine, and left with a new personal valet - Oscar Smith.  Smith worked for Reid until his untimely death in 1923 at the age of 31. Before he died, Reid reportedly made arrangements with studio executives to give Oscar the shoe-shine concession on the Paramount lot.  Oscar Smith would eventually leverage that position, its contacts and opportunities into several more careers as an actor, talent agent, real estate developer and nightclub owner, all while keeping his day job as Paramount’s official bootblack.

Oscar Smith’s name appeared in film magazines and the entertainment columns of newspapers hundreds of times from as early as 1923.

Mr. Oscar Smith, of the Famous Lasky Players, is appearing twice daily at Grauman's Egyptian theater in person.  In the prologue of the "Ten Commandments," which was just released by the Lasky Famous Players, as one of Cecil DeMille's production.

Pittsburgh Courier, December 15, 1923, page 14.

He appeared in bit parts in several films before getting his big break in 1927, in Manpower and Beau Sabreur, alongside Richard Dix.

Introducing Oscar Smith.

Everyone in Hollywood knows Oscar, “the cute kid,” the colored lad who was once Wally Reid’s valet and who in the last five years as the official bootblack on the Paramount lot has shined the shoes of practically every star in pictures.

But who knows Oscar Smith?

Well, Oscar Smith graduated from bootblack to actor and has an important role in Richard Dix’ latest picture, “Manpower,” with his name on the cast sheet and everything.

Dix is credited with the discovery of Oscar.  In “Manpower” a colored man was wanted for comedy relief and Richard suggested the bootblack.

Now Oscaqr s to have the chance of his life.  He has been cast as the heroic Senegaliese soldier, Djikki, in “Beau Sabreur,” a melodrama of the Sahara by the author of “Beau Gest,” which Paramount is producing.

Photoplay, volume 32, number 4, September 1927, page 57.  

His silent film roles disguised his severe speech impediment.  But that didn’t stop him from taking on even more roles with the advent of talkies.  The “comic” possibilities of his stuttering may have been even more valuable with sound.  In 1929, he played a small, but popular part, as a stuttering hotel concierge in the whodunit, The Canary Murder Case, which won him a studio contract, one of the few black actors under contract in the studio contract system at the time. 

Judge for yourself whether it’s funny or not on YouTube.

Even Sidney Skolsky wrote about Oscar Smith in his column.  Four months before he first wrote about “Oscar” as the Academy Award statuette, Skolsky shared an anecdote about a film blooper.

[I]n “Too Much Harmony” Bing Crosby’s name is Eddie Bronson.  Yet in the dressing room on the opening night his colored valet calls him Mr. Crosby.

The lowdown on this is that the colored valet was played by Oscar Smith, the bootblack on the Paramount lot.  Oscar is rushed away from his stand to play bits like this in pictures.  He wasn’t handed any script to study the part.  He’s accustomed to calling Bing Mister Crosby on the lot and he did it in the flicker from the force of habit.

Daily News, November 16, 1933, page 46.

I can easily imagine Sidney Skolsky, a few months later, searching for a name that would deflate the pompous afair and hitting on a an inside joke - a little man who shines - industry insiders might recognize but outsiders might just find silly. 

Pittsburgh Courier, March 7, 1936, page 17.

In addition to acting, Oscar Smith developed a side business as a talent agent.  In 1932, he entered into a partnership with a character actor known as Stepinfetchit to arrange black extras to the studios.  Stepinfetchit was the bootblack at MGM studios and is regarded as the first adult black actor to sign a Hollywood contract, second overall to Matthew "Stymie" Beard of Little Rascals fame.

Oscar Smith, head bootblack at the Paramount lot, and Harold “Slickum” Garrison, similar factotum at MGM studio, have formed a partnership to provide colored people as extras for the movies. . . .  They plan to collect a commission from each extra they provide, and their plan is agreeable to the film casting directors, for it will save them work.  Oscar and Slickum have visions of growing rich in the next year if the tropical African pictures hold out.

Chicago Tribune, December 26, 1932, page 27.

Oscar was still in the extras business a few years later when he was mentioned in an article about the business of providing all types of specialty extras to the studios.

Hollywood, Cal., Oct. 8. – (U. P.) – This is a happy land, where casting directors don’t get grey hairs worrying about their racial acting problems; where a five minute telephone conversation will bring enough Igorotes, Zulus, Brahman Hindus or Nubian slaves to pack the coliseum or to double for the Afghan army.

In the twenty years that Hollywood has been the world’s film capital, Los Angeles, its parent, has drawn peoples of every nationality, race and color, not all of whom came because of the climate.

So it iscomparatively simple to round up strange types.  Istead of going to the Central Casting Bureau, which handles only Caucasians, the casting director has at his fingertips the names and telephone numbers of the specialists.

Jimmy Spencer, for instance, has several hundred distinct South Seas types under personal contact.  Jimmy is a native Kanaka from Molokai, and when stories with setting in Tahiti, Hawaii, Philippines, or the Malay Archipelago are filmed, Jimmy supplies the talent.

Tom Gubbings specializes in Chinese types -0 anything from coolie to mandarin, from any of the thirty-five distinctly different Chinese provinces.  He has 7,000 at his beck and call.

Oscar Smith, the perennial bootblack of the Paramount lot, and former valet to Wallace Reid, is generalissimo of the Negro section.

Eddie Das, a high-cast Hindu, knows every East Indian in California, some 1,200, and recently furnished several different casts and several hundred Hindus for “Lives of a Bengal Lancer.”

Nick Koblinski lives in the Los Angeles Russian colony, where the inhabitants still wear the old country beards and costumes. . . .

