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Elizabeth Daniels

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How the Oscars spent 73 years looking for a home

A journey through the many venues of the Academy Awards

This week, the 89th Academy Awards will be held at the 3,400-seat Dolby (formerly Kodak) Theatre. Oscar’s customized Hollywood home since 2002, the theater was designed by David Rockwell and is encased in a movie-inspired mall, designed by Ehrenkrantz Eckstut & Kuhn, that draws tourists from around the globe on the 364 days of the year that Oscar isn’t in residence. It is the perfect home to celebrate the multibillion-dollar business the film industry has become. But for Oscar’s first 73 years, the ceremony bounced from iconic Los Angeles venue to iconic Los Angeles venue, representative of a growing industry in search of respectability, an identity, and a space to flex its growing muscle.

The first organizational meeting of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was held at Downtown’s gilded Biltmore Hotel on May 11, 1927, where more than 300 industry leaders elected swashbuckling star and pioneering producer Douglas Fairbanks as AMPAS’s first president. The organization hoped to bring legitimacy and respect to the nouveau riche industry, whose workers—many first generation Americans or formerly indigent lower-class performers—were still shunned by much of Los Angeles high society.

The Biltmore, the "grand dame" "host of the coast," built in 1923 by blue-blooded businessmen who hoped to show up the great hotels of the East Coast and Europe, was the perfect meeting place for an Academy that "intended to represent to the industry what the Academie Francaise represents to the world of art in Europe."

"It was just a family affair." -First best actress winner Janet Gaynor on the first Oscars

That night, MGM boss Louis B. Mayer suggested that awards could be given by the Academy to highlight the industry’s "artistic" successes and merit. Designer Cedric Gibbons began to draw a sketch of a crusader atop a reel of film on one of the Biltmore’s fine tablecloths, and thus the statue we now know as "Oscar" was born.

The first Academy Awards were held on May 16, 1929, in the pastel-hued Blossom Ballroom of the new Roosevelt Hotel, designed by the firm of Fisher, Lake and Traver. The Spanish Colonial Revival style Roosevelt, with its prime location in the heart of Hollywood, had opened in May of 1927, and unlike the staid Biltmore, it had been funded partially by the motion picture world’s burgeoning aristocracy. Backers included Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and Sid Grauman, whose famed Chinese Theatre had opened across the street the year before.

First AMPAS meeting at the Biltmore hotel. Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection

The first awards banquet featured dinner and dancing, like most company parties. Winners had been announced three months before in an AMPAS newsletter and some, including best actor winner and future Nazi Emil Jannings, were not even present. First best actress winner Janet Gaynor remembered the night, attended by around 270 industry insiders:

It was just a family affair. It wasn't open to anyone but academy members. There were tables for eight or 10 set up around the ballroom. I remember there was an orchestra, and as you danced, you saw most of the important people in Hollywood whirling past you on the dance floor. It was more like a private party than a big public ceremony.

Indeed, the first ceremony garnered little attention from the outside world, including the press. But the media soon caught on, and the next few ceremonies grew in both size and stature. Over the next decade, the awards banquet was held occasionally in the Fiesta Room or the fantastical Cocoanut Grove nightclub in the sprawling Myron Hunt-designed Ambassador Hotel, in what is now Koreatown. But its true home during the ‘30s was the Biltmore Bowl (originally called the Sala De Oro), the "largest hotel ballroom in the world," which had been added onto the Biltmore during a massive 1928 expansion. The LA Times breathlessly described the sunken ballroom shortly after it opened that year:

In addition to space provided for tables, there are forty-six boxes on the main and mezzanine floors. At the far end of the ballroom is an elevated stage which by the press of a button can be lowered and made a part of the dance floor. Behind the stage is a series of mirrors reaching from the floor to the ceiling, with its relief patterns of gold and mosaic. An allegory of Italian art follows the arches over the boxes. Delicate rose tinted silken drapes reach from the boxes to the floors. Ornate grills in the ceiling and side walls, in addition to being decorative, play a part in the ventilation system.

