The Oscars' Humble Beginnings

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Long before viewers were fixated on red carpet arrivals, acceptance speeches and winning their office pools, the Oscars barely made headlines. The very first Academy Awards show, held on May 16, 1929, was a far cry from the ridiculously over-the-top production it is today. There’s no way the mere 270 guests who attended the ceremony at the Blossom Room in the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel could have ever imagined the importance these awards would one day hold for the film industry. With the 84th Annual Academy Awards airing this Sunday on ABC, the awards show’s humble beginnings may surprise you.

There’s little chance nominees at the inaugural event spent the ceremony with their fingers crossed. Winners were known ahead of time—way ahead of time. The actors, actresses and producers who would take home top honors were notified three months in advance. Nominees starred in films released between August 1, 1927 and August 1, 1928, when the average cost of a movie ticket was twenty-five cents. Those who attended had to pay a $5 admission fee, which was equivalent to the cost of twenty movie tickets during that time. So not only did the Awards lack suspense, they weren’t exactly the most affordable option for a struggling actor. Not surprisingly, out of the 270 guests who attended, the majority of them were members of the Academy.

Forget clever banter and odd couple-esque presenters. Douglas Fairbanks, the president of the Academy, hosted and gave out a paltry twelve awards. Awards could be given for a single achievement, several achievements, or for a whole body of work during the course of the year. For example, actress Janet Gaynor won Best Actress for her work in three films: 7th Heaven, Street Angel, and Sunrise. Today, Gaynor could be nominated for Best Actress separately for her work in each of the three films, but could only take home a statue for one performance.

The first Awards show was also a chance for the Academy to recognize talents that didn’t necessarily fit into any specific category. They presented two special awards: One to Warner Bros. for producing The Jazz Singer, the first “talking” picture, and another to Charles Chaplin for writing, producing, directing and starring in The Circus.

The second Awards show in 1930 brought a whole new approach—the Academy decided to keep the list of winners secret until the actual ceremony, with newspapers given an embargoed list of results in advance under the agreement that they could only be published at 11 p.m. the night of the Awards. This arrangement with the press continued until 1940 when the Los Angeles Times published the list of winners in their evening edition, much to the chagrin of the Academy. That breach prompted the Academy to devise the sealed-envelope system that is still in use today.

During the second Awards show, a Los Angeles radio station produced the first live coverage of the event, a one-hour broadcast of the evening’s ceremony, and the Academy Awards have been broadcast live ever since. But it wasn’t until 1953 that the first televised Oscar ceremony shared Hollywood’s excitement with millions across the nation and Canada. In 1966, the first color broadcast aired and viewers were in awe that the glamour of the silver screen could be seen on their television screens, from the comfort of their own homes. Since 1969, the Oscars have been broadcast internationally, reaching audiences in over 225 countries.

Though the event has never been cancelled during its eighty-three-year history, the Academy Awards have been postponed three times. In 1938, Los Angeles experienced massive flooding, which delayed the ceremony by a week. In 1968, the awards show was rescheduled from April 8 to April 10 following Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination on April 4 and funeral on April 9. In 1981, the Awards were postponed for 24 hours following an assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan. When the United States invaded Iraq just days before the telecast in 2003, the show went on as planned, but under strict instructions from organizers. The red carpet was reduced to a small area directly in front of the theater’s entrance, and most of the press were no longer invited.

While the 84th Annual Academy Awards are hardly a reincarnation of their predecessors, this year’s Oscars mark another historic occasion. Billy Crystal will take the stage as the show’s host for the ninth time. Tom Hanks, Angelina Jolie, Halle Berry, Tom Cruise, Penelope Cruz, Jennifer Lopez, Cameron Diaz, Penelope Cruz, Emma Stone and the cast of Bridesmaids are among the presenters. Eighty-three years after the first ceremony Hollywood’s biggest night is still as exciting as ever.

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