Then there are Bob Miles, who supplies the cowboys and stunt men; Charlie Borah, former Southern California track star, who furnishes the typical college types, and Charlie Cook, the man who can put is finger on any type of circus freak.

The Indianapolis Star, October 9, 1934, page 8.

Oscar Smith also provided personal management for at least one successful character actor, Willie Best, sometimes known as “Sleep’n’Eat.”  “Sleep’n’Eat’s” signature character was a comically slow-talking, slow moving, lazy man, similar to Stepin Fetchit’s signature character, the “laziest man in the world.”

Pittsburgh Courier, March 24, 1934, page 18.

Despite playing a character now viewed as perpetuating a negative black stereotype, Stepinfetchit parlayed his act into a small fortune as one of the first black millionaire in Hollywood.[viii]  Oscar Smith appears to have achieved similar levels of professional and monetary success.

Smith and Fetchit also achieved particular notariety and respect in the local black community in Los Angeles.  Sidney Skolsky reported that Fetchit and Smith made competing claims to the title, the “King of Central Avenue.”[ix]  Oscar Smith was also referred to, on occasion, as the “Mayor of the Central Avenue District,” but was apparently challenged for that spot by Bing Crosby’s chauffeur.

Journal Star (Lincoln, Nebraska), May 19, 1936, page 16.

Despite the sometimes caricatured portrayals of him and other similarly situated actors in the press, Oscar Smith appears to have been a well-respected figure in Hollywood at large as well, as demonstrated by his studio and several stars helping him stage a benefit ball.

Paramount Studio recently aided Smith in putting over his first annual movie ball.  They furnished him with huge arc-lights and many luminaries.

Pittsburgh Courier, September 8, 1934, page 19.

Oscar Smith, Paramount’s actor-bootblack, certainly showed Los Angeles’ colored section how to put on a real movie affair a few nights ago, when he staged the Colored Motion Picture Benefit Ball.  The huge studio lights, plus Oscar’s personal appearance in a loud checkedred suit, drew such a crowd that extra police had to be detailed to that section to keep order.

Oscar really put on a show, too, with Carole Lombard, Molly O’Day, Judith Allen, Katherine DeMille, Roscoe Karns, and Libby Taylor all present.

Pensacola News Journal, August 8, 1934, page 4. 

 Oscar Smith also dabbled in real estate.  As early as 1929, he reportedly owned valuable real-estate developments.  An article from 1940 discusses some of those holdings in more detail.  Val Verda was a mostly black-owned and frequented resort near Santa Clarita north of Los Angeles.[x]

Genial Oscar Smith, dean of all Negro Hollywood movie studio employees is leaving no stone unturned to make his hobby, the Hi-Hat Café and Guest House at beautiful Val Verde Park, year-around sepia pleasure resort, located 45 miles from Los Angeles, the finest race enterprise of its kind in the country.

The Pittsburgh Courier, October 12, 1940, page 23.

Sign for Oscar Smith’s Hi-Hat Café.  Image captured from Things that Aren’t Here Anymore, a documentary about landmarks in Los Angeles that aren’t here anymore, produced and aired on Los Angeles Public Television station KCET.
When oil was discovered at Val Verde, Oscar Smith and other black property owners stood to profit – although I do not know whether those wells were ever drilled, and if so, how valuable they were.

Pittsburgh Courier, November 2, 1940, page 10.

But whether or not those investments panned out, Oscar Smith remained at Paramount Studios into the 1940s.

Oscar Smith with Eva Gabor and Frances Farmer. Des Moines Register, June 15, 1941, Magazine section, page 8.

Smiling Oscar Smith, Paramount player, takes charge of the Crosby boys as they pay a visit to the studio to watch their famous dad work on the set of “Dixie.”  . . . Oscar also will appear in the new Paramount production which stars Bing Crosby, Dorothy Lamour and Marjorie Reynolds.

The Pittsburgh Courier, November 28, 1942, page 21.

But was he the inspiration for the name, “Oscar”?  I don’t know, but his granddaughter, Isis McKenzie, has apparently heard "enough stories going around Hollywood that leaves her with a smile on her face and pride in her heart."  Perhaps there is something to the story after all.

Her great grandfather, Oscar Smith, was a famous actor in the 1920-40s, who also became the first African American actor to be signed to Paramount Pictures in the 1930s. She was told he was also the one time Mayor of Val Verde, CA.  Also in her grandmother’s personal effects was a trunk full of pictures of her grandmother with Bing Crosby and Cab Calloway, who were huge stars during that era. But what really piqued her interest was the rumor going around about how the film industry’s most coveted trophy, the Oscar®, came to be named after her great grandfather.

McKenzie can’t actually verify that fact with certainty, but there are enough stories going around Hollywood that leaves her with a smile on her face and pride in her heart.

“Isis McKenzie Was ‘Born to Shine,’” Jason Lewis, Los Angeles Sentinel, November 3, 2011.[xi]

Coincidence or clue?

[ii] The 1930 US Census lists here living at home, in Yakima, with her maiden name.
[iii] Post-Crescent (Appleton, Wisconsin), June 3, 1957, page 4.
[iv] Post-Crescent (Appleton, Wisconsin), June 8, 1957, page 12.
[vii] Barry Popik, of the Big Apple online etymologyical dictionary was the first person to identify this sense of “Oscar” in The Motion Picture Almanac (1931), speculating that it might be a clue to the origin of “Oscar” as applied to the academy award.  Ben Zimmer, language writer for the Wall Street Journal, identified this earlier example from 1929.Garson O'Toole (the QuoteInvestigator) uncovered the "Oscar" recording dummy and shared it on the American Dialect Society's discussion board in June, 2018.
[ix] “Hollywood Characters,” Sidney Skolsky, Daily News, May 25, 1935, page 24.

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