While waiting for word of the next Oscar host — an announcement would seem due any day from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences — we got to wondering how, exactly, things worked on those dimly recalled “no-host” broadcasts of some half-century ago.
Based on some quick research at the Academy’s Margaret Herrick Library, the answer seems to be: surprisingly well.
According to the record books, the Oscars survived three consecutive televised ceremonies — from 1969-71 — without the luxury of an emcee. No one to deliver the customary eight- to 10-minute comic monologue before the show got rolling. Nobody to present the presenters. No annoying interlocutor to compete with the movies for precious screen time as viewers began to stifle polite yawns and glance at their watches.
The first two of those broadcasts were on ABC, the third on NBC. Their exact length is a matter of some dispute among the available sources. But all seem to agree that they were short of three hours, and one resource — a 1971 master’s thesis by Itzhak Emanuel of UCLA — insists that the 1969 show, produced by Gower Champion, clocked in at an unbelievably compact one hour, 59 minutes and 30 seconds. (Wikipedia, for the record, has this show at two hours and 33 minutes, a running time which the seemingly meticulous Emanuel assigns to the prior year, 1968.)
“In the previous years, it had been discovered that audiences would not sit still for a show that lasted much longer than two hours,” wrote Emanuel, in explaining the Academy’s determination to shorten the proceedings in 1969. Champion, said Emanuel, cut 30 minutes of “dead wood.” He did that partly by exploiting a new seating arrangement in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, which trimmed what had been a long walk of up to 15 rows by winners in a previous venue, the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. But Champion’s greatest innovation was to eliminate the host.
The show opened with a brief hello from the Academy’s president. In 1969, fortunately, that was Gregory Peck — someone sufficiently glamorous to hold the viewers’ attention for a beat. Peck quickly introduced 10 so-called “Friends of the Oscar,” stars so dazzling that Walter Matthau seemed lucky to have made the cut. Each cracked a joke or two about the next. The sequence ended with Frank Sinatra singing a song and sitting on the edge of the runway while he read through the Best Supporting Actor nominees.
From there, the show toggled between two stations, each staffed in turn by a pair of “Friends,” who did all the presenting.
Oliver! won the Best Picture Oscar. Sixty-two typewriters in the press-room clacked away next to approximately 60 ashtrays on the tables, as reports went out via three Western Union teletypes, provided for the use of news organizations on a pay-as-you-go basis.
And the no-host gimmick came off smoothly enough to return the next year, but this time — because the Academy has a fatal tendency toward bloat — with 16 Friends of the Oscar. Those included Bob Hope, who, inevitably, got in some well-worn gags (e.g., “Welcome to the Academy Awards, or as it’s known at my house, Mission: Impossible”).
The running time crept up to 2:22:55. But the audience hung in, to reach 65 million in the United States and Canada, by Emanuel’s count — an astounding number when compared to the 26.5 million domestic viewers who watched this year’s nearly four-hour show.
By 1971, according to Inside Oscar, a guide written by Mason Wiley and Damien Bona, the roster of Oscar’s “Friends” had swollen to 33, Academy president Daniel Taradash proved a shade too schoolmarm-ish, and Hope was starting to behave like a classic host.
Having ridden out a wave of political discord — including George C. Scott’s rejection of his Oscar for Patton — Hope grabbed the last words in what had again become an almost three-hour show. “Perhaps a time will come when all the fighting will be for a place in line outside the theater or a better seat inside,” he said.
Of course, the fighting goes on. The show just gets longer. And we’ll soon know who gets to soak up all that screen time.