History of the Academy Awards

Far from the eagerly anticipated and globally televised event it is today, the first Academy Awards ceremony took place out of the public eye during an Academy banquet at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. Two hundred seventy people attended the May 16, 1929 dinner in the hotel’s Blossom Room; guest tickets cost $5. It was a long affair filled with speeches, but Academy President Douglas Fairbanks made quick work of handing out the statuettes.

No Surprises

There was little suspense when the awards were presented that night: the recipients had already been announced three months earlier. That all changed the following year, however, when the Academy decided to keep the results secret until the ceremony but gave a list in advance to newspapers for publication at 11 p.m. on the night of the Awards. This policy continued until 1940 when, much to the Academy’s consternation, the Los Angeles Times broke the embargo and published the names of the winners in its evening edition – which was readily available to guests arriving for the ceremony. That prompted the Academy in 1941 to adopt the sealed-envelope system still in use today.

Fifteen statuettes were awarded at the first ceremony for cinematic achievements in 1927 and 1928. The first Best Actor winner was acclaimed German tragedian Emil Jannings, who had to return to Europe before the ceremony. The Academy granted his request to receive the trophy early, making his statuette the very first Academy Award ever presented.

Public Interest Grows Quickly

The first presentation was the only one to escape a media audience; by the second year, enthusiasm for the Awards was such that a Los Angeles radio station produced a live one-hour broadcast of the event. The ceremony has been broadcast ever since.

The Academy continued to hand out the awards at banquets – held at the Ambassador and Biltmore hotels – until 1942, when increased attendance made these dinner ceremonies impractical. Starting with the 16th Oscar ceremony, which was held at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, the event has always been held at a theater.

In 1953, the first televised Oscar ceremony enabled millions throughout the United States and Canada to watch the proceedings. Broadcasting in color began in 1966, affording home viewers a chance to fully experience the dazzling allure of the event. Since 1969, the Oscar show has been broadcast internationally, now reaching movie fans in over 200 countries.

More Academy Awards Milestones

  • 1st Awards – Recognizing the need to honor achievements that didn’t fit into fixed categories, the Academy presented two special awards at the very first ceremony in 1929: one to Warner Bros. for producing the pioneering talking picture “The Jazz Singer,” and one to Charles Chaplin for producing, directing, writing and starring in “The Circus.”
  • 2nd Awards – The number of categories was reduced from 12 to seven: two for acting and one each for Outstanding Picture, Directing, Writing, Cinematography and Art Direction. Since then, the number of awards has slowly increased.
  • 7th Awards – Film Editing, Music Scoring, and Song were added to the categories honoring films released in 1934. The year also brought the first write-in campaign, seeking to nominate Bette Davis for her performance in “Of Human Bondage.” (Academy rules now prohibit write-ins on the final ballot.) Also that year, the Academy retained the accounting firm of Price Waterhouse to tabulate the ballots and ensure the secrecy of the results. The firm, now called PricewaterhouseCoopers, continues to tabulate the voting to this day.
  • 9th Awards – The first Supporting Actor and Supporting Actress Academy Awards are presented, for performances in films of 1936. The honors went to Walter Brennan for “Come and Get it” and Gale Sondergaard for “Anthony Adverse.”
  • 10th Awards – The Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award was presented for the first time at the ceremony held in 1938. The honor went to Darryl F. Zanuck.
  • 12th Awards – Fred Sersen and E. H. Hansen of 20th Century Fox were the first winners of the Academy Award for Special Effects. They were honored for their work in the 1939 film “The Rains Came.”
  • 14th Awards – In 1941, a documentary category appeared on the ballot for the first time.
  • 20th Awards – The first special award to honor a foreign language motion picture was given in 1947 to the Italian film “Shoe-Sine.” Seven more special awards were presented before Foreign Language Film became an annual category in 1956.
  • 21st Awards – Costume Design was added to the ballots for 1948.
  • 25th Awards – For the first time, the Oscar presentation was televised. The NBC-TV and radio network carried the ceremony, honoring the films of 1952, live from Hollywood with Bob Hope as master of ceremonies, and from the NBC International Theatre in New York with Conrad Nagel as host.
  • 29th Awards – The Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award was established and Y. Frank Freeman was its first recipient.
  • 36th Awards – The Special Effects Award was divided into Sound Effects and Special Visual Effects beginning with the honors for films released in 1963.
  • 38th Awards – The Oscar ceremony in 1966 was the first to be televised in color.
  • 41st Awards – The April 14, 1969, Oscar ceremony was the first major event held at the new Dorothy Chandler Pavilion of the Los Angeles County Music Center.
  • 54th Awards – Makeup became an annual category, with Rick Baker winning for his work on the 1981 movie “An American Werewolf in London.” The Gordon E. Sawyer Award, recognizing technological contributions to the industry, was established.
  • 74th Awards – The Animated Feature Film Award is added, with “Shrek” winning for 2001.

The Show Must Go On

Only three times in its more than 80-year history has the Academy Awards failed to take place as scheduled. The first was in 1938, when massive flooding in Los Angeles delayed the ceremony by a week. In 1968 the Awards ceremony was postponed from April 8 to April 10 out of respect for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who had been assassinated a few days earlier, and whose funeral was held on April 9. In 1981 the Awards were once again postponed, this time for 24 hours because of the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan.

In 2003, U.S. forces invaded Iraq on the Thursday before the telecast. The show went on as scheduled, but the red carpet was limited to the area immediately in front of the theater entrance, the red carpet bleachers were eliminated and the majority of the world’s press was disinvited. The next year, the red carpet was back in full force, with all its glamour and sizzle.

Related Links

Oscar Legacy

View a summary of each show by year, including host, best picture winner and location.