And The Winner Is

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
Trophies are hard for people to throw away. There’s actually a service in Madison, Wisconsin, that will recycle your old trophies and turn them into new ones. They replace the nameplates, they polish them up and then donate them to nonprofits like the Boys & Girls Club or the Special Olympics. Some of the trophies they get come from people who have passed away, their surviving relatives send them. And sometimes they’re from people who are just tired of their trophies taking up space in their homes. In both cases, people will actually pay the shipping to Madison to avoid putting their trophies in the trash. Donna Gray, who runs this service with their daughter, Janet, says that sometimes people request to be told where their old trophies end up, almost like they’re donating an organ.

Roman Mars:
Most of the time the materials that make them are cheap, but that’s not how you measure the value of a trophy. There’s a little trophy shop down the street from our office in Oakland. It’s small but bustling, and its windows are stuffed to the brim with awards made of all kinds of materials and in any shape you can imagine: chalices, orbs, golfers, gavels, apples, and plaques – plenty of plaques. So, of course, producer Avery Trufelman read them.

Avery Trufelman:
‘We the membership of Mount Zion Lodge Number Four, present this token of appreciation to brother Willie Adams. We honor and welcome you.’ Oh, a Freemason. Are they allowed to reveal who that is?

‘Honorable Award of Excellence presented to Gavin Newsom, Mayor of San Francisco, in appreciation for your contributions to the Nigerian community.’.

‘Club DJ of the Year in 1990s’.

There’s one that just says ‘Rifle Expert’.

Roman Mars:
And there are plenty of touchingly heartfelt engravings that you feel that maybe you shouldn’t be reading.

Avery Trufelman:
‘To my dear husband, Gil, on the occasion of our 35th wedding anniversary. Thank you, sweetheart, for 35 loving, supportive, challenging and exciting years together. God has knitted our hearts together into a beautiful tapestry of love.’

Roman Mars:
Aw.

Avery Trufelman:
Julia Reydel runs this shop, along with her husband, and she’s always moved by what people want engraved on their trophies.

Julia Reydel:
People amaze me with eloquence and the sincerity and just the way that they can express their feelings. Because I am from the culture where people did not express their feelings publicly.

Roman Mars:
Julia is from Russia.

Julia Reydel:
And it was not always appreciated when people would just express sincerely their feelings, let alone have them engraved and be displayed publicly.

Avery Trufelman:
Russians just don’t give out trophies the way that we do. Americans freaking love trophies.

Roman Mars:
And some of the fanciest trophies in Julia’s shop, actually some of the fanciest trophies in the world, come from R.S. Owens & Company in Chicago.

Scott Siegel:
My father built the company, and his first figure was a guinea pig figure that he manufactured…

Roman Mars:
For guinea pig breeding competitions during the Great Depression. R.S. Owens has since moved well beyond the humble guinea pig trophy.

Avery Trufelman:
Scott Siegel’s father was the founder of R.S. Owens & Company, and Scott showed me around the factory, like a real bonafide factory with big kilns for the glass plaques and wheeled carts full of castings and statuettes and rows and rows of industrial-grade buffers.

Scott Siegel:
This is just some of what we do here.

Avery Trufelman:
Their massive showroom is full of crazy different kinds of trophies and awards.

Scott Siegel:
This was for NASCAR. This is the only time we’ve made an award with a built-in DVD player.

Avery Trufelman:
Gimmicks aside, R.S. Owens makes some truly iconic trophies.

Scott Siegel:
That’s the Emmy over there.

Avery Trufelman:
Yes, an Emmy award.

Roman Mars:
But the Emmy is outshined by its neighbor.

Avery Trufelman:
I can’t believe that’s a real Oscar.

Scott Siegel:
It’s a real Oscar.

Roman Mars:
The Oscar’s real name is the Academy Award of Merit, but it is now officially known by its nickname. There’s lots of mythology around where the name Oscar came from. But the official myth is that the Academy librarian, Margaret Herrick, took a look at the statue and whispered…

Voiceover:
Margaret Herrick – “He looks like my Uncle Oscar.”

Roman Mars:
The first Oscar was awarded in 1929, and a number of different factories have manufactured the Oscars over the years. R.S. Owens has been making them since 1983.

Avery Trufelman:
When I saw the Oscar, it was hard to believe that I was looking at the real deal, because I’d seen so many knockoffs. The design itself isn’t hard to imitate. It’s really simple. It’s mostly just that stylized gold man standing on a reel of film.

Roman Mars:
Actually, MGM Art Director Cedric Gibbons originally designed the statue as a knight gripping a Crusader’s sword.

Avery Trufelman:
And the Oscar has been purposefully designed to be as desirable an object as possible.

Scott Siegel:
There’s more gold on the Oscar than in any other award. By far, there’s more gold in the Oscar than any other award we make.

Roman Mars:
Also, it’s really hefty. It’s eight and a half pounds, and it’s crazy shiny.

Scott Siegel:
A lot of polishing goes into it. Obviously, it has to be defect-free, so that takes a lot of time.

