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
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 Show Produced 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.
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
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
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
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 . .
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."
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.
L. Bird Jr.
General Electric Theater: Tell Me Where It Hurts
Photo courtesy of Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research
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
HISTORY 200 Episodes
February 1953-September 1962
Cannon, Lou. Reagan. New York: Putnam's, 1982.
Christopher J. "Your Host, Ronald Reagan: From G.E. Theater to the
Desk in the Oval Office." New Republic (Washington, D.C.),
26 March 1984.
Patrick. "The President from G.E." The Nation (New York),
31 January 1981.
Ronald, with Richard C. Hubla. Where's the Rest of Me? New
York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1965.
Gary. Reagan's America: Innocents at Home. Garden City, New
York: Doubleday, 1987.