(Originally published in LA STAGE Times)
A sleek figure with arms raised victoriously has been the symbol of triumph at the Ovation Awards for nearly 20 years.
But the grace and simplicity of the aqua-tinted resin statuette masks its colorful history and a painstaking manufacturing process that is nearly worthy of an Ovation Award itself.
Planning the first Ovation ceremony in 1989, the board of directors of Theatre LA (the previous name of LA STAGE Alliance) came up with the idea to ask a well-known local artist to design the honorees’ statuette, in order to celebrate the connection between theater and the other arts in Los Angeles.
Current board member and former board presidentPaula Holt says the board decided on local sculptorRobert Graham. Holt met with him at his studio in Venice to discuss their options.
“He was a very intimidating man. He had this shock of gray hair,” Holt says.
Although most of Graham’s work consisted of large sculptures intended for public installation, one smaller figure caught Holt’s eye — a bronze statuette with two faces, each set in a different direction. Graham offered to donate the statue, valued at more than $10,000, so the board needed only to pay the foundry costs to make multiples. Holt couldn’t refuse the generous offer.
“He hands it to me, wraps it up in an old T-shirt, and I walk out of his studio, which at the time was not in the safest area, with this [valuable] statue under my arm,” Holt says. “It wasn’t really what I thought we would be doing, but he’s offering it.”
Once they saw the piece, board members pointed out that the statue was extremely heavy and wondered if Graham would be able to create something lighter. But Holt wasn’t so sure it was appropriate to dictate terms for an artist’s original work.
“Someone said if Betty Garrett, who I think weighs 90 pounds, got this award, she’d have a hard time lifting it,” Holt says. “It’s not that they were wrong. They were right. But this is a piece of art that we’re using as an award. You don’t go to an artist and say, ‘Would you mind making this painting blue?’”
Perhaps not surprisingly, Graham did not take kindly to Holt’s request that he make the statue lighter.
“Robert Graham, with a more than a touch of annoyance, says to me, ‘If you want a bowling trophy, go buy a bowling trophy’,” Holt says.
The board went with Graham’s statue, and distributed one to each Ovation winner and honoree. At the time, the Ovations were non-competitive lifetime achievement awards. In 1989, 1991 and 1992, 31 of these were distributed.
But soon it became clear that though the statues were beautiful, they weren’t a good fit for a large and rapidly expanding awards show. Beginning in the 1993-1994 theater season, the Ovations became a competition that mostly recognized individual achievements during a year, not lifetime achievements. In 1994 alone, 24 of these competitive awards were chosen.
“It would have blown our budget” to continue making so many of the Graham statuettes, recalls Bill Freimuth, who was executive director of Theatre LA at the time. And recipients often commented on how heavy the statue was at the moment it was handed to them. Freimuth recalls hearing from a prominent artistic director and board member that the recipients should be able to lift the award over their heads with one hand in their moments of triumph.
So the Graham statues were phased out in 1993. Freimuth’s idea was to show a figure accepting an ovation at a curtain call. He wanted to use non-traditional materials, such as glass or acrylic.
Chris Komuro, currently art director at Center Theater Group and at the time a freelance graphic designer working with Theatre LA, was asked to create a clay prototype of the award and design the corresponding marketing campaign. Komuro asked a co-worker from Center Theatre Group’s press office, Joel Hile, to do a bit of modeling for inspiration.
“He pulled me into a rehearsal room with his camera and took photographs of me in a multitude of dramatic poses — an actor onstage doing Shakespearean, overly dramatic poses,” says Hile, who is now director of public relations for Pasadena Playhouse.
One pose had Hile’s arms raised up as though he were getting ready to take a bow.
“That one came to stick, and the next thing I knew it was up on a billboard,” Hile says.
From Komuro’s clay prototype, the manufacturing of the Ovation statues has fallen to one man — artist Philip Hitchcock. Hitchcock worked with Freimuth to refine Komuro’s mock-up, considering various materials such as black Lucite and marble and color schemes including reddish-amber. Eventually they settled on resin in the current shade of light aqua, which provided an optical, transparent feel.
“In some ways that was a big disadvantage because it’s very difficult to work with. It’s very unforgiving when you have something optical like that,” Hitchcock says. “It tends to show everything; a solid bronze statue wouldn’t.”
Hitchcock, along with some helpers, makes each statue by hand by pouring catalyzed polyester resin into silicone molds. Each statue is then polished with five grades of sandpaper, two grades of steel wool, silver polish and wax, and glued onto an acrylic base which holds an engraved silver plate.
After making the statues for nearly 20 years, Hitchcock says he and his assistants have tried simplifying the process, but they always come up short.
“Every time someone new comes in they want to reinvent the wheel: ‘Couldn’t we do this with sponge sanding, or something?’” Hitchcock says. “And we’ve tried everything. We’ve exhausted every possibility out there. The only thing that works is sanding them methodically by hand.”
Hitchcock, who has lived in St. Louis since 2005, says it’s gratifying to see his work handed out year after year, especially to high-profile recipients who have included the likes of Annette Bening, David Hyde Pierce and Neil Patrick Harris. He even got a personal message from one Lifetime Achievement winner — Ian McKellen.
“He sent me an email saying he’s sitting at his piano now admiring how beautiful and graceful the statue is, and what pleasure it’s bringing to him and his music,” Hitchcock says. “I was just like, ‘Holy crap, I just got an email from Ian McKellen!’”
Holt says both the current award and Graham’s original statue are beautiful, and it’s important to appreciate Graham’s generosity even though his design didn’t stick. His contribution remains one of the largest that LA STAGE Alliance has ever received.
“I think Robert Graham was never acknowledged properly,” Holt says. “The award we have now is quite beautiful and really appropriate. I have one of my own that sits in my library; I’m thrilled. But I can’t tell you how thrilled I would have been to have that Robert Graham. I loved that too.”
Although Graham died in 2008, his statue “remains a treasured possession of LA STAGE Alliance,” says Terence McFarland, the CEO of the organization.
Meanwhile, in 2004, Freimuth got a job at the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS), and in 2008 he was promoted there to the position of vice president, awards. He manages the Grammy Awards — which is somewhat more challenging than managing the Ovations. The annual number of Grammy entries is around 17,500, Freimuth says.
But Freimuth is glad he managed the Ovations earlier in his career. “Being able to understand and clearly describe the Ovation Awards process,” he testified, “is what got me the job.”