They arrived at the Academy Awards ceremony Monday in Los Angeles thrilled just to have great seats. More than three hours later, Washington filmmakers Marjorie Hunt and Paul Wagner had won an Oscar -- and were beside themselves:
"Excited, floating on air, it's really very fairy-tale," Hunt laughed long-distance from Los Angeles yesterday morning.
Hunt, 30, a Smithsonian Institution folklorist, and Wagner, 36, a Washington-based independent filmmaker, walked away with the award for Best Documentary Short Subject for their film "The Stone Carvers," a look at the artisans who have spent the past two decades carving the gargoyles and statues that embellish the Washington Cathedral.
The two, who call themselves "very good friends" and "a good team," passed one telephone back and forth in a Los Angeles hotel, excitedly, laughingly recounting their Oscar night.
"They had been showing the [nominated] films at the Los Angeles International Film Exposition," said Hunt. "We were able to see some of the competition, and we realized that it was very stiff competition. We were feeling sort of philosophical about it. We really went not knowing what would happen."
Said Wagner, "It happened very early, so we could really enjoy it. In fact, going in we said, 'Well, at least it will be over early so we can really enjoy the evening.' "
Said Hunt, "Our film was the last one of the nominees that they announced, and then, without skipping a beat, they announced the winner was 'The Stone Carvers.' We just leapt out of our seats and went up with our feet barely touching the ground."
They were stunned. "We're not part of the Hollywood scene, so it really did seem amazing," Hunt said.
"The combination of being thrust into Hollywood with all these great stars and then winning and Jessica Lange coming up to you and saying congratulations -- " Wagner stopped. "Well, we were all sort of milling around and not that they really know who you are, but when you have an Oscar in your hand," he laughed, "they notice you."
They drove out of the parking lot of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in their rented Renault, and as fans lining the sidewalks saw them with their statuettes, they shouted, "Oscar! Oscar!" Wagner and Hunt triumphantly held their Oscars up to the car windows.
After all that excitement, they were starved.
"We had been so nervous that we hadn't been able to eat much up to that point," said Wagner. "And it's a long ceremony, and it's a long way to the Beverly Hilton hotel [for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences dinner]. So we walked into a pizza place and put our Oscars on the counter and ordered a large pepperoni pizza. The people at the place said, 'Can we hold it?' My sister came in and took a picture of that. We went next door and bought a six-pack of beer and ate in the car."
They eventually made it to the dinner dance. "Everyone was so nice," said Hunt. "We were dancing next to Placido Domingo and he stopped in midstep and said, 'Congratulations, you were wonderful.' "
"We kind of had the fun of being celebrities and fans at the same time," Wagner said.
The subjects of the film -- practitioners of the vanishing art of stone carving -- also got their share of attention.
Greek-born stone carver Constantine Seferlis wasn't watching the Academy telecast in his Garrett Park home Monday night. "You never expect too much," said Seferlis, 56.
But his children were in front of the set, and when the short-documentary category came up, they called for their father. By the time he got to the television, the children were jumping up and down excitedly. Almost immediately after that, the telephone began ringing.
When Seferlis, who is currently restoring carvings on the Smithsonian Castle, showed up for work this morning, he got more applause. "They said, 'Oh, the celebrity.' I pretended. I said, 'Oh, it was my brother.' "
Seferlis, a carver for the last 35 years, spent 18 years working on the Washington Cathedral. "I made most of the gargoyles," he said. Seferlis, who grew up in Sparta, studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Athens. He said of his craft, "It seems I was always preparing for it. When I was a boy, always I had a little knife and a piece of wood to carve." At the age of 12, he learned to play chess and carved a set of hardwood chessmen in a month.
Washington Cathedral master carver Vincent Palumbo also started getting telephone calls as soon as the award was announced. Yesterday he arrived at the cathedral to a real reception. "Everybody was happy," Palumbo said. "They've been bringing me cake and champagne."
Palumbo, 48, has worked on the cathedral for 24 years. He learned stone carving in Italy and comes from a long line of artisans including a father who was a sculptor and a grandfather who was a carver and builder. "Right now I'm carving a bust of President Ford in Italian marble," Palumbo said. "It will be in the Capitol building."
WETA (Channel 26) will rebroadcast "The Stone Carvers" Thursday, April 4, at 8:30 p.m. and Friday, April 5, at 11 p.m.
Hunt and Wagner said the film is not about architecture but about the practitioners of an art form. "We hope this film will bring them the recognition they deserve," Hunt said. "They've given so much to the city."
Hunt, who is writing a dissertation on stone carvers for a PhD in folklore from the University of Pennsylvania, first encountered the stone carvers seven years ago. "I came down and heard about these stone carvers and went down to the cathedral and knocked on their doors . . . I brought them to the Festival of American Folklife in the fall of 1978."
Hunt and Wagner, already friends, talked about doing a project together on the stone carvers. It was Hunt's first film. Wagner, who has worked in Washington for five years, counts among his film credits the acclaimed documentary on black Pullman car porters, "Miles of Smiles, Years of Struggle," a film he made with folklorist Jack Santino.
The two began the film in 1981 and finished it last summer. They were supported by grants from the National Endowment for the Arts (also honored at the Oscars ceremony), the D.C. Community Humanities Council and the Cafritz Foundation.
Hunt, Wagner and folklorist Steven Zeitlin are currently making a short film on aging. Wagner is also trying to develop two feature films: a docudrama on an 1848 attempted mass slave escape in Washington and a film about the birth of rock 'n' roll.
What will the Oscar do for his career?
"I have no idea," Wagner said. "I assume it won't hurt it."