The enormity of the Biltmore Bowl, which could hold over 2,000, meant many more people were allowed to join in the once intimate "family party." It was relatively easy to get tickets to the annual banquet, with AMPAS using the funds raised to pay for the venue and ceremony. In 1939, the LA Times reported that "three hundred and seventy-eight Hollywood notables will spend $25 a piece, 800 lesser lights will lay out $10 per plate and about 200 members of the press will eat and view the proceedings ’on the house’ in the Biltmore Bowl."

As the ceremony became a nationwide marketing tool, the event spilled to the outside of the Biltmore as well, as fans began to gather to catch a glimpse of their favorite stars. Far from shunning the attention, the exterior of the Biltmore was decorated in true Oscar fashion, the LA Times reported:

For the first time, the golden statuette, sometimes called "Oscar" which is used as the symbol of achievement in the industry, was actually placed in full view of every street passerby. A huge neon lighted affair, in front of the Grand Ave. entrance to the Bowl, greeted the eye. Inside the Bowl, "Oscars" were everywhere. They were even used as favors at the table and a huge assemblage of the golden statuettes adorned the different levels of the table and platform in front of the orchestra.

During the 1940s, the ceremony morphed from a large industry banquet into the traditional stage show we see today, necessitating a radical change in venues. As World War II progressed, the idea of dancing and dining while millions died was considered to be in poor taste. The last banquet was held at the Cocoanut Grove in 1943.

The next year, the more utilitarian Awards moved to the 2,258 seat Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, which caused considerable grumbling among everyone, including presenter Edgar Bergen and his dummy, Charlie McCarthy, as recounted by the LA Times:

Last night the academy convened again, and they didn’t get so much as a bottle of soda pop or a bag of peanuts…festivities started early. Most of the guests were out of the forecourt by 8 o’clock leaving hundreds of spectators in the bleachers—and the lurch. The big searchlights probed the sky emptily and the special cops assigned to the beat rocked back and forth on their heels, waiting for something to happen…when Bergen told him the theater was designed in a Chinese style and period, Charlie guessed it must have been the reign of terror…the curtain went up on the biggest Oscar you ever saw—12 feet if it was an inch. It was made of cardboard. It gave everybody an awful start. It looked like Frankenstein’s monster who isn’t even in the running this year.

The ceremony was held at Grauman’s for three years before moving to the Moorish Revival style Shrine Auditorium in Downtown Los Angeles. In 1948, the 6,300-person venue proved to be too large for AMPAS to fill. "At 8:45, a half hour after the start of the performance, a loud-speaker advised the mob jammed into bleachers along both sides of Royal St. that 550 good balcony seats were still available. But there were few takers."

View from the street of the Chinese Theatre as guests arrive for the Academy Awards. Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection

In 1949, the ceremonies were held in their strangest and most mysterious venue. Only days before the show, AMPAS announced that they would be holding the Oscars not on a soundstage as they planned, but in the "Academy Awards Theater" at their headquarters on Wilshire Boulevard in West Hollywood. Since the theater only sat 950 people, attendance was limited to "nominees, studio personnel involved with presentations and the press."

In 1953, AMPAS finally allowed their arch-rival, television, to broadcast the show.

Officially, AMPAS claimed they had made the decision so they could put more of their money into cultural and educational programs. They were supposedly pleased with the decision, stating, "It has always been hoped to center activities of the organization in its own establishment." According to film historian Robert Osborne, this was a bunch of malarkey. The sudden change was the direct result of the growing distrust of the studio system:

The major Hollywood studios—MGM, 20th Century Fox, Warner Bros., Paramount and RKO Radio—had withdrawn their financial support of the awards in order to remove rumors that they had been trying to exert their influence on voters. The new, shrunken seating capacity made it impossible to accommodate more than a fraction of those who hoped to attend, and the last-minute withdrawal of studio support had left no time for Academy officials to raise the needed funds to rent a larger location.

This experiment seems to have been a dismal failure. In 1950, the Oscars moved to the B. Marcus Priteca-designed Pantages Theatre in Hollywood, where they would stay for 10 years.

