WEIRTON - Watching the Academy Awards has always been a big deal in the Weirton household of Rick and Deb Witkowski, where their at-home celebration includes dressing up, sipping champagne and filling out ballots to make their picks.
Even a faux Oscar statuette or two are part of the personal party where the longtime married musician-producer-composer and his WTOV-TV9 "What Would Deb Do?" area entertainment promoter take seriously viewing the show that honors Hollywood's best.
But this year, there's a new twist.
This year, Witkowski, the owner of Studio L in Weirton for more than 25 years, has a professional connection to one of the movies up for an Oscar.
And that makes watching the 85th-annual awards show that airs live Feb. 24 on ABC all the more exciting and party-worthy.
Witkowski scored original music for "Inocente," one of the five films nominated in the best documentary short subject category, its challengers being "Kings Point," "Mondays at Racine," "Open Heart" and "Redemption."
"Inocente," according to promotional material, "is an intensely personal and vibrant coming-of-age feature documentary about a young artist's fierce determination to never surrender to the bleakness of her surroundings. At 15, Inocente refuses to let her dream of becoming an artist be caged by her life as an undocumented immigrant forced to live homeless for the last nine years."
The documentary, the release goes on to note, "is both a timeless story about the transformative power of art and a timely snapshot of the new face of homelessness in America - children. Neither sentimental nor sensational, 'Inocente' will immerse you in the very real, day-to-day existence of a young girl who is battling a war that we rarely see. The challenges are staggering, but the hope in Inocente's story proves that the hand she has been dealt does not define her, her dreams do."
Witkowski's involvement was creating the vocal music that represented what Inocente would emotionally have in her head, a venture in which he enlisted the talents of Pittsburgh-area singer-songwriter Vanessa Campagna.
Together they gave sound to the story described as visually and artistically moving.
The filmakers of "Inocente" include:
Directors Sean and Andrea Nix Fine of Fine Films, whose "War/Dance" won several awards and was a 2008 Academy Award nominee for best documentary;
Yael Melamede, who co-founded the independent film production company Salty Features in 2003 with "the goal to make feature films that showcase unique vision, strong storytelling and thought-provoking subject matter;"
Emanuel Michael, president of Unison Films, a production and distribution company based in New York; and
Shine Global, a nonprofit film production company "dedicated to ending the abuse and exploitation of children through films and other media that inspire action to change." The company was founded by Susan MacLaury and Albie Hecht, who was Witkowski's connection to becoming involved in the film.
He was approached in December 2011 about doing the entire score.
"I have known him since I was back in the band called Crack the Sky," Witkowski said. "We were signed to a record label in the 1970s, and in 1975 our first first album came out and (Hecht) came to work for the record company out of Columbia. He was like a paralegal at first, and he got plugged in. We became friends, and after our band broke up, he went on and started his own video company," he continued.
Hecht moved on to become a creative consultant to MTV and Nickelodeon. "He plugged me into that company, and they started using me for doing music stuff for MTV and Nickelodeon, and we just kept our relationship going," he said.
Hecht would later become vice president of Nickelodeon. "He would throw me work, and I would (work) through their network of people, and he ended up starting Spike TV. He was the executive of that company, and then he and his wife started the documentary film company called Shine Globe," he said.
"I got contacted at the beginning of December 2011, but they kind of wanted to have it all wrapped up and done by the end of the year, and I am heavily involved in the B.E. Taylor concert at Christmas, but I definitely didn't want to turn the gig down. It ended up I was recommended to them to try to create, to bring forth sound for the girl, the music that the girl hears in her head," he said.
"The music is shared in the film. All the music you hear involving any vocal stuff is my music, and any of the other just music and no singing going on is the composer. We kind of split it up so we could have it done in a timely fashion. I was offered the whole thing, but couldn't do it because of time constraints," he said.
"The biggest challenge was finding the proper balance between melancholy and joy for the character," Witkowski said.
"They would send me these little scenes, and there would be music under it that was kind of like what they wanted something like this, so that made it a little easier," he said of the creative process.
"I got the gig and had to do a demo. Actually they wanted me to do the closing scene to see if I could come up with something emotional, so I did a demo, and they liked it, and I got the gig," he said.
Discussions, fine-tuning and a visit from one of the film's editors fueled the project to the finish line.
"They were real particular," he said of the work involved.
Describing himself as a musician first, Witkowski has been playing music since he was 12 after watching the Beatles perform on television.
"I told my mom that's what I want to do and talked them into getting me a drum set that first year for Christmas, and it started there," he said.
The musician in him evolved into music producing, recording and composing.
Studio L came to be in 1986 in a cause-and-effect kind of way.
"I was working with the B.E. Taylor group at the time, and we had a rehearsal studio that had recording equipment in it, and when the band broke up, I kind of took over the gear and moved it into my house, so officially I had a studio," he said.
Landing a contract with Macmillan/McGraw-Hill to do book-to-tape projects involving dramatic reads constituted "my first real job."
"It was a huge contract, and that afforded me the opportunity to start a business," he said. His music studio today involves "all types of music, singer-songwriters and bands, and I do jingles for commercials, and I also do music for television and film."
The jingles have been a staple for more than 20 years with local recognizable ones including Sentry Health Plan's "Here for you, there for you with the health plan ... we are there for you."
Another one is "Come ride with us," promoting the Steel Valley Regional Transit Authority.
His very first one was for the now-defunct Simon's Furniture in Weirton "Furniture of distinction at a price you can afford ... Simon's."
"I have done so many of them locally here, and I ended up getting a few national ones," said Witkowski, who did a lot of work for Nickelodeon, including collaborating on the 1993 Chips Ahoy spot, using the music "Sing, Sing, Sing" Benny Goodman piece.
In October, Witkowski said he knew "Inocente" was on the short list for an Academy Award nomination.
"There were eight films on the short list, and they usually nominate three to five, so we had almost a 50 percent chance at that point," he said.
"We didn't know until that morning of the announcements that we were actually on it. It wasn't one of the categories that they announce on TV, but as soon as that's done, then all the nominees are on the website so we went in there. It took a while to get on the site because everyone was on it, but it finally popped up, and we scrolled down, and in the best category 'Inocente' was the first one in the best short documentary," he said.
And it's worthy to be there, according to Witkowski.
"It's a very good movie," he said.
"I feel very blessed to have been a part of it," Witkowski said. "They were happy with the work, and now the work is elevated, good enough that it was nominated for an Academy Award, and it could possibly win and that in itself, just to achieve that, that's kind of good," he said.
Asked what his advice would be to young people contemplating an artistic future in the entertainment industry, Witkowski says follow your instincts.
"Follow your heart," he said. "If your heart is telling you this is what you want to get into doing, by no means don't let anything get in your way because here's a Polish guy from Weirton, West Virginia, scoring music for a movie nominated for an Academy Award," Witkowski said with a laugh and a pinch-me-is-this-real reaction.
"You'll find a way if it's really in your heart, whatever it is that you're doing," he said.
As for watching the Academy Awards, Witkowski said he and his wife, a huge fan of movies, dress up and pretend they're actually there.
"She's serious about watching," he said with a chuckle. "She's always loved movies, and she prints up ballots, and we do our voting before we watch," he said.
And as for "Inocente" and its chances of taking home the Oscar, Witkowski calls it a contender.
"I think we've got a 50-50 shot."
(Kiaski can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)