Boomers Occasionally Heard the Name “Oscar”

The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences has once again awarded Oscars for outstanding work in a wide variety of categories in film in its annual telecast. Mister Boomer has written some interesting tidbits about Academy Award presentations during the boomer years (see Boomers Watch as the Oscar Goes to… and Boomers Saw Great Movies Win Oscars), so he was not all that enthused about another post along those lines. Instead, he wondered about the actual name, “Oscar.” He wasn’t concerned about the statue, but the name itself.

There were very few boomer boys named Oscar, but boomers knew the name. Etymology of the male name have been traced to Irish, English and Norse origins. The name was popular in the 17th and 18th centuries, and reached its popularity around 1890. With the exception of Sweden (where it remains a popular name since two of the country’s kings were named Oskar), the number of males named Oscar worldwide has steadily declined throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. During the boomer years in the United States, less than half of one percent of boys were named Oscar. There was a slight uptick in the early 2000s, but that trend has not held in recent years.

So, how did boomers know the name, “Oscar?” Who were some of the famous Oscars that boomers knew in their time?

Oscar Hammerstein was a composer, producer and director who worked in musical theater as well as movies. Together with his writing partner, Richard Rogers, the duo wrote the music for Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I, The Flower Drum Song and The Sound of Music. If boomers did not see a live musical that Hammerstein developed, they certainly saw the movies made after the plays. In fact, Hammerstein is the only Oscar to have won an Oscar — and he won two of them. What may be of interest to boomers, however, is that he did not win an Oscar for what may be the best known of his movie scores among boomers: The Sound of Music. However, he did win a Grammy for the original cast album of the Broadway musical, and a Tony award for that theatrical presentation. Hammerstein’s presence was certainly known to the parents of boomers, and therefore seeped down to their boomer children in the form of show tune albums being played in the house, and later, the movies themselves running on television. Hammerstein died in 1960.

Born in Montreal, Canada in 1925, Oscar Peterson was a famous jazz pianist. If boomer parents were into jazz in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, their boomer children probably heard his records played at home. Today he is considered one of the greatest jazz pianists of all time. He continued to perform sporadically after he had a stroke in 1993, ultimately passing way in 2007.

Boomers got to know the work of Oscar de la Renta (1932-2014) in the 1960s. He was the head in-house designer for Elizabeth Arden in New York, before moving to Jane Derby in 1965. He bought the company after Derby died in 1969, and changed the name to his own label. Boomers may very well have seen prominent women wearing his fashions in Life, Look and other magazines of the age. His long association with creating dresses for First Ladies started when he designed a dress for Jackie Kennedy when she accompanied her husband on an official visit to India. He continued to create dresses and gowns for Jackie, then went on to dress Nancy Reagan, Laura Bush and Hillary Clinton. Oscar de la Renta launched his own fragrance, named OSCAR, in 1977, and branched out into sunglasses and designer eyewear a year later.

Oscar F. Mayer (1859-1955) was the real person behind Oscar Mayer meats. His son, Oscar G. Mayer (1914-2009), took over the family business after his father’s death. He continued running the family business until it was bought by General Foods in 1981 (Kraft is the current owner). Oscar G. is credited with expanding the company’s exposure by reviving the Wienermobile, which his father had introduced in 1939, and sponsoring the company’s famous commercials of the boomer era. Is there a boomer anywhere who can’t sing the commercial jingles for bologna and hot dogs from the 1960s and ’70s?

Oscar Madison was a character in The Odd Couple, which began as a Broadway play by Neil Simon (1965), then became a film (1968) before becoming a TV series (1970-75). Walter Matthau portrayed Oscar in the film (opposite Jack Lemmon as Felix Unger), and the TV incarnation of Oscar was played by Jack Klugman (opposite Tony Randall as Felix).

Oscar the Grouch appeared in the very first episode of Sesame Street in 1969. Boomers young and old may recall Oscar as the Muppet who lived in a trash can, created by Jim Henson and Jon Stone. The first Oscar was orange, but later he was changed to green.

