What It Was Like to Attend the First Academy Awards

On the evening of May 16, 1929, Academy members and their guests, 270 in total, filled the Blossom Room at the Roosevelt Hotel for a banquet featuring the presentation of the Academy’s Merit Awards. They dined on fillet of sole, half a broiled chicken on toast, string beans and potatoes. And they all knew the winners.

An invitation to the first annual Academy Awards

Nominees were never announced.

The first Academy Awards celebrated films released between August 1, 1927, and August 1, 1928. Members made initial nominations by August 15, 1928, after which 25 judges narrowed the top ten finalists in each of 12 categories down to three. A Central Board of Judges — one member from each of the five Academy branches — then decided the final winners. In 1929, those five judges were Frank Lloyd (Directors), Sid Grauman (Producers), Alec Francis (Actors), Tom Geraghty (Writers) and A. George Volck (Technicians).

Winners were decided on Friday, February 15, 1929. By the following Monday, results were in print.

The awards presentation lasted twenty minutes.

The presentation of awards would take place a full three months later, when Academy President and silent film star Douglas Fairbanks along with Academy Vice President William C. de Mille presided over the brief proceedings.

The award for Best Actor went to Emil Jannings for his performances in The Last Command and The Way of All Flesh. Since Jannings was in Germany that night, he received his statuette ahead of time and thus became the first person to be presented with an Academy Award. Janet Gaynor was the Best Actress winner for her roles in 7th Heaven, Street Angel and Sunrise.

Best Actress winner Janet Gaynor. Several winner photographs, taken by Karl Struss prior to the banquet, were displayed throughout the Blossom Room that night.

The Oscar’s design hasn’t changed much.

In 1927, Cedric Gibbons, chief art director at MGM, designed the graphic that would serve as the basis for the statuette: a knight gripping a crusader’s sword standing protectively in front of a reel of film. The reel symbolized the film industry, and its five spokes represented the original five branches of the Academy.

The following year, Gibbons selected Los Angeles sculptor George Stanley to realize his design in three dimensions. The first statuettes were hand‑cast in bronze by Guido Nelli at the California Bronze Foundry and finished with 24‑karat gold plating. Today, the trophy remains true to its original design.

Officially named Academy Awards of Merit, the nickname “Oscar” wouldn’t be formally adopted by the Academy until 1939.

(See how an Oscar statuette is made today.)

Title Writing winner Joseph Farnham poses with Academy President Douglas Fairbanks

There was an award for title writing.

During that first ceremony, 7th Heaven and Sunrise won the most awards, three apiece. For the first and only time, the ceremony included directing awards for both drama (Frank Borzage for 7th Heaven) and comedy (Lewis Milestone for Two Arabian Knights). There was also a category for title writing, which recognized the work done on intertitles for silent films. Joseph Farnham won for his body of work.

With the increasing popularity of the talkie, this category was discontinued the following year.

Special Awards were presented to Warner Bros. for producing The Jazz Singer and to Charles Chaplin for writing, producing, acting in and directing The Circus.

For more stories from 90 years of Oscars, click here.