May 16: The First Academy Awards

Oscar“I found that the best way to handle [filmmakers] was to hang medals all over them … If I got them cups and awards they’d kill them to produce what I wanted. That’s why the Academy Award was created.” -Louis B. Mayer

On the evening of May 16, 1929 the Academy of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences presented the first ever Academy Awards ceremony. The first ceremony was actually a dinner, attended by 270 people, with tickets costing $5. Reports vary on the exact length of the awards ceremony, hosted by AMPAS director Douglas Fairbanks,  but it was something between five and 15 minutes long. By comparison, the 2014 Oscar telecast was three hours and 36 minutes.

The first Academy Award ceremony was unlike any since. To be eligible for a nomination, films had to be released during the unusual window of August 1, 1927 to July 31, 1928, rather than the now traditional calendar year. The nominees were announced in late 1928 and amazingly the winners were announced on February 18, 1929, three months ahead of the awards banquet. Suffice to say, there wasn’t much suspense during award ceremony.

12 Academy Award of Merit trophies, as the Oscar was known at the time, were presented at the inaugural Academy Awards ceremonies. In addition to the two competitive awards, two honorary Academy Awards were presented; one for Charlie Chaplin’s “versatility and genius in acting, writing, directing and producing The Circus” and a second to Warner Brothers “for producing The Jazz Singer, the pioneer outstanding talking picture, which has revolutionized the industry”.

Some of the inaugural Academy Award categories are quite familiar (i. e. Best Actor, Actress) while others were discontinued soon after the first ceremony. Amongst those were Best Engineering Effects and Best Title Writing. Even a couple categories we are still familiar with appeared in slightly different forms. For instance, at this first ceremony there were two separate Best Director awards, one for comedy and one for drama.

The award category we now know as Best Picture was then known as Outstanding Picture, and that particular trophy went to the movie Wings. However, there was another award, now considered to be as important as Best Picture, an award for Best Unique Artistic Production. This award was only awarded that first year and went to F. W. Murnau‘s beautiful film Sunrise. While Wings has subsequently been reduced to the answer to the trivia question “What film won the first Best Picture Oscar?”; Sunrise was recently named the fifth best film of all time in the 2012 Sight & Sound poll.

Finally, before we get to our drink, let’s take a look at the Oscar statue itself. The statue was sculpted by legendary MGM art director Cedric Gibbons. According to legend, the statue was modeled after Emilio Fernández, a young Mexican actor and friend of Gibbons’ future wife, the starlet Dolores del Río. Fernández eventually became a major director in Mexican cinema, and although he never won the statue he posed for, he took home the Palme d’Or award at the 1946 Cannes Film Festival for his film Maria Candelaria.

As for the origin of the nickname Oscar, it’s said that Margaret Gledhill, the Academy’s executive secretary and librarian, was the one who named the statue. The story goes that when Gledhill started working for the Academy she took a glance at the statue and commented that it looked like her “Uncle Oscar.” Gossip columnist Sidney Skolsky happened to be at the Academy offices that day and wrote in his column that “Employees have affectionately dubbed their famous statuette ‘Oscar” and the name quickly stuck. Gledhill, later Margaret Herrick after her marriage in 1946, continued to work as an Academy executive until 1971 and the Academy’s film archive, the Margaret Herrick Library, was named in her honor.

Let’s celebrate the Academy Awards with a cocktail named for an old time film magazine. I pulled this recipe for the  Filmograph from Ted Haigh’s essential book Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails : From the Alamagoozlum Cocktail to the Zombie. The original Filmograph used sirop-de-Citron, a sweet lemon syrup, but Haigh suggests replacing the sirop with “fresh lemon juice unless you like to drink maple syrup out of the can”. The other unusual ingredient in this drink is the non-alcoholic cordial Kola Tonic, which you can pick up from the African Hut website.


  • 2 ounce Brandy
  • 3/4 ounce lemon juice
  • 1/2 ounce Kola Tonic

Stir with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a lemon wedge.

Tomorrow: A day at the races.


One response

  1. Lovin your webpage… Its perfect for history buffs who always like to mix things up and try something new in the cocktail department… I like to have a drink on any random day and I never know what to order… Your website provides the perfect to my problem… Do you have an app ?? … You should have an app… For the undercover clueless nerds who drink cocktails… 😊

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