Early Emmy Awards Marked by Bedlam … and Betty White

If there are any mishaps or technical glitches at Sunday’s Emmys, just remember: It’s better than it used to be.

On Feb. 9, 1953, Variety columnist Sheilah Graham noted: “Nothing much happened at the Emmy Awards, apart from the stage proscenium falling down and conking a violinist on the head, and the mike going out of order for 10 minutes, silencing (host) Art Linkletter.” A separate article referred to the evening as “bedlam,” because the waiters and kitchen staff at the new Statler Hotel in downtown L.A. weren’t concerned with keeping quiet. Variety said this fifth edition was the most ambitious from the Academy of TV Arts & Sciences, “and possibly also the noisiest.”

The TV Academy first announced plans for the Emmy Awards at the end of 1948, presenting four Emmys at the first banquet in January 1949. The evening was the culmination of back-to-back morning and afternoon panels and seminars at the Hollywood Athletic Club. So even from the beginning, the Emmys were an all-day affair. (The categories were best tele personality, most popular program, technical achievement and an award to a local station.)

The early years also set the pattern for another awards tradition: complaints.

In the first few years, station owners and TV producers debated whether shows on kinescope (live programs recorded on videotape) should be allowed to compete, whether works done on film were also eligible and whether TV awards should be limited to live productions. Others balked at the dictate that a show must air on an L.A. station to be eligible. In 1952, five of L.A.’s seven stations withdrew from the TV Academy in protest of the plan to present awards on a national basis, instead of just honoring local fare. (Spoiler alert: A solution was reached and they rejoined the group).

And, of course, there were gripes over the length of the show: more than two hours!

However, there were supporters. After the first ceremony, Variety columnist Jack Hellman pointed out that Emmy was smart to take its lead from Oscar, chiding the radio industry for not having honored its own in a similar way; reminding everyone that those workers had made radio “the greatest mass entertainment medium of our time.” Up until that point, anyway.

Hellman also predicted that the Emmy would spur the TV industry to create even better work and, as a bonus, he predicted that all the TV publicity would “stimulate a fresh desire (among the public) to buy sets.”

By the second ceremony, in January 1950, the four Emmys had ballooned to 16. Unfortunately, a press release listing the winners went out accidentally before the evening ceremony, “which made the opening of the sealed envelopes somewhat of a farce to individuals gathered in the Embassy Room,” said the Variety news report — somehow the news got out even without Twitter, probably on radio. Even so, most of the winners pretended “surprise and astonishment” when their names were called.

The 1953 ceremony saw 12 national awards and six local prizes handed out. People today may complain about blurred lines between comedy and drama series, and between lead and supporting roles. But the definitions were even more confusing back then. For example, the competitors for “most outstanding personality for 1952” included Jimmy Durante, Lucille Ball, Adlai Stevenson and Edward R. Murrow, but they all lost out to Bishop Fulton J. Sheen.

That was the noisy, proscenium-dropping ceremony. As Graham said in her column, “The funniest entertainment was supplied by Zsa Zsa (Gabor). Just preceding the announcement for the Outstanding Feminine Personality Award, she straightened her dress, primped her hair, powdered her nose, pushed the table from her and was ready, smile and all, to sprint for the stage when the name ‘Betty White’ froze the gal who, in my humble opinion, really deserved to win.”

In the 60-plus years since then, White has so far earned 21 nominations, most recently last year. Her triumph at the Statler Hotel was the first of her seven wins. So, in a changing world, it’s nice to know that some things remain the same, like complaints, overlong awards shows — and Betty White. But watch out for that proscenium!

(pictured: Betty White and Art Linkletter)

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