Avery Trufelman:
How much time?

Scott Siegel:
To polish each one? Like over an hour.

Avery Trufelman:
Oh, man. When I saw it, I just wanted it. It was like primal almost.

Roman Mars:
But somehow Scott Siegel resists the urge to make one for himself.

Scott Siegel:
A lot of people ask me about whether I have an Oscar at home and are surprised that I don’t. And I’ve never even been interested in having an Oscar at home.

Roman Mars:
That’s exactly what he would say if he had an Oscar at home.

Avery Trufelman:
But some people do make awards for themselves.

Julia Reydel:
People do make awards for themselves.

Roman Mars:
Back in Oakland, Julia gets customers who don’t look very athletic at all, picking up trophies that say they are number one in running, or elderly customers buying a trophy for being a young beauty queen or world traveler.

Avery Trufelman:
And this has happened multiple times.

Julia Reydel:
Yeah. Oh yes. Quite multiple, yes. It’s a common thing.

Avery Trufelman:
Julia is so not judgmental about this. If giving yourself an award makes you feel better, she’s all for it. It’s a way of validating your own experience.

Roman Mars:
And even more validating than making yourself an award is making yourself an entire awards ceremony.

MTV Host:
“Welcome to MTV Music Television.”

Avery Trufelman:
Young MTV decided to establish itself with an award ceremony because that’s a great way to quickly attract a lot of viewers, get high ratings, and bring in a lot of star power.

Roman Mars:
And they wanted to further establish themselves with a really good trophy.

Pat Gorman:
I’m Pat Gorman, and I designed the Moon Man statue.

Roman Mars:
That silver astronaut given out at the MTV Video Music Awards or VMAs.

Avery Trufelman:
Pat Gorman was part of Manhattan Design, the firm that created the MTV logo but making this trophy fulfilled a longtime dream of hers.

Pat Gorman:
I had been a champion baton twirler with my sister. We had a doubles routine, and we have all these little awards at home. And I thought, “I wanted to make a great trophy sometime in my life,” and then this would be the chance.

Avery Trufelman:
So, Manhattan Design kicked around a few ideas, but eventually Pat realized that the perfect trophy would be a statue of a man on the moon.

MTV Clip:
“Ladies and gentlemen, rock and roll.”

Roman Mars:
For those of you who weren’t around, Avery, MTV played a little station ID clip at the top of the hour.

Pat Gorman:
Where the man lands on the moon and plants the MTV flag.

Roman Mars:
It was vintage footage of the moon landing, but instead of planting an American flag, the astronaut had a flag that said, MTV.

Pat Gorman:
I thought, “Well, let’s use that as a statue.” And I also wanted to make the statute look like it was floating.

Roman Mars:
So Pat designed an astronaut figure in a wrinkly Apollo suit balancing on one leg, holding a little flag that said MTV.

Avery Trufelman:
She drew up some sketches, and she gave them to a manufacturer. And then she comes back two weeks later…

Roman Mars:
And he says, “Here’s your statue.”

Pat Gorman:
I look and it didn’t look anything… It was… There was a guy standing with his feet firmly planted and he’s saluting. I said, “What’s he saluting? There’s nothing there.”

Avery Trufelman:
Pat’s like, “This is totally unacceptable. You’ve got to follow my sketch.” And the manufacturer goes back to work.

Pat Gorman:
We come back in a week, and now I see something even more bizarre, I see a man in a leisure suit. He’s got this whole thing smoothed out, there’s not a wrinkle in the suit.

Avery Trufelman:
Also, this leisure suit moon man was still not on one leg and the manufacturer insisted, “Nope, can’t happen. It won’t balance.”

Pat Gorman:
We only have one more week and that’s it. And they’ve got to be cast like tomorrow. So I just asked him for clay, and we started building it.

Avery Trufelman:
Pat teamed up with a friend, who was a potter.

Roman Mars:
And they made a mold of the guy standing on one leg holding the MTV flag, and it balanced.

Pat Gorman:
There’s a thing about balance where if you line up the head, the center of the belly and the center of the foot, you can balance in almost any posture. And so I just did that, and it was perfect.

Avery Trufelman:
But the manufacturer really didn’t have a lot of time at this point and he only got around to making five trophies right before the very first ever video music awards.

Pat Gorman:
And there were about 30 awards that were going to be given out. So what do we do?

Avery Trufelman:
They decided that an usher could take each winner off the stage and fetch the Moon Man each time and then bring it back on stage during a commercial break. And this meant they could just keep recycling those same five trophies throughout the course of the night.

Pat Gorman:
We’ll never run out. So I thought that was brilliant.

Roman Mars:
Yeah. So at the very first VMAs, there were only five trophies, and they didn’t tell anyone.

Avery Trufelman:
What could possibly go wrong?

Pat Gorman:
Disaster struck.

VMA Clip:
“Michael Jackson, Thriller.”

