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…and speaking of awards

Talking shop with the guys who make all those trophies

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And the winner is: Everyone!
Photo: Rick Lax
Rick Lax

The Oscars are the Oscars of awards ceremonies. Winning one is a really big deal: gets you more work, gets you laid, secures you an obituary in the New York Times—the whole shebang.

But what about winning a Critics’ Choice Movie Award? Or a SAG award? Are those awards meaningful? For that matter, how good should you feel about yourself if you’re presented with a Marilyn Mozzarella Pizza Rella Pie Parlor Employee of the Week certificate? Very? A little? Not at all?

This Oscar season, I stopped by the Awards and Recognition Association’s yearly convention to investigate what makes an award meaningful...

I’m standing in the middle of the Las Vegas Convention Center, and I’m surrounded by awards: gold trophies, silver trophies, plastic trophies, blue ribbons, green ribbons, walnut plaques, diamond-encrusted flasks, laser-cut balsa wood skeletons, and red marble obelisks with spherical glass toppers.

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If you’re not in the awards industry, you’re not supposed to see these symbols of achievement back to back like this. Their commonality undercuts their value. These awards are meant to be seen individually, in high school glass trophy cases and on corner office bookshelves. They’re meant to be presented, one at a time, in public libraries and Italian restaurant banquet halls, by men in suits and women in dresses.

At the back of convention hall C5, I come across a booth of giant trophies—the biggest in the room. Trophies that Paul Bunyan might award Brobdingnagians for “Achievements in Giantry.” They’re distributed by a guy named Jim Seidel ...

“I’ve been selling trophies for 30-plus years,” Seidel, a Gulliver-sized man wearing an open-collar shirt under a grey blazer, told me. “In 1975 I opened up five stores called All-American Trophy King, and in 2007, I retired. For about two weeks. Then I was recruited by these guys.”

Seidel is referring to the people at Venko Trophies, a Brazilian company that manufactures the enormous awards and ships them across the world. The trophies, Seidel tells me, are assembled before they leave the factory. But they’re made of plastic, so they’re light, so shipping isn’t a problem.

Rick Lax has won several ribbons in his life.

Rick Lax has won several ribbons in his life.

“How much would it cost me to ship that big one over there?” I ask, pointing to a six-foot-tall, three-tiered, red and gold trophy.

“That one would probably cost 30 or 35 dollars to ship. Breaks down into three. Isn’t it nice?”

It was nice. And the more Seidel talked about it, the nicer it seemed. And the nicer it seemed, the more I wanted it. Not that I did anything to deserve a trophy of that size. But since when do feelings of entitlement and actual merit equate?

“How much?” I asked.

“Trophies this size are generally for kids,” Seidel explained. “And they’re not really for individuals; they’re for teams. They’re meant to go in clubhouses—that sort of thing.”

“Oh, I was just joking around,” I lied. “So tell me about the biggest trophy you ever received.”

“I actually never got a trophy,” Seidel said. “Once I won a businessman of the year, award, but it didn’t come with a trophy or anything.”

A scene from the awards convention.

A scene from the awards convention.

I’ll leave it to the psychologists to determine whether Seidel’s inability to leave the trophy industry connects up with his never having received a trophy himself.

“But who knows,” Seidel added, “Maybe this year I’ll win a Golden Obelisk ...”

The Awards and Recognition Association gives out the Golden Obelisks. Think of them as the awards awards. They recognize achievement in achievement recognition. The awards suppliers place their trophies on a dozen tables at the side of the convention hall, and the distributors walk past the trophies, pen and clipboard in hand, and rate them.

This year’s Obelisk contenders included an engraved wooden cutting board, an engraved silver soup ladle, a watch-shaped walnut desk accessory, a custom resin of the Four Horsemen from Notre Dame University, and something called a “Shemp-Fest Pie Melee Award” that looked like an explosion of lard held together with wire-hanger pieces.

I cast a mental ballot for the ladle.

I’m standing in the R.S. Owens booth. Owens, a Chicago-based company, manufactures the Academy Awards. I assumed the booth of the company that makes the Oscars would be bigger and flashier than the rest, but it isn’t. If anything, it’s understated. But maybe its modesty is false, like that of a Harvard grad who says she attended “a small liberal arts college in Boston.” I can imagine an Owens worker telling me, “Oh, us? We do the trophies for this little California-based movie competition thingy.”

One other observation about the Owens booth: You know those Oscar-shaped awards that say things like “Best Dad Award,” and “Teamwork Award” and “Rising Star Award”? Well, R. S. Owens manufactures those, too.

I exit the booth and walk towards the registration area, where I’m all set to interview the man in charge of the entire awards convention ...

Dave Bergeson reminds me of Wolf Blitzer and servers as the Executive Director of the Awards and Recognition Association. That means he’s in charge of the Golden Obelisks, too.

“The Obelisk Awards are very meaningful.” Bergeson tells me. “The golds are particularly meaningful, but the clears are significant, too. You’d think that the last thing an award-maker would want is an award. But people love getting Obelisks. Some even cry.”

Scenes from the awards convention.

Scenes from the awards convention.

“And what makes the Obelisks so meaningful?”

“It’s not about the Obelisk; it’s not about the award; it’s about the recognition. That’s what’s meaningful. The awards are just a symbol to capture the recognition.”

“I agree,” I said. “But that answer almost begs the question. What makes a particular recognition meaningful?”

“Let me answer that with an anecdote: My three-year-old was in a park district sports program—actually, it wasn’t a ‘sports’ program so much as it was a run-around-and-kick-whichever-ball-is-in-your-way program. Well, on the last day, my son’s coach”—Bergeson used air quotes around the word “coach”—“gave him a silly little medal. But Ben—that’s my son—showed it to everybody for weeks. He was so proud of it. It was a wonderful feeling for me, too—as somebody in the industry, and as a parent.”

A scene from the awards convention.

A scene from the awards convention.

Bergeson’s point, I assume, is that if a silly little metal awarded for kicking around a ball can be meaningful, then any award can. At the end of the day, it’s not about the award; it’s about how presenters handle the presentation, and about how the recipient feels.

So let’s look back to the question I posed earlier: How good should you feel about yourself if you’re presented with a Marilyn Mozzarella Pizza Rella Pie Parlor Employee of the Week certificate? We now have an answer: You should feel as good as you damn well want to. You earned it.

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