General Electric Theater featured a mix of romance, comedy, adventure, tragedy, fantasy and variety music. Occupying the Sunday evening spot on CBS following the Toast of the Town/Ed Sullivan Show from 1 February 1953 to 27 May 1962, the General Electric Theater presented top Hollywood and Broadway stars in dramatic roles calculated to deliver company voice advertising to the largest possible audience.
Despite a long technical and practical experience with television production, GE's previous attempts to establish a Sunday evening company program had fared poorly. In the fall of 1948 GE entered commercial television for the first time with the Dennis James Carnival, a variety show dropped after one performance. A quiz program entitled Riddle Me This substituted for twelve weeks and was also dropped. In April 1949 GE returned to Sunday evenings with the musical-variety Fred Waring ShowProduced by the Young & Rubicam advertising agency under the sponsorship of GE's Appliance, Electronics and Lamp Divisions, the program occasionally included company voice messages. In November 1951 GE transferred television production to the Batten, Barton, Durstine and Osborn (BBDO) advertising agency, under whose direction the General Electric Theater debuted 1 February 1953 as an "all-company project" sponsored by GE's Department of Public Relations Services.
The first two seasons of General Electric Theater established the half-hour anthology format of adaptations of popular plays, short stories, novels, magazine fiction and motion pictures. "The Eye of the Beholder," for example, a Hitchcock-like telefilm thriller starring Richard Conte and Martha Vickers, dramatized an artist's relationship with his model from differing, sometimes disturbing psychological perspectives.
The addition of Ronald Reagan as program host commencing the third season 26 September 1954 reflected GE's decision to pursue a campaign of continuous, consistent company voice advertising. The Reagan role of program host and occasional guest star brought needed continuity to disparate anthology offerings. The casting of Don Herbert of TV's Watch Mr. Wizard fame in the role of "General Electric Progress Reporter" established a clear-cut company identity for commercials. "Outstanding entertainment" became the watchword of GE's public and employee relations specialists. Reagan, in the employ of BBDO, helped merchandise the concept within the company itself. The first of many promotional tours orchestrated by BBDO and the GE Department of Public Relations Services sent Reagan to twelve GE plant cities in November 1954 to promote the program idea, further his identity as spokesman, and become familiar with company people and products. By the time General Electric Theater concluded its eight-year run in 1962, Reagan claimed to have visited GE's 135 research and manufacturing facilities, and met some 250,000 individuals. In later years, Reagan's biographers would look back upon the tour and the platform it provided for the future President of the United States to sharpen his already considerable skill as a communicator.
By December 1954, after only four months on the air with Reagan as program host, the new General Electric Theater achieved Nielsen top-ten status among all programs as television's most popular weekly dramatic program. The format accommodated live telecasts originating from both coasts, and increasingly, the telefilms of Revue Productions, the motion picture production company of the Music Corporation of America (MCA). An unprecedented talent waiver granted to MCA-Revue by the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) during Reagan's tenure as SAG president m 1952, and again in 1954, allowed MCA-Revue to dominate the fledgling telefilm industry. The SAG talent waiver enabled MCA-Revue to simultaneously represent artists and employ them in telefilms that it produced. MCA's stars appeared on Revue's General Electric Theater, and ratings soared. Many made television debuts in dramatic roles. Joseph Cotten starred in "The High Green Wall," an adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's A Handful of Dust; Jack Benny starred in "The Face is Familiar," a comedy about a man whose face no one could remember; Alan Ladd starred in "Committed," a mystery about "an author who advertises for trouble and finds it." Joan Crawford made her only 1954 television appearance in "The Road to Edinburgh," a story of "terror on a lonely road." "The Long Way Around" featured Ronald Reagan and Nancy Davis Reagan, who solved "a unique marital problem to reunite a family." In a direct dramatic tie-in with a company voice theme, Burgess Meredith portrayed "Edison the Man," a telecast coinciding with GE's commemoration of "Light's Diamond Jubilee."
General Electric Theater saturated its audience with Reagan's genial progress-talk in introductions, segues and closing comments, and Herbert's commercials. From the viewpoint of its sponsors, the program's entertainment component seemed beside the point of audience "recall scores," "impact studies" and the "penetration" of company messages culminating with the motto, "Progress is our most important product." Commercials from the 1954 fall season, for example, included "Kitchen of the Future," "Lamp Progress," "Jet Engine Advancement," "Turbosupercharger Progress," "Sonar Development," "Atomic Safety Devices" and so on. "Kitchen of the Future" achieved the highest impact score (90% audience recall) recorded to date by the polling firm of Gallup-Robinson, whose specialists reported the General Electric Theater as "the leading institutional campaign on television for selling ideas to the public. " Following a 4 November 1956 Herbert "progress report" on the subject of steam turbine generators and their contributions to "progress toward a fuller and more satisfying life," Reagan reiterated, "In the meantime, remember: From electricity comes progress; progress in our daily living; progress in our daily work; progress in the defense of our nation; and at General Electric, progress is . . . "
By 1957 General Electric Theater had hit stride with a top-rated program package the equal of the company's early technical proficiency in television. While GE's product divisions developed individual sponsorships to reach appliance, lamp and electronics consumers via The Jane Froman Show, The Ray Milland Show, I Married Joan, Ozzie and Harriet and Today, the General Electric Theater aspired to the overarching sale of Total Electric living. A 10 February 10 telecast featuring Jimmy Stewart, for example, celebrated the first anniversary of the electric utilities' "Live Better Electrically" campaign and "National Electric Week." The closing commercial featured Nancy and Ronald Reagan in the kitchen of a Total Electric home. "When you live better electrically," Reagan told viewers, "you lead a richer, fuller, more satisfying life. And it's something all of us in this modern age can have." In his 1965 autobiography Where's the Rest of Me? Reagan recalled that GE installed so many appliances in his Pacific Palisades home that the electrical panel needed to serve them soon outgrew the usual pantry cupboard for a three-thousand-pound steel cabinet outside the house. The General Electric Theater was no less loaded with the corporate stewardship of personal and social improvement, expressed over and over by Reagan: "Progress in products goes hand in hand with providing progress in the human values that enrich the lives of us all."
General Electric Theater left the air in 1962 in a welter of controversy surrounding the U.S. Justice Department's anti-trust investigation of MCA and the Screen Actors Guild talent waivers granted to MCA -Revue. The hint of scandal discounted Reagan's value as company spokesman and program host. As SAG president in the 1950s Reagan had, after all, signed the waivers, and later benefited from the arrangement as a General Electric Theater program producer himself. The suggestion of impropriety fueled Reagan's increasingly anti-government demeanor on tour, and his insistence upon producing and starring in episodes combating Communist subversion in the final season of General Electric Theater.
-William L. Bird Jr.
Ronald Reagan (1954-1962)
PRODUCERS Harry Tugend, William Morwood, Joseph Bantman, Stanley Rubin, William Frye, Mort Abrhams, Bob Mosher, Joe Connelly, Gilbert A. Ralston, Joseph Sistrom, Arthur Ripley