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The Diary of Lyle Wheeler's Oscars

February 08, 1989|DANIEL CERONE

The next Oscar for sale, scheduled for the auction block in March, was awarded to Lyle Wheeler for best art direction in 1959's "The Diary of Anne Frank."

There is one fundamental difference between this Oscar and the five already auctioned: Wheeler, the original recipient, is living and doesn't want it or any of them sold.

"I wish I had them now; I would put them up there," Wheeler, 83, said, pointing to a rattan bookshelf in the room of his Culver City retirement home.

During his 50-year career, which included more than 400 films, Wheeler was nominated for 29 art direction Academy Awards and took home five, beginning with his solo win for "Gone With the Wind" in 1939. He shared Oscars for "Anna and the King of Siam" (1946), "The Robe" (1953), "The King and I" (1956) and "Anne Frank."

Two-and-a-half years ago, after a series of broken deals and failed projects, those Oscars slipped out of Wheeler's hands, along with his home and most of his possessions.

The statuettes now belong to a Long Beach couple who, on a Sunday afternoon in July, 1986, visited a storage facility that was auctioning property belonging to tenants unable to pay their storage bills. The couple bought several plain brown boxes for $20 each.

When the two returned home and opened the boxes, they found five golden statuettes staring up at them with shiny, lidless eyes.

"We had no idea what we were buying,"said Sherry, who will not give her last name. "We've been going to auctions for years. You always hear stories of people who find rare coins or expensive jewelry. That's your big dream."

(Fearing burglary or a public backlash for selling the Oscars, Sherry and her companion, Tom, chose to reveal only their first names. They were contacted through an intermediary, and they were interviewed in a telephone conversation that they initiated.)

Immediately after the storage auction, Wheeler's wife, Donna, who died two years ago, prompted the owner of the auction company to send letters to each buyer asking for the return of some of his more valuable belongings. Much of the art designer's sketches, artwork, books, research material and personal items were returned, including 22 of his 29 Academy Award nomination plaques.

"We were not aware that the auction was taking place, or else we would have gone down there physically to buy back what we could have before it was sold," said 31-year-old Brook Wheeler, Lyle's youngest son. "My parents were always very proud. They didn't want to burden the family. And my mother did her best to hide what was happening in order to preserve Lyle's dignity."

It was not until the couple lost their home that their family realized just how deeply they had tumbled into debt. Worldpark--a major theme park intended for the area near San Simeon, Calif., that Wheeler devoted 15 years to designing--never materialized. At one point, Frederic Hope, Wheeler's grandson, had to move the couple out of a small Santa Monica motel room into an apartment and offer his grandfather a temporary job at his design firm.

Meanwhile, the Wheelers' belongings, packed up and sitting in storage, were accumulating dust--as well as unpaid storage bills in excess of $10,000.

"We respect Lyle and we're not trying to hurt him, but the Wheelers knew what their bill was," Sherry said. "They had lots of opportunities to recover their property."

The Wheeler family is conducting an investigation to determine whether the Wheelers were properly notified of the storage auction.

The "Anne Frank" Oscar is the first that the Long Beach couple are offering for sale. They say they intend to eventually sell the other statuettes. Those sales probably will be shielded from academy interference because the Oscars are no longer in the possession of Wheeler or his immediate family, said auctioneer Malcolm Willits.

"Once the gavel goes down, the buyer becomes the legal owner," Willits said. "That's true of any auction."

Marlon Brando's best actor statuette for 1954's "On the Waterfront" was sold for $13,000 last year in a private sale to a travel agent living in Glendale. That was the only other occasion Willits sold an Oscar while the original recipient was still living, he said.

"People would ask me about the Oscar; I just said they were lost," said Wheeler, who is now on a fixed income of about $1,000 a month. He spoke slowly, struggling for words and their placement. "I feel like they've been stolen, but I didn't want to say that. I just said they were lost."

"It's unfortunate that a cash value has been placed on something that doesn't really have value to anyone but the person it was awarded to," Hope said. "Lyle's achievement is his life and all the things he's done. No one can take that from him, and no one can sell it."

"We're not ogres, we're not bad people," said Sherry, who believes that her "Gone With the Wind" Oscar could sell for as much as $100,000. "But we can't afford to turn our backs on this opportunity. We're just a middle-class couple. We earn enough to make our house payment and that's it. And now we have something we can make some money with. What would you do?"

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