The Academy Awards, or the Oscars as they are more commonly known, celebrate excellence in cinematic achievements. In today’s hyperactive online world, twitter feeds and blogs are buzzing with predictions about the best movies, actors, fashion and just about everything else leading up to (and during) the awards broadcast. Last year, host Ellen DeGeneres’ selfie became the most re-tweeted message of all time.
It wasn’t always this way. Throughout their history, the awards have transformed from a relatively small private dinner for 270 guests to a massive media spectacle that attracts about 40 million viewers worldwide. The awards weren’t even televised until 1953 and now include red carpet pre-shows and backstage coverage in addition to broadcast of the ceremony itself.
During its history, the event has been held at a variety of venues. Since 2002, viewers have tuned into a broadcast from the Dolby Theatre (previously known as the Kodak Theatre), the first permanent home to the ceremonies that was designed specifically with the Oscars in mind. The venue boasts one of the largest stages in the United States and a front entrance with Art Deco columns displaying the names of past recipients of Academy Awards for Best Picture and space for future winners. In the off season, the Dolby is a venue for concerts, symphony performances and other events. The show American Idol is also filmed there.
The first Academy Awards weren’t held at a theatre at all, but at the Blossom Ballroom at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel in 1929. The hotel and the ballroom in particular, have an interesting story. Unexplained cold spots in the ballroom are thought to be a sign of paranormal activity. Some also claim the hotel is haunted by former guests like Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe, Montgomery Clift and a mysterious little girl in a blue dress.
Ghosts or no ghosts, the event was never held there again. Over the next ten years or so, it alternated between two Los Angeles venues, the Ambassador Hotel and the Biltmore Hotel. Rumour has it that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was founded at the Biltmore in 1927 at a luncheon banquet in the Crystal Ballroom, though references to the Ambassador Hotel as the founding site of the academy can also be found (online accounts also differ as to who originally came up with the name Oscars for the awards). The Biltmore still stands, but the Ambassador is long gone, a victim of changing neighbourhood demographics and an unfortunate legacy. Robert Kennedy was assassinated in the pantry area of the Ambassador’s kitchen in 1968.
In the mid to late 1940’s, the awards were held at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre or the Shrine Auditorium, before finding a home at the Pantages Theatre for the following decade. Pantages is an Art Deco venue built by vaudeville giant and early motion picture producer Alexander Pantages, as part of the Pantages Theatre Circuit. The first of these “circuit” theatres was the Pantages Playhouse was built in Winnipeg, Manitoba in 1914. It is still in operation today.
In the following decades, the awards bounced between Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and the Shrine Auditorium, before finding a permanent home at the Dolby.
A visit to Los Angeles doesn’t quite seem complete with out a visit to some of these historic (and not so historic) award venues. I know I’ll be thinking about the Dolby’s Art Deco columns, ghosts and the history of these awards when I tune into the show.