PHILCO TELEVISION PLAYHOUSE

U.S. Anthology Drama

The Philco Television Playhouse was one of the most distinguished of the many "live" anthology dramas which aired during the so-called "golden age" of television. The first episode of the Philco program was broadcast over NBC on Sunday evening 3 October 1948 between 9:00 and 10:00 P.M. It remained on the air for just over seven seasons until 1955. At the beginning of its fourth season in 1951, The Philco Television Playhouse acquired an alternating sponsor, the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company. From 1951 until it went off the air, the program shared its Sunday night slot with The Goodyear Theatre.

For a short period between 28 August 1955 and 12 February 1956, the Philco Television Playhouse alternated with The Alcoa Hour in addition to The Goodyear Theatre. Following the end of The Philco Television Playhouse in 1955, The Alcoa Hour and The Goodyear Theatre continued in alternation with broadcasts of one hour live dramas until 29 September 1957.

Under the guidance of producer Fred Coe (who also served as one of the program's several directors), The Philco Television Playhouse became known for its high-quality adaptations of plays, short stories, and novels. It was also the first anthology drama to encourage the writing of original plays exclusively for television.

During its first season, The Philco Television Playhouse emphasized adaptations. The first broadcast was a television version of "Dinner at Eight," a play by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber. Directed by Coe, the production starred Peggy Wood, Dennis King, Judson Laire, Mary Boland, and Vicki Cummings.

Other adaptations from plays that first season included "Counselor-at-Law" with Paul Muni, "The Old Lady Shows Her Medals" and a version of the Edmund Rostand play "Cyrano de Bergerac" starring Jose Ferrer. Among the novels adapted were Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca, Dumas' Camille, and Jane Austin's Pride and Prejudice. On 19 December 1948, The Philco Television Playhouse broadcast an adaptation of the Charles Dickens' story A Christmas Carol. The program included a filmed rendering of "Silent Night" by Bing Crosby.

Although it continued to utilize adaptations of plays and novels, The Philco Television Playhouse began to air original scripts toward the end of the first season. These became more important in subsequent seasons. A number of young writers, including Paddy Chayefsky, Horton Foote, Tad Mosel, Alan Arthur, Arnold Schulman, and Gore Vidal began their careers writing teleplays for the program.

Chayefsky wrote several scripts for Philco/Goodyear. Among them were "Holiday Song" (Goodyear 14 September 1952), "The Bachelor Party" ( Philco 11 October 1953), "The Mother" (Philco 4 April 1954), "Middle of the Night" (Philco 19 September 1954) and "The Catered Affair" ( Goodyear 22 May 1955). "The Bachelor Party," "Middle of the Night," and "The Catered Affair" were later made into feature films.

Chayefsky's most famous Philco script was "Marty," aired on 24 May 1953. Directed by Delbert Mann, the production starred Rod Steiger as in the title role. It became the most renowned production from the "golden age" of television anthologies and marked a turning point for television drama because of the considerable amount of critical attention paid by the press.

According to Delbert Mann, "Marty" was inspired by the ballroom of the Abbey Hotel on the corner of 53rd Street and 7th Avenue in New York. A meeting place for single people during the evening hours, the ballroom was the site of Philco Television Playhouse rehearsals during the day. Chayefsky had originally planned to have the main character be a woman but then changed the role into that of the lonely butcher, Marty. The story is a simple one, focused on character and emotion rather than excessive dramatic action. After many unsuccessful attempts to find a girl, Marty visits the ballroom one evening and meets a homely young teacher. Against the objections of his mother and his bachelor friends, Marty finally stands up for himself and calls the young lady back for a date.

Mann believed that Rod Steiger gave the best performance of his life in the role of Marty and Steiger became so moved by the story that he wept openly on the set. Mann's last direction to Steiger before air was to "hold back the tears." Mann also directed the 1956 film version of "Marty" which won four Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Screenplay, and Best Director. Ernest Borgnine won Best Actor for his portrayal of Marty.

Other important productions broadcast on The Philco Television Playhouse were Gore Vidal's "Visit to a Small Planet," (Goodyear, 8 May 1955) which later became a Broadway play and a feature film, Vidal's "The Death of Billy the Kid" (Philco 24 July 1955) which became the 1958 film The Left-Handed Gun. and Horton Foote's "A Trip to Bountiful" later staged on Broadway in the 1950s and reshot as a film in the 1980s. Actress Geraldine Paige won an Oscar for Best Actress for her performance in the film.


Philco Television Playhouse: The Joker
Photo courtesy of Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research

Fred Coe, a graduate of the Yale Drama School, was active as a director and producer for The Philco Television Playhouse for six years. Coe and other staff directors including Gordon Duff, Delbert Mann, Vincent Donehue, and Arthur Penn shared directing responsibilities on a rotating basis. Usually, they worked three weeks ahead with one show in preparation, one in rehearsal, and one on the studio floor ready for telecasting.

During its long tenure, The Philco Television Playhouse became a breeding ground for an entire generation of young directors, actors, and writers who later became famous in motion pictures and on Broadway. The program won a Peabody Award in 1954 for its "superior standards and achievements." Some of the best known actors who appeared on the series were Joanne Woodward, Steve McQueen, Rod Steiger, Eva Marie Saint, Grace Kelly, Kim Stanley, Jack Klugman, and Walter Mathau.

-Henry B. Aldridge

HOST (1948-1949)
Bert Lytell

PRODUCERS Fred Coe, Gordon Duff, Garry Simpson

PROGRAMMING HISTORY

NBC
October 1948-October 1955                Sunday 9:00-10:00

FURTHER READING

Hawes, William. The American Television Drama: The Experimental Years. University, Alabama: University of Alabama Press, 1986.

Kindem, Gorham, editor. The Live Television Generation of Hollywood Film Directors: Interviews with Seven Directors. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 1994.

MacDonald, J. Fred. One Nation Under Television: The Rise and Decline of Network TV. New York: Pantheon, 1990.

Saalbach, Louis Carl. Jack Gould: Social Critic of the Television Medium. (Ph.D. dissertation, The University of Michigan, 1980.)

Skutch, Ira. Ira Skutch: I Remember Television: A Memoir. Metuchen, New Jersey: Scarecrow Press, 1989.

Stemple, Tom. Storytellers to the Nation: A History of American Television Writing. New York: Continuum, 1992.

Sturcken, Frank. Live Television: The Golden Age of 1946-1958 in New York. Jefferson, North Carolina : McFarland & Co., 1990.

Wicking, Christopher, and Tise Vahimagi. The American Vein: Directors and Directions in Television. New York: Dutton, 1979.

Wilk, Max. The Golden Age of Television: Notes From the Survivors. New York: Dell, 1977.

 

See also Advertising, Company Voice; Anthology Drama; Golden Age of Television; Goodyear Playhouse