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50 Years of Emmy

Memories from the first award winners

September 13, 1998|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The first performer to win an Emmy Award almost didn't show up to accept it.

Ventriloquist Shirley Dinsdale, who hosted a local show with her puppet Judy Splinters, was more interested in a date she had that night than in attending the ceremonies on Jan. 25, 1949 at the Hollywood Athletic Club.

"It was so brand new," Dinsdale recalls of the event. "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.' "

Luckily, her date was persuaded to bring her, so she was there to become a part of history, winning the award for TV's most outstanding personality.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday September 19, 1998 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 8 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
Photo caption--A photo in this week's TV Times misidentified the recipient of one of the first Emmy Awards in 1949. The man in the photo was Charles Mesak, who won in a technical category.

"[Radio star] Walter O'Keefe, he was the first emcee, and he gave out the Emmys. Of course, when it dawned on me what it was, it was very thrilling," says Dinsdale, who was 20 at the time.

Dinsdale, who is now retired and living in New York, is not the only one who has vivid memories of the evening. Former Los Angeles Times reporter Evelyn DeWolfe was married at the time to KTLA station manager Klaus Landsberg, the German-born wunderkind who was also the West Coast director of Paramount's television operation. He accepted when KTLA was named best station. (There were only four eligible, since the Emmys initially were limited to programs produced in Los Angeles County and carried on one of the stations here.)

"The evening of the Emmys we knew he was a nominee and he had to win, no doubt about it," DeWolfe says. "I was so excited. I would write to my parents, 'I think something very exciting is going to happen.' He bought me a beautiful dress. It was navy blue. We didn't have much money at that time."

DeWolfe recalls that there were about 500 people at the first ceremony, but very few celebrities. "There were a lot of city officials, councilmen and this and that, because it was almost an obligation to attend such an event."

The ceremony was broadcast locally on KTSL (which later became KCBS). "That evening we paid $5 a ticket and that was a lot of money," DeWolfe says.

Rudy Vallee was supposed to emcee, but he didn't show up. "Edgar Bergen, who had been the first president [of the television academy], wasn't there, but everybody knew he was at the White House with President Truman; it was the inauguration. As I recall, there was a huge ballroom. On the top tier were the Governor and Mrs. Earl Warren, Mayor Fletcher Bowron and [Emmy founder and fourth president] Syd Cassyd and his wife, Miriam."

Working in the new medium, says DeWolfe, was an "incredible time. Klaus was a combination of technical genius and an engineering genius, plus a showman. He had these two things, which is very rare."

Dinsdale, who began her family program on KTLA in 1947, agrees. "I wouldn't have given up being in the very beginning of television for anything," she says.

Originally, she and puppet Judy did a six-day-a-week show in which she offered happy birthday wishes to children. "It didn't stay that way too long," Dinsdale says. "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 with Judy was was that we would ad-lib. I would write an outline, give it to the producer and just follow the outline and ad-lib it. It was fun. You never knew what was going to happen. There almost always was the moment of surprise."

Like the time she was interviewing a little boy and he began to do a handstand, or when she got a skin burn from the studio's bright lights.

Mike Stokey was nominated for three Emmys that first night in which six awards were given total, winning as producer of the most popular program--KTLA's "Pantomime Quiz." As host, he also was nominated as outstanding personality, but lost to Dinsdale.

Stokey, who is scheduled to attend this year's Emmy ceremony, says he doesn't remember much about that specific banquet, "but I remember the time, because it was so great to be alive. You came from the war that seemed so bleak. After years [of fighting], we were victorious. We came back and went home again. Your jobs had been guaranteed, which I still think is remarkable."

"Pantomime Quiz," says Stokey, "literally introduced Hollywood to the TV industry. I had star after star make their [TV] debut--Marilyn Monroe, Jack Webb. People were totally fascinated. They had never seen [them before except as] these big, tall figures in the theater, and here they were actually laughing and joking."

Stokey was given a $300 budget for each installment, "for which I furnished eight stars, my entire staff and rented the stage." After winning the Emmy, KTTV offered him a whopping $800 a week. He accepted.

There was actually a category that first year for best film made for television. The Emmy went to "The Necklace," a production that aired on NBC's "Your Show Time" series.

"My memory of that night was one of exaltation," says "Your Show Time" executive producer and writer Stanley Rubin, who went on to produce such movies as "Narrow Margin" and "River of No Return," and the TV series "Bracken's World" and "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir."

Unlike most programs of the era, "Your Show Time" wasn't done live. It was produced on film like a feature. "The Necklace" was the first episode of the series.

"The idea I had for television was to dramatize published short stories," Rubin says. He and his partner, though, "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, says Rubin, "turned out to be good for me in whatever possible career I was going to have. It did work out very well."

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