HISTORY's Moment in Media: The First Televised Academy Awards

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With the 25th anniversary of its annual awards ceremony fast approaching in 1953, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences had a problem.  For the first time in its history, it planned to host one ceremony held concurrently in both Hollywood and New York.  Three of the big film studios, which customarily underwrote the expense of the evening, were balking at providing their usual support for such a costly bicoastal extravaganza.

So, the Academy came up with an idea for another first.  Why not take advantage of a new technology and televise Hollywood's biggest night?  It sold the rights to the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), then the owner of NBC, for six figures.  Now, the quality of television at the time was still very immature.  Bob Hope, who hosted the event in California (see video above), had to wear a blue shirt under his formal dinner jacket because white would have been too bright.  And only 64 stations got the broadcast.  Still, the show's broadcast premiere on March 19, 1953, reached 34 million people if you count radio listeners, too.

Although nearly 2,800 people in formal dress attended the proceedings in New York, the biggest stars of the evening, like Jimmy Stewart, Olivia de Havilland, Greer Garson, Gary Cooper and director John Ford, were in Hollywood at the Pantages Theater.  Those in New York watched the California presentation of the awards on small television screens scattered around the NBC International Theater at Columbus Circle.

As it turned out, some of the lesser-known names in the Hollywood crowd that night would have the biggest roles in history.  California Governor Earl Warren, who was there that night, would be nominated to head up the Supreme Court just a few months later.  Meanwhile, the announcer for the evening in California was a minor Hollywood player -- one Ronald Reagan.

Like many an Academy Awards before and since, there was a big upset for Best Picture.  In this case, a Cecil B. DeMille film, The Greatest Show on Earth, beat out the heavily favored High Noon.  Ironically, High Noon would eventually show up ranked 33rd on the American Film Institute's list of the greatest American films of the 20th century.  Meanwhile, The Greatest Show appears on multiple lists of the worst Oscar winners of all time.

The one award everyone was expecting was for Shirley Booth to win Best Actress for her role in Come Back, Little Sheba,a dark drama about a loveless marriage.  In many ways, Booth was an unlikely favorite.  Although she was a well-known stage and television actress, Sheba was her big-screen debut.  When Booth was announced, the audience in New York burst into sustained applause.  She was only the second winner from the East Coast all evening and the first for acting.  Booth was so excited that she tripped slightly on the way up to accept the statuette.

The rest of the evening went smoothly enough, though, and the show was enough of a hit right off the bat that it would go on to become an American institution.  In 1966, the Oscars would be broadcast in color for the first time.  Three years later, they would go international and be aired in more than 200 countries around the globe.

By the late 1980s, the Academy would claim that the show had a billion viewers, though the origin of that stat seems to be an AP story that didn't attribute the number to any source.  The audience is now, once again, substantially smaller, but still, it is hard to imagine a time when the Oscars ceremony wasn't beaming glamour into living rooms everywhere.

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