Emmys flashback to the first ceremony: Six awards, $5 tickets, and the big winner was a ventriloquist

There are so many categories for the Emmy Awards that the Television Academy hands out the statuettes during three very long ceremonies. But that wasn’t the case with the first Emmy Awards on Jan. 25, 1949. In fact, there were less than a million TV sets in the U.S. at the time.

The Emmys took place at the Hollywood Athletic Club. Rudy Vallee was slated to host the event but had to leave town. So, radio star Walter O’Keefe emceed the proceedings. Tickets were $5. Six awards were handed out including a special award for Louis McManus who designed the Emmy. The ceremony was broadcast on the local L.A. station KTSL, which is now KCBS. -TV.

Back in 1998 I talked to three of the winners of the 1st Emmy Awards for the L.A. Times.

Then 22-year-old ventriloquist Shirley Dinsdale — who appeared on KTLA with her puppet Judy Splinters-she received $10 a show — won the most outstanding TV personality. And “Judy Splinters” was also a nominee for most popular television program.

Dinsdale initially was more interested on going out with a date that evening than going to the ceremony. “It was so brand new,” she recalled. “No one knew what it was. All I know is that everybody was being cute about it. They said, ‘you have to go to the banquet at the Hollywood Athletic Club.”’ And she didn’t have to worry about finding a date. “Walter O’Keefe, he was the first emcee, and he gave out the Emmys,” she said. “Of course, when it dawned on me what it was, it was very thrilling.”

Dinsdale began entertaining kids on KTLA in 1947 as a six-day-a week show in which she gave birthday wishes to children. “It didn’t stay that way too long,” noted Dinsdale. “They added a cartoon and it gradually worked into a half-hour family program where we had guests, almost like a talk show. What my forte was was that we would adlib. I would write an outline, give it to the producer and just follow the outline and adlib it. It was fun. You never knew what was going to happen. There almost always was the moment of surprise. I wouldn’t have given up being in the very beginning of television for anything.”

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It was a really big night for KTLA.  Besides Dinsdale, the television station also won for outstanding overall performance in 1948 and most popular television program for “Pantomime Quiz,” hosted by Mike Stokey who lost the TV personality Emmy to Dinsdale.

“Pantomime Quiz” began on KTLA in 1947 and continued until 1949 when CBS picked it up for the network. The game show aired on all four networks — ABC, CBS, DuMont and NBC — before it ended in 1959.  Stokey didn’t remember much from the Emmy ceremony but vividly recalled the “time, because it was so great to be alive. You came from the war that seemed to bleak. After years [of fighting in World War II] it was so great to be alive. We came back and went home again. Your jobs had been guaranteed, which I still think is remarkable.”

He got a lot of famous names to appear on the show. I watched an episode from 1951 that featured guests Vincent Price, Hans Conried, Marilyn Maxwell, Ella Raines, Walter Brennan and Howard Da Silva. I found it interesting that Brennan, one of Hollywood’s conservatives, was sitting next to the very liberal Da Silva, who would soon be blacklisted. Stokey noted the show “literally introduced Hollywood to the TV industry. People were totally fascinated. They had never seen [stars before except as] these big, tall figures in the theater, and there they were actually laughing and joking.”

He made a bit more money than Dinsdale. Stokey received $300 an episode “for which I furnished eight stars, my entire staff and rented the stage.” After he won the Emmy, KTLA gave him a $500 raise. And that October, “Pantomime Quiz” began on CBS.

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Best film made for television was given to “The Necklace” which appeared on the premiere of the NBC anthology series “Your Show Time.” Ironically, the movie aired just four days before the first Emmy Awards. “Your Show Time,” which aired until July 15, 1949, was not telecast live, but was shot on film. “My memory of that night was one of exaltation,” recalled the series’ executive producer and writer Stanley Rubin, who went on to produce such movies as the 1952 noir “The Narrow Margin” and the Marilyn MonroeRobert Mitchum 1954 vehicle “River of No Return,” as well as the 1968-70 ABC series, “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.”

“The idea I had for television was to dramatize published short stories,” Rubin noted, adding that he and his partner “discovered quickly that we couldn’t afford to buy the rights to well-known contemporary writers, so we shifted the concept a little bit. The concept became dramatizations of the world’s great short stories–the idea being to find and adapt public-domain stories. That’s how we got started.”The Emmy changed his career.  “It turned out be good for me in whatever possible career I was going to have,” said Rubin.  “It did work out very well.”

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