Thursday, February 18, 2016

Chicago loses Oscar business

Sun-Times file photo
     I'm not sure how much civic pride Chicago residents ever actually took in the Oscar statuettes being produced locally, but that fact sure was embraced by the media.  Here was a bona fide local angle to one of the biggest stories of the year, the Academy Awards. We might not produce many of the actors and actresses joyfully leaping onto the stage to get their moment in the spotlight, but we sure as hell could make the hunk of metal they were handed when they did win. 
    That changed, the Sun-Times reported Wednesday, because the Academy wants them made of bronze, which our R.S. Owens doesn't do. So now New York media will be traipsing to a factory there, the way I did years ago when I drew Oscar duty, and filed this report:

     Wrap your hands around the most famous product that Chicago's R.S. Owens & Co. manufactures and odds are that, after you register its heft and weight for a moment, you will gaze out at an imaginary audience and begin a speech.
     "They thank their mothers, they thank the academy," said Scott Siegel, president of the company that makes the Oscar statuettes to be given out, amid maximum pageantry, tonight in Los Angeles.
     While the Owens company typically gets a burst of publicity at Academy Award time, the Oscars are only a tiny part of their business.
     As expensive as the 50 24-karat gold over silver over nickel over copper trophies might be (the company doesn't reveal what they cost, or how much precious metal is in them) it wouldn't be enough to keep the 60-year-old manufacturer's 180 employees busy all year in Owens' 82,000-square-foot plant at 5535 N. Lynch.
     That is done by all the other prestigious awards that Owens makes -- the Clios, the Emmys, the MTV Video Music Awards and hundreds of other cast-metal trophies.
     Each trophy has its own particular challenges. The Oscars are multiple-plated, requiring dips in baths of chemicals and washes in sulfuric acid. The Emmys are even more complex, with a sphere of copper rings that must be individually cut and welded together. The MTV Video Music Award -- a lunar astronaut saluting an American flag — has to be cast in four pieces and assembled.
     Owens makes two types of trophies. The first, such as the Oscars or Emmys, are licensed — what the company calls "captive molds." That means Owens can only make as many as the licensing group desires, and no more. It can't start selling Oscars on the side, though there is one in the company showroom, along with a bronze hot dog in a tux and crown, a metal Super Mario and several hundred other statuettes, orbs, pyramids, animals and figurines, some of them famous -- the copies of the Super Bowl Trophy given to team players, for instance -- most of them obscure.
     The rest of the trophies are "stock" — two-handled loving cups and stars of excellence and such. Anyone can call up and order one or 100 or 1,000.
     "Thirty years ago, our business was 95 percent stock, and five percent licensed," Siegel said. "Now it's the other way around. Most stock trophies are plastic and very low end."
     Owens & Company doesn't make the plastic kind. Siegel explained that while business people know the value of receiving a quality trophy, the bulk of stock awards -- school awards, Little League trophies -- are given to kids, by adults who tend to want to cheap out on the prizes.
     "Corporate people still want quality," he said. "Kids want quality, too, but the adults are in charge of expenditure."
     Making a metal trophy from scratch is a lengthy, expensive process. Say a widget company wants to give its salesman of the year a bronze widget on a wooden pedestal. Owens will hand the prototype widget to its master craftsman, Manny Steffan, who will look over the widget and see how difficult it will be to cast in metal.
     "Certain jobs cannot be done," he said. "Sometimes you have to simplify." He might suggest that a stylized widget be used, to cut down on production costs.
     While a simple piece — say a globe — can be cast in a two-piece mold, complex figures need multiple-piece molds that fit together like a puzzle. Steffan once did a bronze ice castle whose mold came apart in 34 sections. (The 13-inch-high, 8-pound Oscar is made from a single mold).
     The company is careful about its estimates, because if it underestimates the amount of work needed, it will lose money on the job. Siegel points to a lovely turn-of-the-century trophy topped by an ear of corn, given by a cereal company to its most productive farmer. The company brought it to Owens to be reproduced, and it didn't realize just how tough the job would be."It took us a year and a half," Siegel said. "We lost our shirts on it."
     Once a price is set, Steffan goes to work. It can take two to four weeks to sculpt a model, and up to three months before the molds are done and the first trophy is made. Molds must fit together with small tolerance for error to keep down the amount of flashing -- spilled metal around the seams that must be laboriously ground off and polished. The Owens plant is filled with workers at grinding wheels or wielding hand files, doing away with flashing.
     Siegel's grandfather was in the pigeon supply business, selling food and accessories to people who kept pigeons as pets. His father worked for him as a teenager.
     "In 1938, my father went downtown to get two trophies for a customer's store," Siegel said. "The trophy company thought he was a dealer, and gave it to him wholesale. He made $ 8 on the transaction, as much as he made in two weeks. So he decided to go into the trophy business."
     Like many children of successful businessmen, Siegel resisted following his father's footsteps. He taught high school for seven years.
     "I didn't want to have the rest of my life scripted for me," Siegel said. But the lure of business proved too great, and upon getting his master's degree at Northwestern he joined Owens.
     Few companies can point to a product that will be as happily received and carefully cherished as a trophy. Siegel walks by rack after rack of John Phillip Sousa medallions -- to be given to high school band members -- Boy Scout emblems and spiked globes to be given out by a cable TV network in India. But Siegel said he doesn't really think about his products being dispersed worldwide.
     "To tell you the truth, I think more about how to produce a good product and how to be efficient," he said.
                                  —Originally published in the Sun-Times, March 23, 1998


  1. Fascinating tale of a business birth: serving one kind of pigeon, then another. The lines about kids wanting quality while parents want cheap were priceless.


  2. Kind of pitiful about the Chicago media making a big deal about the Oscar statuettes being locally produced. Just goes to reinforce the idea I always had about Chicago having an inferiority complex. (Although your column was typically well-written and enjoyable.)

  3. I held one once. Earned by a friend who works as an art director in films. Heavy.

    Tom Evans


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