On this day in 1949, the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences holds its first annual awards ceremony at the Hollywood Athletic Club in Los Angeles.
Hollywood’s first television academy had been founded three years earlier by Sid Cassyd, a former film editor for Frank Capra who later worked as a grip at Paramount Studios and an entertainment journalist. At a time when only about 50,000 American households had TV sets, Cassyd saw the need for an organization that would foster productive discussion of the fledgling entertainment medium. The academy’s membership grew quickly, despite the lack of support from the Hollywood motion-picture establishment, which perhaps understandably felt threatened by TV and its potential to keep audiences entertained at home (and away from the theaters).
In 1947, the well-known radio personality Edgar Bergen (father of Candice Bergen, who would become a noted actress) agreed to become the first president of Cassyd’s organization. Though Cassyd had originally objected to the idea of awards, arguing that the group’s primary goals should be cultural and educational, he eventually succumbed to the need for a highly visible event to raise the academy’s profile. After rejecting 47 designs, Cassyd and his colleagues selected the now-famous statuette depicting a winged woman holding an atom in her extended arms. Created by the TV engineer Louis McManus, who used his wife as a model, the figure represented the collaborative relationship between art (the muse) and science (the atom). The name “Emmy” was a feminized version of “immy,” the shorthand term for the image orthicon tube that was used in TV cameras until the 1960s.
Shirley Dinsdale, a 20-year-old ventriloquist who starred in the children’s show Judy Splinters, was the first of six inaugural Emmy winners that first night at the Hollywood Athletic Club. By 1955, the Emmys had become so successful that Ed Sullivan decided to establish a rival academy of East Coast TV professionals in New York City. Two years later, the Los Angeles and New York branches combined to form the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. To reflect this East Coast-West Coast collaboration, the awards were held alternately in the two cities until 1970s. After that, however, they moved permanently back to Hollywood, reflecting the fact that most television production had moved West.