Hollywood Athletic Club

Site of the First Annual Emmy Awards

On the eve of the explosion of television in America, The Academy of Television Arts and Sciences held its first annual Emmy Awards on January 25, 1949 at the Hollywood Athletic Club.  The day started with a series of seminars discussing everything from television production to advertising, culminating in the banquet and awards ceremony that was anticipated to “rival the Oscars.” Tickets cost $5, and the audience of about 550 was made up of few celebrities, unlike the star-studded Emmys of today.

First Emmy Award Winners - Photo via Emmys.com (1949)

At the time, the worlds of television and movies were quite separate, and Syd Cassyd, founder of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, recalled how television posed a threat to the success of the film industry. With that, the early days of television were found with little support from Hollywood elite. Whether intentional or serendipitous, Cassyd and his television colleagues decided to hold their first Television Academy Emmy Awards at the Hollywood Athletic Club, a venue that historically catered to Hollywood’s finest.

The Hollywood Athletic Club’s name itself tends to obscure its many uses, as well as the star power behind its founding. The HAC opened on New Year's Eve of 1924, founded by Charlie Chaplin, Cecil B. DeMille, and Rudolph Valentino. In true Hollywood fashion, the high-rise tower and accompanying bungalows were designed by Meyer & Holler, the architectural firm responsible for Sid Grauman’s Chinese Theater and Egyptian Theater on Hollywood Boulevard. The HAC instantly became a one-stop shop for Hollywood royalty to exercise, eat, drink, sunbathe, play, rest, and socialize. In addition to its famous founders, the Club counted Groucho Marx, John Barrymore, Mae West, Joan Crawford, Jean Harlow, Clark Gable, and many others among its members.

 

Photo via Finding Lost Angeles

Photo via Finding Lost Angeles

 

One 1920s article documented how “almost every actor and director of note in the picture world” came to the HAC to “keep themselves in condition,” some even abandoning their prior membership at the LA Athletic Club for the Hollywood counterpart. The HAC no doubt became an important Hollywood enclave as Hollywood—the neighborhood and the industry—continued to grow. At the HAC, the pool and athletic facilities were accompanied by other leisurely pursuits. William S. Hart and Tony Moreno relaxed by playing pool; silent film stars gathered to play a hand in the card room; and actor Tyrone Power frequented the HAC:

Like most young Hollywood bachelors, Power is a member of the HAC, takes sunbaths in the nude on its spacious roof, swims, boxes and plays handball or squash. When he wants to go to a beach club, his membership gives him privileges at Santa Monica’s Deauville Club, the Surf and Sand Club at Hermosa Beach, the Pacific Coast Club at Long Beach, and the Riviera Club.
 

William S. Hart and Tony Moreno - Photo via The Hollywood Athletic Club (1920s)

HAC Library - Photo via The Hollywood Athletic Club.

 

As the television industry continued to grow and television sets became more prevalent in American households, the popularity of a rival form of entertainment to Hollywood began to take hold. Before skyrocketing in the 1950s, the television industry was not quite there yet in 1949. The first Emmys only included five categories, and the performer who would go on to win the very first Emmy Award almost didn’t show up. Ventriloquist Shirley Dinsdale won for Best Television Personality for her work on The Judy Splinters Show, a weekly telecast for children.  Dinsdale had a date planned that evening, but luckily that suitor persuaded her to attend the Emmys instead. Years later Dinsdale recalled how "it was so brand new. No one knew what it was. All I know is that everybody was being so cute about it. They said, 'You have to go the banquet at the Hollywood Athletic Club’.”

The evening’s events were broadcast locally on KTSL with Television Academy president Charles B. Brown leading the proceedings, accompanied by Walter O’Keefe as master of ceremonies. At the closing of the ceremony, Dinsdale became the first of five winners, one of which walked away with a plaque, and the other four, including Dinsdale, with little golden statuettes. The award itself was modeled after the wife of engineer, Louis McManus, picturing a beautiful muse raising the electron of science into the air. The name ‘Emmy’ came from the term ‘Immy,’ a nickname for the image orthicon tube used in television cameras. Immy evolved into Emmy and became a female rival to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science’s ‘Oscar.’

 

Los Angeles Mayor Fletcher Bowron speaking at the First Emmy Awards Ceremony. Photo via Emmys.com (1949)

One of the first Emmy Statues. Photo via Nate D. Sanders Auctions.

 

Tonight, the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences celebrates its 69th Emmy Awards at the non-descript Microsoft Theater in downtown Los Angeles. The location, size, and scope of the event seem a far cry from the humble 1949 banquet at the Hollywood Athletic Club. Since the 1940s, the HAC has gone through several phases, at one point housing the University of Judaism, and eventually becoming a hotspot for celebrity nightlife in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. Today, the HAC serves as office space as well as a private event venue. On a stroll down Sunset Boulevard, the curious can easily peek in one of the windows to get a glimpse of the beautiful ‘Moroccan Room’ with fresco-adorned vaulted ceilings, original wood floors, and an elegant fireplace—a taste of the history and glamour that once were an integral part of the Hollywood Athletic Club’s history.

The First Annual Emmy Awards Ceremony - photo via The Hollywood Athletic Club (1949).

HAC Moroccan Room. Photo via The Hollywood Athletic Club.

HAC Vestibule - Photo via The Hollywood Athletic Club.

The Hollywood Athletic Club is located at 6526 W. Sunset Boulevard.
Sources:
Emmys.com.
The Hollywood Athletic Club.
King, Susan. "50 Years of Emmy." Los Angeles Times: 1. Sept 13 1998. ProQuest. Web. 17 Sep. 2017.
Nate D. Sanders Auctions.
Schallert, Edwin. "Emmys to Rival Oscars as Television Awards; Welles, Korda Talk-Deal." Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File): 1. Dec 29 1948. ProQuest. Web. 17 Sep. 2017.
Spensley, Dorothy. “Tyrone Power's Bachelor Guide to Hollywood.” Movie Mirror, Nov. 1937.
"Television Arts Academy Makes First Awards." Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File): 4. Jan 26 1949. ProQuest. Web. 17 Sep. 2017.
"TELEVISION ARTS GROUP TO HOLD AWARDS DINNER." Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File): 7. Dec 29 1948. ProQuest. Web. 17 Sep. 2017.