Friday, August 14, 2015

A Call for Playhouse 90 and Studio One

Playhouse 90 TV Series at CBS
In 1955, Lindsay and Grouse were developing a new weekly television comedy based on their Arsenic and Old Lace stage play, but with larceny displacing arsenic. The idea never met fruition but it served as an example of how stage drama was being eyed by the television networks who sought either adaptations, or expanded ideas, from New York Broadway plays.

In the summer of that same year, ABC-TV announced they would take the plunge into the 90-minute spectacular arena for the fall of 1956, but as per network practice, its initial entry would be on film and would be produced outside the network from a major film studio. The network wanted a dramatic anthology. This, too, never met fruition. In Television City, CBS-TV planned their own venture and went all the way... a series known as Playhouse 90.

Richard Boone during rehearsals for Playhouse 90.

Jack Lemmon in "Face of a Hero" trade ad

Under the guise of producer Martin Manulis, Playhouse 90 became the first weekly program telecast in a 90-minute time slot (The Virginian would become the second but that wasn't until years later). 

Mickey Rooney in "The Comedian" on Playhouse 90.
Regardless of what reference books say, the first season was not entirely telecast live. Eight episodes were filmed by Screen Gems, a subsidiary to Columbia Pictures, on the West Coast, while the remainder of the first season was telecast live from the East Coast. This ensured a variety of productions to keep Playhouse 90 fresh every week. Not that the series needed it. For the
first two seasons, the program stole all the major Emmy Awards and CBS got what they wanted: a program that would give the network prestige. Playhouse 90 was the water cooler discussion of the week. Adaptations of best sellers and original plays were conceived in an effort to out-class the competition. The result? Original dramas on Playhouse 90 became classics in their own right following the telecasts. “The Miracle Worker,” “Requiem for a Heavyweight,” “The Days of Wine and Roses,” “Judgment at Nuremberg” and “The Helen Morgan Story” were also adapted into major motion-pictures and stage plays.

Maria Schell in "For Whom the Bell Tolls"
Yes, I will have the photo digitally restored
so the water damage will not be visible.

A two-part presentation of Ernest Hemingway's “For Whom the Bell Tolls” was years in the making and was so engrossing that television viewers couldn’t criticize any part of the production as it was translated to film. Before watching "For Whom the Bell Tolls" last year, my sarcastic impression was, "My God, I'm going to sit here for three hours and watch the entire production of an Ernest Hemingway novel..." Boy was I wrong. Of the 80 plus episodes I have had the pleasure to view, the two-part presentation turned out to be the most spectacular among the bunch.

The budget for Playhouse 90 ranged between $100,000 to $150,000 per episode. (Keeping in mind a situation comedy using the same sets episode after episode cost $25,000 to $30,000 per episode at the time!) Later, to help deter the rising costs, CBS opened Television City in California and moved production to the West Coast. The network and producers were hailed as "genius" by many tabloids and trade columns for this daring move -- the same type of risk Bing Crosby asserted when he wanted to transcribe his radio program before the networks allowed any other comedians the privilege.

Lee J. Cobb on Playhouse 90

Flash forward to the evening of November 23, 1956. When "Dracula" was dramatized on Matinee Theatre, on NBC, the producers and the network tried an experiment by preceding the show with a notice saying if any kids were present, it would be better for them to leave the room because it was an "adult" program. CBS executives saw this and questioned whether this kind of statement at the beginning of their programs, especially Playhouse 90, might deter sponsors who felt viewers would change the dial... or would they? The themes explored on Playhouse 90 involved racial equality, sexual rape, psychological issues... any moral dilemma that could generate outrage or praise from viewers.

Rehearsal of Rod Serling's "Requiem for a Heavyweight" telecast.

Over five seasons, Playhouse 90 was plagued with plenty of legal issues. Ray Bradbury sued the network for what he felt was plagiarism of one of his science-fiction novels, Fahrenheit 451. (More about this amusing story in a couple weeks.) Russia boycotted all CBS telecasts for 13 months as a result of “The Plot to Kill Stalin.” In 1959, CBS and eight sponsors were named in a $10,000,000 defamation of character suit filed in a Chicago Superior Court by millionaire industrialist Titus Haifa. The lawsuit claimed that during Playhouse 90's production of "Seven Against the Wall,” the story of the 1929 St. Valentine's Day Chicago gangster massacre, the newspaper headline of "Titus Haifa Gets Two Years" was visible. The suit claimed that Haifa served one year of a two-year sentence in 1929 for Prohibition law violation, after which he received a Presidential pardon. 

