History Stories

As recognizable as any Hollywood celebrity, the golden Oscar statuette has been around since the first Academy Awards ceremony in 1929. The iconic trophy depicts a knight holding a sword and standing on a film reel with five spokes, each representing one of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ five original branches: actors, directors, producers, technicians and writers. Although formally known as the Academy Award of Merit, the statuette, which stands 13.5 inches high and weighs 8.5 pounds, was officially nicknamed Oscar in 1939. It’s uncertain exactly where the nickname came from, although credit often is given to Academy librarian Margaret Herrick, who upon first seeing the statuette reportedly claimed it looked like her uncle Oscar.

Designed by MGM art director Cedric Gibbons (whose numerous film credits include “The Wizard of Oz” and “Julius Caesar”), the Oscar originally was made of gold-plated bronze. During World War II, when materials were scarce, the statuettes were produced from painted plaster. Today, they’re manufactured from a metal mixture called britannium and plated in gold. The Academy Awards ceremony itself also has undergone a variety of changes over the years. When the first Oscars were handed out, in 1929, the winners had been announced three months in advance. Following that, a list of recipients was given to newspapers beforehand, for publication at 11 p.m. on the night of the ceremony; in 1940, when the Los Angeles Times ran the winners’ names earlier than agreed, the practice was scrapped and the sealed-envelope system was put into place in 1941. Another milestone occurred in 1953, when the ceremony was televised for the first time; Bob Hope and Conrad Nagel served as hosts. Over the course of its history, the ceremony has been postponed three times: in 1938 (by a week), due to flooding in California; in 1968 (by two days) following Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination; and in 1981 (by 24 hours), after President Ronald Reagan was shot.

For all the prestige that comes with nabbing an Oscar, one thing winners can’t do is sell the golden guy for a profit. Since 1950, recipients have been required to sign an agreement promising that neither they nor their heirs will sell their statuette without first offering it back to the Academy for $1.

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