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Oscars—On The Radio

by Leonard Maltin
February 27, 2012 8:18 AM
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Celebrated stage actress Lynn Fontanne presents the Best Supporting Actress award to Jane Darwell for 'The Grapes of Wrath', as Academy president Walter Wanger looks on, in 1941. The microphone sleeve, which is hard to read, says BILTMORE, so it was primarily used to amplify sound within the hotel ballroom.

By now you might think that every aspect of the Academy Awards has been explored, examined, and dissected—but you’d be wrong. A radio veteran named Jim Hilliker has done an impressive job of research into Oscar’s history in that often-overlooked medium, and provides links to both excerpts and complete broadcasts from the 1930s and 40s. (Did you realize that there was still a separate play-by-play radio broadcast as late as 1968? Neither did I.) As an old-time radio buff I learned a lot from this essay, and while I had heard a few 1940s shows, I never realized that the Academy has posted audio highlights from several years’ programs on its website.

Mervyn LeRoy presents Victor Fleming with his Best Director Oscar for 1939. Note the trio of microphones in front of the podium. One was for the motion picture record of the event, and one was for the assembled guests; it’s anyone’s guess why there was a third, as this ceremony was not officially broadcast to the public.

Fellow broadcasting buff David Schwartz put me in touch with Hilliker, who explains, “This is really a hobby and labor of love for me, so I’m an amateur historian, self-taught, but have been interested in early L.A. radio history since KFI’s 50th anniversary celebration in 1972, my sophomore year in high school. Most of my essays and articles in the past 10 years on L.A. radio history have been on, and now I mostly fool around with it and share them with my friends. Jeff Miller, who has a site on American Radio History, asked if he could put the [new] article on his site. He recently put my long, scholarly essay about the Aimee Semple McPherson-Herbert Hoover ‘minions of Satan’ telegram on his site, too. In that essay, I state my case to try and debunk the story, as I think it never happened in the 1920s, as Hoover had claimed.” To read that piece, click HERE.

My favorite Oscar-related radio broadcast is a half-hour pre-show that aired on Warner Bros.’ Los Angeles station KFWB in 1943. It is hosted by the incomparable George Jessel, who has a devil of a time getting any celebrities to come over to his microphone. For some reason (possibly empathy, from having worked in similar situations) I find his desperate attempts to be hilarious. Even in defeat, Jessel is eloquent and a master of self-deprecating ad libs. You’ll find a link to the show in Jim Hilliker’s chronological history, which appears through courtesy of the author, HERE.

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More: Journal, The Oscars, Radio

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  • Name Ted Kneebone | March 1, 2012 5:11 PMReply

    Your Comment Thanks very much for this info on the Academy Awards. It is a pleasure to
    see radio being mentioned! Often these days it is ignored. Time to bring back radio!

  • jim | February 29, 2012 1:55 PMReply

    When I was a kid the Oscars were past my bedtime (do I remember correctly that they began at 10pm est?) I wasn't allowed to stay up that late on a school night so I would lie in bed and listen on my little transistor radio.

  • evan jeffrey williams | February 27, 2012 6:40 PMReply

    I've heard that 1943 Jessel broadcast and it's fabulous. I love when he thanks a local beverage company for relinquishing their sponsorship of their regular program for the Oscars . And for that plug he suggests they should send some of their liquor to his home in Beverly Hills...and he actually gives the address.

  • Kerr Lockhart | February 26, 2012 11:15 PMReply

    In those days, the Oscars began at 1o PM Eastern time, which was my bedtime. So I heard the last three radio broadcasts, or at least the first 30-45 minutes of them, lying in bed in the dark until I fell asleep. I wish more big live events were still covered that way. I love falling asleep to voices on the radio. (Naturally, I was and am a big Jean Shepherd fan.)

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