After more than 140 telecasts, Playhouse 90 went off the air (the final season aired as a series of specials instead of a weekly series). Reginald Rose, Rod Serling, J.M. Miller and many others credit Playhouse 90 as the launching pad for their career and CBS established Television City in California as a result of this program. Directors Franklin Schaffner, Fred Coe and John Frankenheimer were involved with the productions. Considering the fact that only 70 percent of homes in America had a television set in 1956, it's a remarkable feat for an anthology program of the time to receive so much recognition.

But keep in mind that only 2 percent of homes in America had a television set in 1948 when Studio One premiered.

Studio One didn't win the prestige of Playhouse 90, but is recognized as being the grand-daddy of live television drama originating from New York. Under the leadership of Worthington Miner during the early years, popular stage dramas and adaptations of novels were featured in an approach that was somewhat different from the usual telecasts of the time. Then again, in 1948 there were no guidelines for how live telecasts were to be produced. (Due to a lack of expense for costumes, one of the Shakespeare dramas was performed in modern dress.)

Stage actors such as Yul Brynner, Charlton Heston and Eva Marie Saint could be seen before they were notable names on the silver screen. Others who appeared on the program infrequently included Katharine Bard, Richard Kiley, James Daly, John Forsythe, Nina Foch, Felicia Montealegre, Leslie Nielsen, Skip Homeier and many others. The premiere episode of the series, “The Storm,” broadcast on November 7, 1948, featured Margaret Sullivan, who was willing to accept the minor pay of $500 for her appearance -- and yes, it was the low financial costs that kept the series from hiring large name actors and newbee stage performers accepted the opportunity to get paid and appear before a larger audience.

Episodes of Playhouse 90 are difficult to find in collector
hands so I have had to resort to film archives to watch
the episodes from 16mm format. As picture above, that
is actor Dennis O'Keefe in the episode "Confession."

Betty Furness demonstrates a new refrigerator.
Studio One went on the air without a sponsor but Westinghouse Electric in early 1949 signed a contract and Betty Furness, an unknown actress, become the spokeswoman and ultimately served in the capacity as the Martha Stewart of her time. Advertisements in magazines and newspapers showed Furness demonstrating an oven range or a refrigerator with the slogan, “You Can Be Sure If It’s a Westinghouse.” That slogan was integrated with a generation of Americans.

The television series has a lengthy history and became one of the earliest pioneers of early television drama. In the 1953 telecast “Dry Run,” whole sections of a submarine was built in the studio and the entire cast was almost electrocuted when the water that was used for special effects got very close to the power cables. In 1954, “Twelve Angry Men” won multiple Emmy awards and was quickly sold to Hollywood for a major motion picture -- and later became a popular stage play.

The 1954 production of "Twelve Angry Men."
In November of 1954, the song “Let Me Go Lover” became an overnight hit because it was used on one of the television episodes of Studio One, proving that the new medium was capable of establishing popular music in the same fashion radio did in the 1930s. And ironically, prior to the television series, Studio One was heard on network radio for a full year.

The series moved to Hollywood in 1958 and the series changed its title: Studio One in Hollywood. So much talent had moved to California in the hopes of securing a major Hollywood job that the program was forced to make the move itself. Critics today, applying hindsight, feel the move West was the decline of the series because the dramas were never as good after the move. But then again, New York origination for live studio drama was dying. The handwriting was on the wall.

PLAYHOUSE 90
First Telecast: October 4, 1956
Last Telecast: September 19, 1961
Sponsors: varied

STUDIO ONE
First Telecast: November 7, 1948
Last Telecast: September 29, 1958
Commercial Spokeswoman: Betty Furness
Sponsor: Westinghouse

The reason I discuss the subject of Studio One and Playhouse 90 in this blog post is because I am presently seeking photographs (or scans of photos), advertisements and other memorabilia for these two television programs. And I am willing to pay for them. Or pay for sources if you know of a place I should check out. (The last time I placed a request like this, half a dozen people went on google and began downloading photos off websites. I would like to state that I don't need low-res photos plucked off the web. I need high res scans (standard, normal scans) of photos and ads from both anthology programs.) There are collectors out there who are in the business of selling photos and can help assist. I already have over 200 of Playhouse 90 and I scanned some of them for this blog post. I would like to acquire more. Perhaps you know of a few sources for photographs for sale that I don't know about? Any assistance would be appreciated. Thanks, Martin

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