Tinsel Town is getting ready to celebrate itself Sunday with the 93rd Academy Awards ceremony. Every once in a while, Hollywood produces a real-life drama where good triumphs in the end. Like what happened when a child’s Oscar was taken by a thief.
The 1930s and 40s saw unrivaled talent on the silver screen. And Margaret O’Brien’s cheerful face was right there alongside the Golden Age of Hollywood’s greats.
You may not recognize 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. To recap: Dad is about to drag the family cross-country to New York, leaving St. Louie right as the much-anticipated 1904 World’s Fair is set to open. Said family is 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.” Yeah, Margaret O’Brien was that little girl.
The movie was a hit, and Margaret was rewarded with a special Oscar statuette just for kids called the Academy Juvenile Award. It was presented only 12 times, starting in 1934 with (who else?) Shirley Temple and concluding with Hayley Mills in 1960. (From then on, children competed in the regular categories with adults.)
The statuette was a scaled-down Oscar standing just seven inches tall. Bob Hope jokingly called it an “Oscarette.”
O’Brien’s mother wrote an acceptance speech, which was dutifully memorized. But young Margaret was understandably blown away by all the excitement and when the big moment came she forgot it, instead blurting out, “I don’t know what to say. Thank you so much!” As she dryly recalls, “My mother wasn’t very pleased.”
Good roles kept coming, including Beth March in “Little Women.” Unfortunately, puberty eventually came, too. The roles dried up as she became a teenager. Margaret O’Brien learned the painful lesson almost every child star experienced the hard way: Cute Kid rarely makes the transition to Successful 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 died when she was young.) One room in their home was dedicated to Margaret’s movie memorabilia, including her beloved Oscarette.
One day the family’s maid asked if she could take Margaret’s little Oscar home with her and polish it. Sure, the mom said; the maid had done that before. No problem.
But this time, the maid never came back.
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 remaining parent was naturally upsetting, and Margaret didn’t have time to think about her missing statuette. When she finally called about it a few months later, the phone number was disconnected. 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 just wasn’t the same. If you’ve ever lost a wedding or class ring, you know how she felt.
Everyone told her to let it go and move on. But Margaret clung to a hope that one day she would be reunited with her special statuette.
Time passed. Then in the 1990s, as they said in those wonderfully cheesy old movies, the plot thickened.
Two men, dealers in Hollywood movie collectibles, were at a California flea market pawing through odds and ends. 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 later spotted a photo of it in a catalog for an upcoming auction of movie memorabilia, contacted the dealers, and told them the 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, the stolen Oscar was presented to her again, making her one of the very few recipients who’ve received the very same Oscar—twice.
Hollywood couldn’t have scripted a happier ending. Just ask Margaret O’Brien.