What Will Oscar Ceremony Look Like? Like It Did in the 1950s (but in Color)

Tim Gray
·4-min read

Some pundits worry that the Oscar ceremony won’t feel like the real thing, because the late date (April 25) is disorienting and because the show will be divided between two venues, L.A.’s Union Station and the traditional Dolby Theatre. In truth, a fluid date and multiple locations go back to Oscar’s earliest days.

The first televised ceremony in 1953 had cameras in both Hollywood and New York, a tactic that continued through 1957. Even before that, Oscar included live segments. So this is a return to the original format.

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Early ceremonies were broadcast on radio; in 1940, the show stopped for its first live remote, which was Franklin D. Roosevelt’s six-minute address to showbiz. (Yes, politics and Oscar have always mixed.)

In 1951, ABC Radio aired the Oscars. Lead actor contender José Ferrer was starring in the comedy “20th Century” on Broadway with fellow nominee Gloria Swanson, so he scheduled a modest Oscar-night birthday party for her at Manhattan’s La Zambra nightclub. Once ABC’s PR people discovered the plan, the guest list ballooned and 280 people showed up, as Variety reported. Of course the PR people made sure there was a radio linkup with Hollywood, a decision that paid off, since La Zambra hosted both lead-acting winners Ferrer and Judy Holliday.

That bicoastal setup was retained when Oscar made his 1953 TV debut, with cameras at Hollywood’s Pantages and Gotham’s NBC Intl. Theatre. After five years, that was discontinued: Variety reported a then-huge $100,000 pricetag to stage the two-venue show, which translates to about $1 million today.

Since then, live remotes have been rare but memorable. In 1991, the crew of Space Shuttle Atlantis sent congrats to Thalberg winner George Lucas. Arthur C. Clarke was patched in from Sri Lanka in 2001 to present adapted screenplay with Tom Hanks, who was onstage at the Shrine.

The 85th awards, for the films of 2012, offered an unlikely combo: First Lady Michelle Obama at the White House and Jack Nicholson at the Dolby, as they announced best picture winner “Argo.”

The most multi-site ceremony was March 26, 1990. That show, based in the Chandler Pavilion, featured presenters in Buenos Aires (Charlton Heston, Norma Leandro), London (Glenn Close, Mel Gibson), Moscow (Jack Lemmon, Natalya Negoda) and Sydney (Brian Brown, Rachel Ward). And the world was a better place for this global approach.

Why did the Academy and ABC do these remote segments? Well, why not? The real question is why satellite remotes haven’t been more frequent. Technology has evolved a lot since 1953 and these are all reminders of Oscar’s worldwide reach.

On paper, the 93rd Academy Awards show may seem odd, but producers Steven Soderbergh, Jesse Collins and Stacey Sher are smart and talented people, so it will definitely be interesting.

The other “oddity” this year is the late date — a full four months after the New York, Boston and L.A. critics announced their 2020 winners. This awards season seems like the Never-Ending Story, but the date isn’t outrageous by old standards. For the first six years of the Oscars, the ceremony moved from May to April to November, as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences fiddled with time more than “Palm Springs” and “Tenet” combined.

For Oscar’s first six years, the eligibility period was Aug. 1 to July 31, so early awards honored films of late-1927/early-’28 and so on. It wasn’t until the seventh ceremony, for the films of 1934, that the eligibility period was within one calendar year. And the ceremony generally took place in late March or early April, sometimes as late as April 17 (in 1961).

That general timeframe lasted for decades, but Oscar jumped a month early starting with the 76th event (the winner: “The Lord of the Rings: the Return of the King,” 2003). Pundits and strategists were horrified at the early date and complained loudly and frequently. Clearly, we’ve adapted.

(Pictured: Rosemary Clooney and Jose Ferrer arriving at the New York ceremony, 1953; in Los Angeles, “Greatest Show on Earth” winner Cecil B. DeMille.)

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