Meanwhile, back at The Academy Awards, the statue awarded by The Academy is nicknamed Oscar. The origin of how it got its nickname is disputed by some, but the most widely accepted story is that it was first said by a woman who worked for The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. In 1939, Margaret Herrick was a librarian there. She established the first library records of films for the organization. The story goes that Margaret, upon seeing the statue, remarked that it looked like her Uncle Oscar, and the name stuck. After Herrick’s retirement in 1971, the Academy renamed their collections library after her. Today, the Margaret Herrick Library holds more than 80,000 screenplays, plus tens of thousands of movie posters and press clippings, plus millions of publicity photographs.

Does the name “Oscar” bring back any memories for you, boomers?

Boomers Signed on The Dot and the Line

The 88th annual Academy Awards will be broadcast this weekend, so it got Mister Boomer wondering what was going on with the Oscars 50 years ago. As it turns out, 1966 was a momentous movie year for boomers. It was the first year the Academy Awards was broadcast in color; at the time many boomer households were acquiring color TVs.

The Sound of Music picked up five Oscars, including Best Picture. Many boomers have memories of seeing the picture with their families, at a drive-in or local theater. To win the Best Picture award, the film bested the now-classic films Doctor Zhivago, Ship of Fools, A Thousand Clowns and Darling.

The Best Actor category was a race among screen greats: Richard Burton (The Spy Who Came In From the Cold), Laurence Olivier (Othello), Rod Steiger and Oskar Werner (Ship of Fools), but it was Lee Marvin who took home the statue for his work in Cat Ballou.

Of particular note to Mister B was the award for Best Short Subject. A cartoon by Chuck Jones and Les Goldman, The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics, won the Oscar for Best Short Subject. Every boomer knows the work of Chuck Jones. His Warner Bros. and MGM cartoons were favorites when we were young, and classics now. Boomers loved his work on Tom and Jerry, Looney Tunes, Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and for Mister B, especially, Road Runner cartoons, to name a few.

The Dot and the Line was inspired by Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, an 1884 novella by Edwin Abbott. It was an exploration into different dimensions as well as a comment on Victorian society and culture. Jones’ The Dot and the Line is a whimsical love story about a line pining for the love of his life, a dot. The dot isn’t interested in the line, though, because “she” perceives “him” to be too rigid and stiff. Instead, she hangs out with the more impulsive squiggle. The line learns to bend itself, first into basic shapes, then mastering parabolic curves and complex mathematical forms to ultimately win over the dot when she realizes the squiggle is too impulsive and chaotic compared to the expert control of the line.

Mister B is a creative type, so he was always fascinated by the sheer beauty of every frame — each a modern painting in its own right. The cartoon pares down characters and scenery to a seemingly impossible bare minimum. Simple shapes and limited colors tell a very believable story as lines and dots acquire human characteristics.

Through the years there has been some talk that The Dot and the Line, like its Flatlands inspiration, was making a comment on culture and society. The argument goes, the rigidity of post-War America is represented by the line, the optimism for the future by the dot, and the restless aura of change by the squiggle. There is a brief musical introduction when the squiggle first appears, and it is definitely rock ‘n roll in its genre. Some say the chaotic squiggle represents the upheaval the rigid society perceived at the dawning of rock ‘n roll. In such an argument, reason, logic and trust in innovation win out over chaos.

For Mister B, an art history aficionado, the cartoon reflects what was happening in the art of the day. Abstract Expressionism had its start in pre-War Europe, but it was post-War American painters who brought it front and center to the world. Accenting gesture, emotion, freedom, individuality and expression, it embodied the elation of a new era. By the 1960s, change was in the air as a growing population, and especially boomers, began to be disillusioned with the idealized world that immediately followed the world’s second War to End All Wars. Civil Rights, women’s rights, poverty and individual freedom became rallying cries, and music reflected this movement. Art, on the other hand, went toward Minimalism, which concentrated on geometry, the depersonalization of industrial fabrication and purposeful lack of imbued emotion. The Dot and the Line bears aspects of both of those art movements in its execution, as both art movements residing side by side in the mid-60s.

Putting all the pseudo-intellectual explorations aside, The Dot and the Line should be enjoyed for what it is: a love story set in a particular space and time. For the imaginative manner in which this story was told, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded it the Oscar. Another great boomer moment.

Do you recall seeing The Dot and the Line in theaters, boomers?