Every once in a while, history provides a story where good triumphs in the end. Not always; just often enough to keep you from becoming a cynic. With the Christmas season in full swing, this is the perfect time for just such a tale. So grab a cup of eggnog, sit back and learn what happened when a child’s Oscar was taken by a thief.
I’m a fan of classic movies, the old black white films from the 1930s and 40s you see on TCM. It was a time of unrivaled talent on the silver screen. And Margaret O’Brien’s cheerful face was right there alongside the greats from the Golden Age of Hollywood.
You may not remember her name, but you’d know her in a heartbeat if you’ve seen 1944’s Meet Me In St. Louis. She darn near steals the show as Tootie, the lovable, spunky six year-old daughter. Here’s another reminder: the dad is about to drag the family cross-country to New York City, leaving St. Louey just as the much-anticipated 1904 World’s Fair is about to the begin. Said family is naturally distraught, and in one of moviedom’s biggest tearjerker scenes of all time, Judy Garland tries to cheer up Tootie by singing the maudlin, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” (which you’ve probably heard a dozen times this month on the radio or over loudspeakers at the mall — for those of you who still shop in person). Yeah, Margaret O’Brien was that little girl.
The movie was a huge hit, and she was rewarded with a special Oscar statuette just for kids called the Academy Juvenile Award. It was presented only twelve times, starting in 1934 with (who else?) Shirley Temple and concluding with Hayley Mills in 1960. (From then on, children competed in the regular Best Actor/Actress, Best Supporting Actor/Actress categories with the adults.)
Her mother wrote a short acceptance speech, which was dutifully memorized. But young Margaret was understandably blown away by all the excitment, and when the big moment came she forgot the speech, blurting out, “I don’t know what to say. Thank you so much!” As she dryly recalled later, “My mother wasn’t very pleased.”
The roles kept coming, including Beth March in Little Women. (A movie I’ve never understood, by the way. Marmee? Who the heck calls their mother Marmee? It must have been a Yankee thing. But I digress.)
Unfortunately for her, puberty eventually came, too, and the roles dried up as she progressed into her teenage years. Margaret O’Brien learned the painful lesson almost every child star has experienced the hard way: Cute Kid very, very rarely makes the transition to Sucessful Adult Actress.
But Margaret had a powerful reminder of her glory days, her little Oscar, and no one could ever take that from her.
Until someone did.
Margaret was 17 years-old in 1954, living in southern California with her mother. (Her father, a circus performer, had died before she was born.) One room in their home was dedicated to Margaret’s movie memorabilia, her awards and, above all, her Oscarette.
But this time, the maid never came back to work.
Three days passed. Margaret’s mom called the woman and fired her, ordering her to return the awards ASAP. The strain was too much for the mother, who suffered from a heart condition. She died soon afterward.
Losing her only remaining parent was naturally upsetting, and Margaret didn’t have time to think about her missing statuette amid her grief. When she finally called about it a few months later, the phone number was disconnected and the former maid had moved without leaving a forwarding address.
Margaret O’Brien’s Oscarette was gone for good.
When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences heard about the theft, they sent her a replacement. Margaret was grateful; but it wasn’t the same. If you ever lost a wedding ring or class ring or something that was deeply personal, you know how she felt.
Everyone told her to let it go and move on.
But Margaret clung to a hope deep in her heart that one day, no matter how long it took, she would be reunited with her special statuette.
If this story were an old Hollywood movie, pages would rapidly blow off a calendar at this point. The 1950s gave way to the 60s, which became the 70s, then the 80s, and finally the 90s. Then, as they also said in those wonderfully cheesy old movies, the plot thickened.
Two men, dealers in Hollywood movie collectibles, were at a California flea market one day, pawing through the odds and ends you find there. One reached into a box and pulled out a miniature Oscar. Margaret O’Brien’s name was engraved on it. They split the $500 cost and bought it.
The Academy’s executive director spotted a photo of it in a catalog for an upcoming auction of movie memorabilia, contacted the dealers and told them the back story. They graciously agreed to return it to its rightful owner.
And so on February 7, 1995, almost exactly 50 years from the moment she first received it, Margaret O’Brien’s stolen Oscar was presented to her again … making her one of the very few recipients who’ve received the very same Oscar twice.
Here’s the advice she shared that day: “For all those people who have lost or misplaced something that was dear to them, as I have, never give up the dream of searching – never let go of the hope that you’ll find it because after all these many years, at last, my Oscar has been returned to me!”
As far as miracles go, this one doesn’t compare to parting the Red Sea or feeding thousands of people with a couple of loaves of bread and a handful of fish. But to the woman who never stopped hoping, it meant the world.
Just ask Margaret O’Brien.
Did you find this enjoyable or helpful? Please continue to join me each week, and I invite you to read Tell it Like Tupper and share your review!
Curious about Tell It Like Tupper? Here’s a chance to see for yourself. Take a sneak peek at a couple chapters in this free downloadable excerpt.