David Bruce: Awards Anecdotes

Early in her career, Lillian Hellman read and evaluated plays for theatrical producer Herman Shumlin. After she had written her first play, The Children’s Hour, she left it on his desk with a note saying that this was the best play she had seen while working for him. Mr. Shumlin read her play, agreed with her assessment of it, and produced it on Broadway, where it immediately became a hit after opening on November 20, 1934. Unfortunately, because of the shocking subject matter of the play — a child unjustly accuses two teachers of being lesbians — the Pulitzer Prize Committee did not give it a prize and refused to even consider it for a prize. This infuriated so many New York critics who felt that it was the best play of the season that they formed the Drama Critics Circle and began to present their own awards.

Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel performed experiments on dangerous materials in his Nobel Laboratory in Stockholm. Unfortunately, an explosion involving nitroglycerin occurred in 1864, killing his youngest brother and several other people. Stockholm officials responded by banning experiments with nitroglycerin in the city, forcing Mr. Nobel to perform his experiments outside the city on a barge in the middle of a lake. Mr. Nobel became wealthy after inventing dynamite, but he felt guilty for having invented such a destructive substance, so he used his money to fund the Nobel Prizes, which are awarded annually in such categories as Peace, Literature, Chemistry, Physics, and Physiology or Medicine.

On May 29, 1953 at 11:30 a.m., Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became the first two men to successfully climb to the top of Mount Everest, the highest mountain in the world. Immediately, the news flashed around the world, and quickly Mr. Hillary was handed a letter addressed to Sir Edmund Hillary K.B.E. He thought at first that the letter was a joke, but then he discovered that the Queen of England had made him, a New Zealander and thus a citizen of the British Commonwealth, a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire. (Mr. Norgay, a Sherpa climbing expert, was not a citizen of the British Commonwealth, and so could not be knighted.)

When Dominique Moceanu was just an infant, her parents decided to test her strength to see if she could become a skilled gymnast. They stretched out a clothesline, allowed her to grasp it with her hands, then let go of her. They were prepared to catch her if she let go of the clothesline, but she held on to it. This test of strength convinced them that Dominique could become a skilled gymnast and they made plans to help her get the training she needed to succeed in gymnastics. In 1996, she won a gold medal at the Atlanta Olympic Games as a member of the United States women’s gymnastics team.

Oprah Winfrey was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance in her first feature film, The Color Purple, directed by Stephen Spielberg. Her father made sure that he saw the movie — it was the first he had gone to a theater to see in twenty-five years. At the Academy Awards ceremony, Ms. Winfrey did not win, but she jokes that she was relieved because her recently altered dress turned out to be too tight: “Perhaps God was saying to me, ‘Oprah, you are not winning because your dress is too tight for you to make it up all those steps to receive the statuette.’”

Edward Hitchcock was the first American to study dinosaur fossils, although he did not realize what the fossils were — the study of dinosaurs was still in its infancy then. Even as a teenager, Mr. Hitchcock demonstrated his high intelligence. A publisher once offered a prize to anyone who discovered any mathematical errors in a new nautical almanac. After young Mr. Hitchcock discovered 80 errors in the almanac, the publisher withdrew the offer of the prize.

As a teenager, Ella Fitzgerald lived on the streets of Harlem. One day, although she was wearing ragged clothing and had gone without a bath for weeks, she entered a talent contest at the Apollo Theater. The audience loved her, and she won first place, but she never received her prize. The prize was the opportunity to sing at the Apollo Theater for a week, but theater management thought that Ella was too dirty to be an entertainer. Soon afterward, Ella became a great jazz vocalist.

After Lorraine Hansberry’s play, A Raisin in the Sun, won several awards, including being named Best Play of the Season by the New York Critics Circle, making her the first African American and the youngest person ever to win the award, some people criticized her by saying that she had won the award only because she was an African American. She responded, “If I received the award because I am a Negro, then that’s the first award given to a Negro!”

Bobby Jax played in his junior high school marching band in Paragould, Arkansas, where his most memorable exploit was falling on his rear end during a halftime performance. Because of this exploit, his fellow band members implemented the annual “Bobby Jax I’ve Fallen and I Can’t Get Up Award.” Bobby good-naturedly became the recipient of the first award.

While she was in the second grade, children’s book illustrator Lane Smith entered her pet, Okie, in a dog show at school. Surprisingly, Okie was given a ribbon, and Lane’s mother praised Okie and told her that everyone was proud of her. Lane then looked at the ribbon — it said, “Participation.”

President Ronald Reagan chose American ballet master George Balanchine to be the recipient of the highest award an American citizen can receive — the Medal of Freedom. When Mr. Balanchine learned that he would be honored by the president, he joked, “Of what country?”

Here’s a trick question: How many gold medals were awarded at the first modern Olympic Games — the 1896 Games in Greece? The correct answer is zero. First-place winners were awarded silver medals, while second-place finishers were awarded bronze medals.

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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