Why It's Called an Emmy

3:44 PM PST 08/16/2011 by Tim Appelo
Courtesy Academy of Television Arts & Sciences

The inspiration of the Emmy Award has a long history, from ancient Greece to a fatal Kennedy accident in World War II to the gizmos that made early TV possible.

Why do they call the Emmy Award “Emmy”? “It’s a feminization of ‘Immy,’ which is short for the image orthicon tube,” explains John Leverence, Academy of Television Arts & Sciences svp awards. The image orthicon, which revolutionized TV, was originally built to guide flying explosive weapons in World War II. “The objective was the guided torpedo, but it ended up being used in television,” said RCA engineer Paul Wymer. The 4,000 “Emmys,” as engineers fondly called the devices, didn’t win the war, because the weapons they were used in weren't quite reliable, but the orthicon later made TV feasible. It was called “the atomic bomb of television.”

PHOTOS: Emmy Nomination Snubs, Shockers and Surprises

After Syd Cassyd founded the Academy in 1946, he wanted to call its TV award the Ike, short for iconoscope tube (the image orthicon’s predecessor gizmo). Inconveniently, war-hero and president-to-be Dwight Eisenhower was nicknamed Ike. So engineering exec Henry Lubcke, the third Academy president, changed the statue’s sex, and the immy became the Emmy.

PHOTOS: David Strick Portraits of 2011 Emmy Nominees

Ironically, one of this year’s Emmy nominees, Reelz Channel’s The Kennedys, is partly about a 1944 image orthicon disaster that changed U.S. history. Jealous of his brother John F. Kennedy’s PT 109 medal, Joseph Kennedy, Jr. volunteered to pilot a bomber with 11 tons of explosive, the most ever packed into a plane. He was going to bail out and let Emmy direct the plane to Belgium to blow up Hitler’s V-1 rocket base, but according to Gary Edgerton’s Columbia History of American Television, a “friendly radio frequency signal” blew Kennedy up over Suffolk. Whatever killed Joe Jr., it forced Joe Kennedy, Sr. to send a different son to the White House and makes for an emotional moment in The Kennedys that helps boost its dark-horse chances for an Emmy.  

PHOTOS: 2011 Emmy Nominations

The woman on the Emmy statue has an even deeper history than her name. “The artist, TV engineer Louis McManus’ original 1946 painting for the Emmy was a very Valkyrie kind of character,” says Leverence. “When the actual statue was designed it became much cleaner, like Art Nouveau lamps I’ve seen in antique shops. I’ve often thought McManus took that basic Art Nouveau pose, stuck wings on her, had her stand a bit more upright, and there was Emmy. Oscar stood on a film reel, Emmy on a global grid. Emmy appeared as a lithe Art Nouveau muse of art who exalted the electron of science.”

PHOTOS: 10 Broadcast and Cable TV Show Most Watched By Men

Antiques Roadshow’s Eric Knowles thinks Emmy may be McManus’s 1948 update of the similarly posed female on the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair poster. “The graceful stance is suggestive of a celebrated Hollywood dancer of that era, such as Ginger Rogers, whilst her lightning-shape wings are indicative of the electric dynamism of the modern age. The pierced globe or orrery might equally imply an international or even universal sphere of influence.” Knowles cites another Emmy forebear: Lee Lawrie’s 1933 Atlas and the frieze of Time at Rockefeller Center.

VIDEO: Drama Showrunners Emmy Roundtable With Frank Darabont, Kurt Sutter

LA County Museum of Art curator Elizabeth Williams traces Emmy all the way back to the Nike or Winged Victory of Samothrace, sculpted in the second century BCE for the Sanctuary of the Great Gods, unearthed in 1863, installed in the Louvre, and inspirational to the art Nouveau lampmakers Leverence thinks inspired McManus. “It’s the image of Nike, the goddess of victory, her head and garments thrown back as if she’s flying,” says Williams. “You want the goddess of victory on your side.”

VIDEO: TV Executives Emmy Roundtable With AMC's Charlie Collier and More

The most modern influence on the Emmy sculpture may have been the most important: Louis’ wife, Dorothy McManus, his beautiful model. “Maybe they should be called the Dorothies,” says Williams.

comments powered by Disqus