Though the ceremony is four months away, the countdown for the annual Academy Awards, Tinseltown's tribute to its own, will soon begin. In upcoming weeks, newspaper ads will tout the names of movie stars who would, figuratively speaking, kill to win the statuette.
But for those who can't wait, another kind of award will be handed out next week--one that really requires its nominees to go out and kill. It's called the Roy E. Weatherby Big Game Trophy, regarded by sportsmen the world over as the Oscar of the hunting world.
In at least one respect, those familiar with the award say, the Weatherby is even more prestigious to bag.
"The Oscar you can win twice or more," says Dante Marrocco, a semi-retired South Bay developer and one of six finalists for this year's award. "The Weatherby you can win only once."
On Tuesday, Marrocco, 62, will travel to the grand ballroom of the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills for the Weatherby awards ceremony, a black-tie affair limited to 300 or so invited guests, some of whom are known beyond big game hunter circles. For example, this year's judges include former Secretary of Commerce Maurice Stans and His Imperial Highness Abdorreza Pahlavi, brother of the deposed Shah of Iran.
Actor Stewart Granger will present the Weatherby to one of the nominees, all men, who this year hail from four states and Mexico. The winner will lug home a 4 1/2-foot-high trophy adorned with walnut inlays, a gold-plated cup and two miniature sheep figures.
The whole affair is becoming old hat to Marrocco, who has been nominated for the annual award six or seven times by his count. Indeed, C. J. McElroy, a past Weatherby winner and the founder and chairman of Safari Club International, a Tucson-based hunting and conservation group, said he first proposed that Marrocco be nominated 10 years ago. As one might expect, he feels it's his friend's turn to win.
"This guy has hunted more than any of the guys nominated," McElroy, 72, said in a telephone interview. "He has taken more species of game and hunted more extensively than any of them."
To be nominated for the award, a hunter must meet several criteria. No. 1, he must be rich, or have a rich sponsor, because the Weatherby is given to a sportsman who has traveled to many continents and killed a large number of hard-to-find animals. A nominee's efforts toward conservation are also taken into account.
"The award is not for a particular record, but for lifetime achievement in big-game hunting," said Weatherby, the 75-year-old South Gate firearms manufacturer who established the award in 1956. "These people are ranked with the greatest hunters of all time."
Marrocco, who maintains homes in Rancho Palos Verdes and in his native Italy, fits that bill. In all, he estimates that he has spent $1 million or more to hunt since he was in his 20s, traveling to 40 countries and six continents to bag hundreds of different species of animals.
The trophy room at his hilltop home in Rancho Palos Verdes offers proof of his exploits. Two 105-pound elephant tusks--souvenirs from one of many hunting excursions he has made to Africa--form an archway at the door of a room, where more than 250 stuffed animals stare blankly at one another. Marrocco said he is contemplating building a bigger home with a bigger room to display another 200 or so trophies he has stored here and there.
Some of Marrocco's proudest trophies include an African bongo, an antelope; a Siberian ibex, a breed of wild goat; a Marco Polo sheep from Afghanistan; a rhebok, another antelope from Africa; and a dik-dik, a n Ethiopian antelope that is only about a foot long and weighs 10 or 12 pounds.
Marrocco said he does not shoot female animals or endangered species, only older males. In the case of the antelope and goats, their ages can roughly be determined by the size of their horns, and Marrocco said he has spent hours peering through a spyglass to determine if an animal's horns were big enough to classify it as trophy material. Before he shot the Marco Polo sheep, he said, he spent six hours studying its horns.
"Many people who read stories about big-game hunters think we just go out and shoot animals," Marrocco said. "But most are taken with government approval" and it can takes months or years to get the necessary permit to hunt them.
"The type of hunting we do is entirely different from people who, for instance, go out and shoot deer, " Marrocco added. "We're really not what we call the killers. We take the oldest male animals, which we call the trophy."
Marrocco, who killed his first animal--a bird--on his grandfather's farm in Italy when he was six, said he has slowed down his hunting activities in recent years because of poor health. However, he said he would like to make one last trip to Pakistan to hunt for a markhor, a goat with horns like corkscrews that he says can be found only in that country and Afghanistan.
Just like the Academy Awards, it appears that the Weatherby has generated some controversy, with McElroy claiming that the award has become tainted in recent times by the judges' prejudices. Many of the judges, McElroy asserts, belong to another hunter's group, the Shikar Safari Club, and therefore favor their own members when it comes to awarding the Weatherby.
Weatherby pooh-poohs the idea that politics plays a part in the award process. While four of the nine judges, including him, are Shikar members, he said he doesn't care "who belongs to what as long as the winner meets the qualifications."
While he did not elaborate, Marrocco said he doesn't believe he will win the award this year. Nevertheless, the Weatherby, he said, is to be cherished. "It is the most desirable trophy given to a hunter not only as a hunter, but also as a sportsman," he said.