In 1953, AMPAS finally allowed their arch-rival, television, to broadcast the show. Millions of viewers across the country watched as Bob Hope hosted the proceedings from the palatial Art Deco theater. According to the LA Times, the interior of the Pantages reflected the change:

The stage was banked with flowers and plants and surmounted by Roman columns and a large Oscar as usual but something new had been added. At the back of the stage stood a giant TV screen, and smaller ones were scattered strategically throughout the auditorium. On all these screens the business on stage was repeated ad infinitum.

In 1961, the show moved again, this time to the new Welton Becket-designed Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, far from what most considered the heartbeat of Hollywood. "Interest in the Oscar and the awards continued to grow," Robert Osborne writes in his book 80 Years of Oscar. "Simultaneously, the audience capacity at the Pantages…had been reduced…and after investigation, no other auditorium in the area was found by the Academy to be either big enough or available on the dates required." Much to everyone’s surprise, the far-flung venue was a hit, according to the LA Times:

The Civic Auditorium in the Bay City proved to be the most spacious and commodious of the academy’s several one night stands down through the years. A looming expanse just a shell’s throw from the blue Pacific…of steel, glass, concrete, gala banners and welcoming red carpets. But the early night chill seeping in from the sea cast no damper on the proceedings taking place in this modern, sloping, pillarless (nobody sat behind a post) amphitheater packed with industry notables.

The Awards would stay at the Civic for most of the 1960s. In 1969, they moved to the theater most people now associate with the Oscars—the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion at the Music Center in Downtown Los Angeles. Opened in 1964, the Pavilion was designed by Civic Auditorium architect Welton Becket in the New Formalism style.

In 1969, Downtown welcomed Hollywood with open arms, proclaiming the ceremony was back "after 40 years in the provinces."

The Music Center’s construction was spearheaded by Dorothy Chandler, a member of one of the blue-blooded families that had once shunned Hollywood folk. Now, Downtown welcomed Hollywood with open arms, proclaiming the ceremony was back "after 40 years in the provinces." The theater sat 3,197 people and bleachers were set up for another 3,000 spectators outside the venue. "In the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion the show will for the first time enjoy facilities suitable for what has evolved into not only a glittering social event but also a big and complicated theatrical production," the LA Times enthused.

The Oscars stayed at the Pavilion for almost two decades and become synonymous in the public’s mind with the increasingly popular televised show. Many were shocked in 1988 when AMPAS chose to hold the sixtieth Academy Awards at the then rather decrepit Shrine Auditorium. Its reasons were twofold—the Shrine could accommodate almost twice as many people, and the venue gave the Academy more rehearsal days.

Until 2002, the Awards bounced between the "cold vastness of the Shrine" and the "cramped confines of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion." When the Oscars were held at the Pavilion, there was a frenzy each year over who got tickets. When it was held at the Shrine, many grumbled over its unsafe location, dingy accommodations, and a backstage so small reporters were "crammed in a tent."

Oscar statues clustered inside the lobby of the Dolby Theatre. Elizabeth Daniels

These difficulties increasingly convinced the Academy that they needed a home of their own that would meet the many needs of the enormous telecast. This problem was solved when the Academy was approached by TrizecHahn Corporation, who wanted to build a grand new theater complex on Hollywood Boulevard.

AMPAS collaborated with TrizecHahn to build the perfect Academy Awards venue. "It had to be glamorous and beautiful, which we believe it is," said Bob Rehme, former Academy president. "We wanted it designed to hold a live TV show, with a permanent main camera position. It had to have a large stage, like the Shrine or Radio City Music Hall. And it had to have a very large orchestra pit that could hold 75 musicians—no Broadway show has that big an orchestra."

On March 24, 2002, the 74th Academy Awards were held at the new Kodak Theatre, just a stone’s throw away from the Roosevelt Hotel, where the journey had begun 73 shows before. For better or worse, the Academy Awards has finally come home—for now.

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