Pat Gorman:
Michael Jackson wasn’t there, sadly, at the first one, but he won all these awards for Thriller. Diana Ross was sitting in the front and she was accepting them for him.

Diana Ross:
“Well, I talked to Michael today, and he wants me first to thank you, John….”

Avery Trufelman:
Diana Ross, right in the front row would go up and down the stairs before the usher could take her off the stage and get the Moon Man from her, and ‘Thriller’ kept winning more and more awards.

VMA Clip:
“And the winner is Michael Jackson for Thriller.”

Pat Gorman:
He won a lot, in a row. And she had all five statues in her lap.

Avery Trufelman:
So, they sent an usher to sneak down to Diana Ross and take the statues back.

Pat Gorman:
And she starts fighting with him. Stands up, as I remember, it was like a tug-of-war. And it was like a real disaster.

Avery Trufelman:
And the Moon Man tug-of-war got a little bit of air time, and it was embarrassing. But history has mostly forgotten it, because much crazier things have since happened at the VMAs.

Taylor Swift:
“Thank you so much for giving me a chance to win a VMA Award, I…”

Kanye West:
“So, Taylor, I’m really happy for you, Imma let you finish, but Beyonce had one of the best videos of all time!”

Roman Mars:
Controversy has become its yearly tradition.

Pat Gorman:
The whole event worked, and I knew that if it was successful, then it would go on. It would become like a yearly thing, a tradition, which it actually has. And the Moon Man has stayed, which is kind of amazing.

Avery Trufelman:
Honestly, now that MTV is without music and almost without traditional television, this award ceremony has become a big part of MTVs identity.

Roman Mars:
And by now they’ve figured out how to get all the winners their own personalized awards. Because it’s actually a lot harder to plan than you’d think, especially when you get into the high-stakes award, like the Oscars.

Avery Trufelman:
Because, back in Chicago, R.S. Owens doesn’t know in advance who the Oscar winners are, so they’ve developed a smart solution.

Scott Siegel:
Because there’s so few Oscars given out and there’s so few nominees, we just engrave plates for all the nominees.

Avery Trufelman:
And the Academy can just quickly screw on the nameplate of the winner and destroy the other nameplates. It’s a lot of effort, but then the winners get to have awards that are already personalized.

Roman Mars:
Because the most important thing about an award is that it has your name on it.

Julia Reydel:
I think it was Carnegie who said that the one word that the person would always prefer over all the other words in the vocabulary is his name.

Avery Trufelman:
Dale Carnegie’s principle number six from ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People’ is remember that a person’s name is, to that person, the sweetest and most important sound in any language.

Julia Reydel:
That goes a long way into the award business, as well, because people see their names, not only hear it said, but they actually see it engraved.

Roman Mars:
Okay, with that said, I’d like to present an Award of Recognition for producer of this episode to Avery Trufelman.

Avery Trufelman:
Oh, my God. Oh, there’s so many people to thank, I’d like to thank Frank Olinsky who really helped me fact check and reach out to Pat Gorman. I’d really also like to thank Fred Siebert. Oh my God, who else is there? I’d really like to thank Sam Greenspan, Katie Mingle. You guys are the best. Roman Mars, thank you for making this all happen, this wouldn’t happen without you, and KLAW the best public radio station. Arcsine Architecture and Interiors, you make such beautiful buildings, and always leave… ah, you know, you always have chocolate lying around for us. Thank you. Thank you so much. And okay, thank you. Thank you all.

Credits

Production

For this episode, producer Avery Trufelman spoke with Pat Gorman, designer of the MTV Moon Man, Julia Reydel, engraver and owner of Ardvark Laser Engraving, and Scott Siegel, of R.S.Owens & Company. Special thanks to Frank Olinsky and Fred Siebert for their help.

  1. Graham

    It seems that there is some “misremembering” going on about the first MTV Video awards. Michael Jackson only won 3 awards that year for “Thriller”. There would be no reason for Diana Ross to be holding 5 awards at once. Maybe if she was holding three of them at the time they might have wanted some of them back at a commercial break because there were more than two awards to give away next segment.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1984_MTV_Video_Music_Awards

    1. roman

      Hi Graham, thanks for the correction. We’ve noted it here on the website.

  2. Timo

    I would really like to see the R.S. Owens Guinea Pig awards, I googled around but couldn’t find any images.. great episode, hope you guys can help me see some.

  3. Scott

    You should mention that you can’t say the “winner is” because we don’t want to make people feel bad, I think you have to say “the award goes to”.

  4. Rhonda Goldstein

    I wish the story divulged that the MTV Awards are sadly no longer made in the USA but instead in China without the legally required “Made in China” sticker attached.

  5. Listening to this podcast, I was reminded of a rather famous person who used to buy themselves awards: Manfred von Richthofen bought himself little silver cups for each enemy plane that he shot down, and every tenth one was twice the normal size. Richthofen kept this practice up until Germany ran out of silver.

  6. Why does Aardvark Engraving have icons dedicated to others? Would not those awards/plaques have been given out to those for whom they were engraved?

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