March 27, 1989 12:00 PM

One intoxicating night in 1939, Lyle Wheeler strode down the aisle to accept his first Oscar, for art direction of the epic film Gone with the Wind. He had created and fought for all the unforgettable sets of Tara and Civil War Atlanta. “I had to argue with [David O.] Selznick about everything” recalls Wheeler of his dealings with the film’s famous producer. “I always won, too, at least in my own mind.” Over the next 36 years, he was nominated for 29 Oscars and won four—for Anna and the King of Siam (1946), The Robe (1953), The King and I (1956) and The Diary of Anne Frank (1959).

For years afterward Wheeler’s five Oscars stood proudly in the bay window of his den in the Pacific Palisades section of Los Angeles. But today, Lyle Wheeler, 84, sits forlornly in the living room of a retirement home apartment in Culver City, Calif., gazing sadly across the street at what used to be the MGM lot where he once worked. “Lyle feels his Oscars have been stolen,” says his son Brooke, 31.

Like many Hollywood productions, the story of Lyle Wheeler’s Oscars is a complicated one, full of twists of fate, compounded by insensitivity and greed. In 1982 Wheeler and his wife, Donna, suffered a series of financial reversals. Forced to sell their house to cover debts, the couple packed their belongings—including Wheeler’s Oscars—and placed them in long-term storage in Long Beach.

As Wheeler’s debts continued to mount, so did the unpaid rent on the storage unit. He was unaware that his possessions were to be auctioned off July 13, 1986, a Sunday.

That same day, Sherry, 42, a secretary, and her boyfriend, Tom, 31, a tool-and-die plant worker (both would only be interviewed over the phone and refused to disclose their last names), decided to indulge their passion for treasure hunting. At the auction, they bid $175 for 11 boxes marked WHEELER. “When we got home, we started opening the boxes,” says Sherry. “One was full of pillows, but it was heavy. When we pulled out the pillows, we found the Oscars. We didn’t know who Wheeler was.” The other boxes, filled with family pictures, sketches, scripts and bills, were “junk, worth nothing to anyone,” Sherry says.

Except, of course, to Lyle. For the next couple of years, while the five Oscars sat on Sherry and Tom’s bookshelf, Brooke and his family scoured L.A. for news of them. One day last December, Sherry spotted a newspaper article about Malcolm Willits, the owner of a movie-memorabilia store called Collectors Book Shop. Willits had sold the Best Picture Oscar for An American in Paris at his monthly mail-order auction for $15,760 and was now planning to do the same with five Oscars won by the late Mike Todd. When Willits heard about the five Wheeler Oscars, his heart skipped a beat. “I thought, ‘What a bonanza,’ ” he recalls. “It was like opening King Tut’s Tomb. The couple said they wanted to sell them one at a time and start with a lesser one, The Diary of Anne Frank. They said they wanted a minimum of $10,000 for it.”

But Willits had also been contacted by the Wheelers, and he advised Sherry and Tom to call Brooke. “They said they had the Oscars, and they wanted to let me know they were going to auction them in case I wanted to bid on them too,” Brooke says. “I asked them to reconsider, and I offered them their $175 investment back, but they were pretty firm. I guess it’s a matter of your morals. They were treating the Oscars like real estate.”

Predictably, Sherry and Tom see it otherwise. “We’re sick of being portrayed as wicked, terrible people,” says Sherry. “For years they were in storage, and none of Lyle’s kids tried to get them out for him. The Oscars are worth money now, so suddenly there’s this great interest.”

Enter the Motion Picture Academy. Mightily troubled by Willits’s less-than-spiritual approach to its statues, the Academy has obtained a temporary restraining order on the sale of the Todd Oscars. A decision on whether they can be legally sold will be given this Friday (March 24). Until then, the fate of the Wheeler statuettes remains uncertain. Lyle’s children say they would donate the Oscars to the Academy after Lyle is gone.

“I don’t blame Sherry and Tom,” says Brooke Wheeler. “They bought the Oscars in good faith. But if you found a Nobel Prize or Pulitzer Prize, most of us would want to give it back to the recipient. Everyone knows what Lyle’s done, and you can’t just sell that. It’s not just about a statuette. It’s about dignity.”

On March 29, for this year’s Academy Awards, Lyle Wheeler will be glued to his TV. Like many of those onscreen, he will be dreaming of winning Oscars—five of them, for the second time.

—Susan Reed, David Lustig in Los Angeles

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