It was the first of the Golden Age, classic anthology dramas. Kraft Television Theatre was born out of Television Theatre, the 1946 monthly showcase of plays courtesy of WNBT, NBC’s New York station. Once the monthly program proved a success, NBC found a regular sponsor for the show and officially launched television’s first live weekly, hour-long dramatic series, Kraft Television Theatre on May 7, 1947.
The program was so successful on Wednesday evenings that a Thursday installment was added for a two-year run on ABC. Between the NBC and ABC versions, there were a total of 650 shows produced – the series missed only three live telecasts in its eleven year run, due to coverage of political conventions.
Fred Coe directed several of the early episodes, and went on to produce several Golden Age favorites including Playhouse 90 and Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse. Sidney Lumet directed 1958’s two-part production of “All the King’s Men:”
E.G. Marshall starred in several productions, including a memorable 1950 “Macbeth” and Jack Klugman not only acted in the series, but also wrote 1958’s “Code of the Corner:”
Noteworthy writers tapped for the series included Truman Capote, Rod Serling (who penned 1955’s “Patterns” starring Ed Begley, Sr.) JP Miller, and Horton Foote, whose play “Only the Heart” was performed on Kraft Television Theatre in 1948:
Part of the magic, and the difficulty of the productions stemmed from the fact that they were live. The blocking and staging had to be precise, and if someone flubbed a line or missed a cue, there were no retakes. Makeup artist Dick Smith recalls the challenges of aging a character on live television, specifically, Nancy Marchand’s “Queen Elizabeth” in the 1951 production “Of Famous Memory:”
Kraft loved the show because cheese sales skyrocketed – a 1947 study by ad agency J. Walter Thompson showed that McLaren’s Imperial Cheese, which was advertised solely on Kraft Television Theatre, was regularly selling out at grocery stores. RCA (parent company of NBC) loved the show because quality programming was a draw for people to buy television sets, which RCA manufactured.
Kraft Television Theatre finally came to the end of its eleven-year-run in 1958, as serialized dramas and sitcoms with continuing storylines became the fashion. The show was briefly reconfigured as Kraft Mystery Theatre in April 1958 and went off the air for good five months later in September. Though the program was not shot on film, kinescopes remain of several of the most lauded productions, including “Patterns,” and the Titanic tale, “A Night to Remember.”
- by Adrienne Faillace