When the actors and actresses nominated for Academy Awards stroll down the red carpet at the Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles later this month, you can bet that every inch of their bodies will have been styled for the cameras. But few realize that Oscar's golden suit is buffed and polished and inspected just as diligently as Halle Berry's gown. The vetting happens at the factory of manufacturer R.S. Owens Inc., located not in Hollywood but on the kielbasa-scented streets of Chicago's Jefferson Park. "Oscar has to be perfect," says backup supervisor/polisher Eladio Gonzalez, one of 150 employees.
R.S. Owens landed the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences contract in 1983. The previous supplier got out of manufacturing and recommended R.S. Owens because "of the combination of our quality and union craftsmanship," says company owner Scott Siegel. The statuette is made from the alloy britannia and electroplated in copper, nickel, and silver, then hand-dipped in 24-karat gold. The tiniest of holes or slightest of blemishes sends the cinematic heroes into meltdown. It takes more than a full day to make one statuette, a month and a half for a full order of up to 60. "Oscar is minimally profitable, but it's definitely great PR and prestige," says Siegel, who also makes the Emmy and the MTV Video Music Awards "moon man," among others (see below).
Scott's father, Owen Siegel, got into the awards business in 1938 after discovering that the sale of two pigeon-racing trophies brought in more than a typical week's worth of income from his other job, selling pigeon seed. He expanded from trophy distribution into manufacturing in 1950 and eventually became one of the most successful trophy makers in the country. "This industry still has a lot of family businesses, but it is no longer a garage-based hobby," says David Bergeson, of the Awards and Recognition Association. "And R.S. Owens is one of the biggest and best, if not the best, in the awards industry."
AND THE OSCAR COMES FROM ... CHICAGO: Scott Siegel owns R.S. Owens Inc., which has manufactured the coveted statuette, among other glamorous awards, for 20 years.
For his life's work, the elder Siegel was inducted into the awards association's prestigious Hall of Fame in 1978, and the company has also received the four-sided obelisk that is the equivalent of the trophy makers' Oscar. A few weeks after Russell Crowe picked up his Gladiator Oscar in 2001, Owen passed away and his son inherited the responsibility of running the business. Since taking over the company, Scott has not rested on his father's laurels. After admittedly missing the boat on acrylic awards -- which has become one of the fastest-growing trophy categories in recent years -- R.S. Owens hired a new designer and brought its own acrylic line to market. So far, Siegel says, it is doing well.
To further strengthen the company -- which has annual revenue between $12 million and $15 million, according to Siegel -- R.S. Owens recently hired several high-priced managers to help him run the business. It is an unusual step for a manufacturer of this size. "I've hired all M.B.A.s at two to three times the standard salary to foster culture, leadership, and aggressiveness," he says. Since the new crew came on, the company has put more than 200 new catalog items into production at its 82,000-square-foot plant. Although the company has increased its payroll and spent money developing the new trophies, profits are up, Siegel says.
But despite these changes, the Oscar deal still ranks as one of Siegel's top priorities. And the fringe benefits are as golden as the trophy itself. "I went to the Academy Awards for my 50th birthday. It was unforgettable. We went to the Titanic party and had a great time," says Siegel, who gets a pair of tickets every year that he bestows upon an employee through a company contest. "I want as many of my people to experience it as possible." But the employees don't have to chase the spotlight to Hollywood. As a chuckling Gonzalez notes, "I've been on TV at least seven times making the Oscars."
Making the Oscar is good for business, but does buffing the movies' biggest award create big movie buffs? "My father was never into the movies, but I love them," says Siegel. If he were a member of the Academy, Siegel would vote for Frida. "Salma Hayek did a wonderful job," he says.
Tale of the Tape at R.S. Owens
Height: 13 1/2 in. Weight: 8.5 lbs.
Trivia: When 55 Oscars were stolen in 2000, R.S. Owens filled the standard month- and-a-half order in a week's time by manning the machines around-the-clock.
Height: 15 in. Weight: 7.2 lbs.
Trivia: The Emmy was created by television engineer Louis McManus, who modeled it after his wife. It is our understanding that she did not have lightning-bolt wings.
MTV Video Music Award
Height: 11 3/4 in. Weight: 7.12 lbs.
Trivia: During the first few VMAs, the "moon men" were reportedly made of plastic.
Height: 14 in. Weight: 4.8 lbs.
Trivia: At the Clio Awards a few years back, the list of winners never materialized, and, says Siegel, the attendees looted the trophies.
American Quarter Horse Association World Champion
Height: 15 1/2 in. Weight: 11.52 lbs.
Trivia: Recent winners include the horses Colonel Legal Whiz and Shez Fancy Fancy.
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