On Sunday nights, in the ’50s, the General Electric Theater was a very popular television show. Originally starting out as a radio show, it moved to TV in February 1953 and continued until 1962, when it ended under controversy. It was called an ‘anthology show’, a popular genre during the “Golden Age of Television”.
Ronald Reagan appeared in every General Electric Theater television broadcast starting in September, 1954. He was hired to host, as a way to create a kind of continuity thread connecting the weekly GE Theater episodes together, because anthology shows had different casts of actors in each show, and different stories taken from plays, novels, short stories, etc. He was also the spokesman for the sponsor, well-represented in each episode. In other words, he wasn’t acting in the General Electric Theater, except for the episode that appears below called ‘The Dark, Dark Hour’ (edited).
Reagan’s duties extended far beyond the television studio. Part of his contract included making public appearances on the company’s behalf throughout the country, up to 14 different speeches a day while touring; and he met many American workers during these speaking tours, which primed him for his later public office career. Ronald Reagan’s employment by General Electric as touring PR spokesman and TV host made Reagan wealthy, far surpassing the sporadic employment and the kind of money he earned as a movie actor, especially after his acting career slowed down in the late ’40s.
Before he was hired by GE, Reagan served in office for the Screen Actors Guild. During his time of presidency of the guild, he signed a waiver that allowed actors to both be employed and represented by , the very company that made General Electric Theater. Indeed, a considerable conflict of interest. More about this era in television, called ‘The Golden Age’, and why James Dean and other really good actors got their first showpiece acting jobs doing theater roles, live on TV; see article below the video.
The “golden age” of American television generally refers to the proliferation of original and classic dramas produced for live television during America’s postwar years. From 1949 to approximately 1960, these live dramas became the fitting programmatic complements to the game shows, westerns, soap operas and vaudeo shows (vaudeville and variety acts on TV) that dominated network television’s prime time schedule. As the nation’s economy grew and the population expanded, television and advertising executives turned to dramatic shows as a programming strategy to elevate the status of television and to attract the growing and increasingly important suburban family audience. “Golden age” dramas, quickly became the ideal marketing vehicle for major U.S. corporations seeking to display their products favorably before a national audience.
In the early years, “golden age” drama programs such as The Actors’ Studio (ABC/CBS, 1948-1950) originated from primitive but innovative two-camera television studios located primarily in New York city, although some broadcasts, such as Mr. Black (ABC, 1949), a half-hour mystery anthology series, were produced in Chicago as well. Ranging in duration from thirty minutes to an hour, these live dramas were generic hybrids uniquely suited to the evolving video technology. Borrowing specific elements from the legitimate stage, network radio, and the Hollywood film, the newly constructed dramas on television (teledramas) fashioned a dynamic entertainment form that effectively fused these high and low cultural expressions.
From radio these teledramas inherited the CBS and NBC network distribution system, sound effects, music, theme songs and the omniscient narrator, who provided continuity after commercial message breaks. From film, teledramas borrowed aging stars and emerging personalities, camera stylistics, mobility and flexibility. Imported from the theater were Broadway-inspired set designs, contemporary stage (i.e. realist and “method”) acting techniques that imparted a sense of immediacy and reality to small-screen performances, and finally, teleplay adaptations of classic and middle-brow literature.
In a statement that clearly expresses television drama’s debt to the stage, Fred Coe, producer of the weekly NBC Television Playhouse (1948-55), remarked that “all of us were convinced it was our mission to bring Broadway to America via the television set.” Ironically, however, it was live teledramas that helped television to displace radio, the stage and film as the favorite leisure-time activities for the nation’s burgeoning suburban families in the late forties to the mid-fifties. This postwar demographic shift from urban to suburban centers is often credited with creating the new mass audience and the subsequent demand for the home-theater mode of entertainment that network television, boosted by the high quality drama programs, was uniquely capable of satisfying.
… As crucial as these elements were, perhaps the most important reason leading to the success of this nascent television art form was the high caliber of talent on both sides of the video camera. Whereas many well-known actors from the stage and screen participated in live television dramas as the 1950s progressed, it was the obscure but professionally trained theater personnel from summer stock and university theater programs like Yale’s Drama School who launched the innovative teletheater broadcasts that we now refer to as television’s “golden age.”
In 1949, 24 year-old Marlon Brando starred in “I’m No Hero,” produced by the Actors’ Studio. Other young actors, such as Susan Strasberg (1953), Paul Newman (1954), and Steve McQueen, made noteworthy appearances on the Goodyear Playhouse. Among some of the most prominent writers of “golden age” dramas were Rod Serling, Paddy Chayevsky, Gore Vidal, Reginald Rose and Tad Mosel. Rod Serling stands out for special consideration here because in addition to winning the 1955 Emmy for “Best Original Teleplay Writing” (“Patterns” on Kraft Television Theater), Serling also won two teleplay Emmys for Playhouse 90 (1956 & 1957), and two “Outstanding Writing Achievement in Drama” Emmys for Twilight Zone (1959 and 1960) and for Chrysler Theater in 1963. Serling’s six Emmys for four separate anthology programs over two networks unquestionably secures his position at the top of the golden age pantheon.
For television, it was writers like Serling and Chayevsky who became the auteurs of its “golden-age.” Gore Vidal sums up the opportunity that writing for television dramas represented in this way: “one can find better work oftener on the small grey screen than on Broadway.” Chayevsky was more sanguine when he stated that television presented “the drama of introspection,” and that “television, the scorned stepchild of drama, may well be the basic theater of our century.”
In addition to actors and writers, some of the most renowned Hollywood directors got their big breaks on television’s anthology dramas. John Frankenheimer directed for the Kraft Television Theater, Robert Altman for Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Yul Brynner and Sidney Lumet for Studio One, Sidney Pollack for The Chrysler Theater (1965 Emmy for “Directoral Achievement in Drama”) and Delbert Mann for NBC Television Playhouse. These are but a few major directors who honed their kills during television’s “golden age.”
–From Museum Of Broadcast Communications
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