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The "Why" Behind "y"

The Oscars: 70 years of showbiz 'firsts'

In this story: Jim Moret March 20, 1998
Web posted at: 12:20 p.m. EST (1720 GMT)

By Jim Moret
CNN Senior Entertainment Correspondent

HOLLYWOOD (CNN) -- If you join the estimated 1 billion people around the world who will take in the most watched award show in history Monday, take note: it hasn't always been this way.

Consider this your primer on seven decades of Academy Awards firsts.

A mega-event's modest beginnings

What is now Hollywood's biggest event of the year has modest origins.

The first ceremony was an intimate affair for industry insiders. On May 16, 1929, at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, 273 people shelled out $5 a ticket to attend.

That year, "Wings" soared as best picture. Janet Gaynor was named best actress and Emil Jannings accepted best actor award by telegram.

The second ceremony was broadcast live on radio. It's been covered live since.

Oscar historian Robert Osborne noted that early on, the Academy Awards "had no tradition, so for the first few years it took awhile for the Academy to grow in importance enough that people really lusted after the Oscars and really wanted them."

The 1934 film "It Happened One Night" scored the first Oscar sweep. The Frank Capra comedy won best picture, best director, best actor, best actress and best adapted screenplay.

"Gone With The Wind" was the first color film to win best picture. The 1939 classic blew the competition away to win a total of eight Oscars, including best picture, best director and best actress, Vivien Leigh.


The statuette for best supporting actress went to Hattie McDaniel, the first African-American artist honored by the Academy.

But even before the envelopes were opened that night, the secrets were splashed across the front of The Los Angeles Times.

"They had jumped the gun and there was the newspaper saying, '"Gone With The Wind" wins. Vivien Leigh wins, Olivia De Havilland loses,' so a lot of people didn't go because they lost the award," Osborne recounted.

The Academy promptly set up a strict plan to keep the winners a secret from the media.

Lights, cameras, crowds!

Columnist Jim Bacon first covered the Oscars for The Associated Press in 1948 when, he recalls, perhaps 20 reporters turned out.

"You had tickets to sit in the audience and then when the big winners went, you went backstage," Bacon said. This year more than 1,100 will have media credentials.


Variety columnist Army Archerd has been covering the awards for more than a half century. "It's enormous -- I mean, the press rooms are. You'd think there was a Democratic or Republican convention, the number of tables that are set up there," she said.

Bacon agrees things have changed. "It's a madhouse now. Just too many people back there -- back there they had maybe 500 or 600. It's pure chaos."

The reason for worldwide Oscar fever? Television. In 1953, the Oscars became the first awards show to be telecast, and it drew 76 percent of the audience.

"X" ratings, juveniles and the bully pulpit

As ratings grew, Hollywood played its own ratings game in 1969, when John Schlesinger's "Midnight Cowboy" -- the first big studio flick to be branded "X" -- won best picture.

For years, the Oscar competition was also an "adults only" proposition.

"Juvenile" performers such as Shirley Temple, Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland had to make do with honorary awards. The younger set began claiming genuine Oscar gold when 16-year-old Patty Duke won best supporting actress for the 1962 film "The Miracle Worker."

While most actors and other artists regard the Oscar as the greatest accolade of their peers, several have not.

In 1972, Marlon Brando was named best actor for "The Godfather." He sent a "thanks but no thanks" via someone calling herself Sacheen Littlefeather.

"What Marlon Brando has in his heart is that the image of Native Americans in this country of the United States should be changed," she told a bewildered audience. She was later identified as a professional actress named Maria Cruz.

Brando was one of the first to use the ceremonies as a bully pulpit. Since then, a number of participants have used the event to pitch for a cause.

'The show must go on'

Oscar producers clearly subscribe to the adage "the show must go on." The ceremony has been postponed only three times: by flooding in 1938, the funeral of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 and the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan in 1981.


While the event's main purpose is to hand out awards, the fact the Oscars are a major television event demands that there be a host to draw in the home audience.

"There's just a handful of people that have been terrific at doing the job," Osborne said.

Bob Hope has hosted more Oscar ceremonies than anyone: 16. The roster of previous hosts also includes David Niven, Johnny Carson and Whoopi Goldberg.

Billy Crystal returns for his sixth appearance as host Monday. If you are among those participating from your armchair, watch closely: you may see another in the long list of Oscar firsts.


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Special Section: The 70th Annual Academy Awards

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