MTV Execs Remember the First VMAs

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Co-founder Tom Freston recalls the show's 1984 debut at Radio City Music Hall made a statement: "We just got picked up in New York, and it seemed like a good time to have a party."

This story first appeared in the Sept. 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. 

For MTV, staging its first Video Music Awards at Manhattan’s Radio City Music Hall made a statement about having arrived — literally arriving on cable in New York in 1984. “We’d been going for three years in places like Des Moines and Tulsa,” says co-founder Tom Freston. “We just got picked up in New York, and it seemed like a good time to have a party. Then the idea became: have a party, but somehow do it so we legitimize the video music form.” The party became the first VMA show, hosted by Dan Aykroyd and Bette Midler with 18 Moonman statuettes presented. The big winners were Herbie Hancock, whose “Rockit” video took home five awards, and Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” (which The Hollywood Reporter described as “a spoofy horror film set to music”) with three. 

PHOTOS: VMAs 2012: Best and Worst Moments

But the biggest winner that Sept. 14 was Madonna, then 26, whose rendition of “Like a Virgin” was the show’s defining moment. She emerged from a wedding cake in a lacy white gown accented by her Boy Toy belt, and sang while writhing erotically and “humping the stage backwards,” says then MTV sales vp John Reardon. “All I’m thinking is: ‘This is going live into homes. We might be getting dropped by a bunch of cable ops on Monday.’ ” It could have been worse. “At the final dress rehearsal, her bustier fell down, but she kept on rolling,” says MTV co-founder John Sykes. “It was the perfect YouTube moment, but 30 years too early.”