December is the month when hyperbolic adjectives are dragged out to adorn movie titles. It seems as if every new film is the greatest, best, most compelling, not-to-be-missed, if-you-see-no-other of the year, the decade, of all-time. All are Oscar-worthy which got me thinking about that name, Oscar, and all the Oscars I have known. Actually none.....hardly.
Sixty years ago my first job as a pharmacist was with Thrifty Drugs in Beverly Hills. I was newly licensed and thrust suddenly into a galaxy of Hollywood stars. Cary Grant called up one day to make sure his wife, Betsy Drake’s uppers and downers, were put on a separate bill from his. Robert Cummings stayed young buying vitamins I couldn’t talk him out of. My favorite customer was Oscar Levant. In his lugubrious voice he would phone for early refills on his favorite sedative, Paraldehyde, which fell out of favor decades ago. I’d hate to think I contributed to his delinquency.
He really didn’t need my help plunging from wunderkind piano virtuoso, composer, radio star of Information Please, actor, author, and wit to mental patient stung by his own acerbic tongue as if he quipped himself to death. He was one of the most quotable entertainers in town, e.g. In some situations I was difficult, in odd moments impossible, in rare occasions loathsome but at my best unapproachably great.
Oscar Levant never won an Oscar but Oscar Homolka, the Viennese-born character actor, got a nomination for his supporting role in I Remember Mama…a movie I’d sooner forget. Oscar Peterson was another Oscar I saw several times when he performed at Birdland back in the early 50s. His fingers moved on the keyboard effortlessly yet so dazzlingly I was carried away with the cigarette smoke.
Oscar Hammerstein II was possibly the most famous Oscar of them all in my lifetime. His grandfather, Oscar the first, born 1850, made a fortune in cigars but also built eleven theaters mostly in what came to be known as Times Square. Oscar, the younger, won two Oscars for best song. He wrote hundreds too numerous to mention collaborating first with Jerome Kern in Showboat and later with Richard Rodgers. Hammerstein also mentored Stephen Sondheim who has taken musical theater far beyond Oscar’s reach.
Oscar, he of Academy Award fame, owes its origins to the stuff legends are made of. There are at least four claims to the naming from Bette Davis to Walt Disney to Hollywood columnist Sidney Skolsky, to Margaret Herrick, librarian of the Motion Picture Arts and Science. She is said to have looked at it back in 1931 and thought it bore a resemblance to her uncle, Oscar.
With apologies to Oscar Wilde, Oscar de la Renta, Oskar Werner and Oscar Robertson, I have almost depleted my store of Oscars. Not a bad gallery of dignitaries. The name has never ranked high among boy’s names; it is now 175th in popularity with about 1500 new Oscars in maternity wards each year. One version of its genesis derives from the French word for Golden City which would be apt for the 8.5 lb. trophy.
Finally a nod to Oscar Mayer Weiners whose jingle was once suggested to replace the Star Spangled Banner as our national anthem. It works for me.