PLAYHOUSE 90

U.S. Anthology Drama

A relative latecomer to the group of live anthology dramas, Playhouse 90 was broadcast on CBS between the fall of 1956 and 1961. Its status as a "live" drama was short lived in any case, since the difficulties in mounting a ninety-minute production on a weekly basis required the adoption of the recently developed videotape technology, which was used to pre-record entire shows from 1957 onward. Both the pressures and the costs of this ambitious production eventually resulted in Playhouse 90 being cut back to alternate weeks, sharing its time slot with The Big Party between 1959 and 1960. The last eight shows were aired irregularly between February and May of 1960, with repeats broadcast during the summer weeks of 1961.

Despite its late entry into the field of anthology dramas, many considered--and still consider--Playhouse 90 as the standard against which all other drama anthology programs are to be judged. Although its debut show, a Rod Serling adaptation of the novel Forbidden Area, failed to garner much critical interest, the following week's presentation of an original teleplay by Serling, Requiem for a Heavyweight, was an enormous success, both in this initial television broadcast and later as a feature film. Requiem swept the 1956 Emmys, winning awards in all six categories in which it was nominated, including best direction, best teleplay, and best actor. Playhouse 90 established its reputation with this show and continued to maintain it throughout the remainder of its run.

The success of Playhouse 90 continued into the 1957-58 season with productions of The Miracle Worker, The Comedian, and The Helen Morgan Story. Although these shows, along with Requiem and Judgment at Nuremberg were enough to ensure the historical importance of Playhouse 90, the program also stood out because of its emergence in the "film era" of television broadcasting evolution. By 1956, much of television production had moved from the east to the west coast, and from live performances to filmed series. Most of the drama anthologies, a staple of the evening schedule to this point, fell victim to the newer types of programs being developed. Playhouse 90 stands in contrast to the prevailing trend, and its reputation benefited from both the growing nostalgia for the waning live period and a universal distaste for Hollywood on the part of New York television critics. It is also probable that since the use of videotape (not widespread at the time) preserved a "live" feel, discussion of the programs could be easily adapted to the standards introduced by the New York television critics.

It has been argued that Playhouse 90 in fact contributed to the demise of live television drama by making it too expensive to produce. Its lavish budget was undoubtedly a factor in the quality of its productions, but its cost--as reflected in the newly-introduced ratings system--was enormous when compared with filmed series, against which it could not compete. Playhouse 90 stood out as an anomaly in its time, and its short run of under four seasons demonstrated that a program of its kind could not survive in a changing production environment, regardless of its acclaim. If Playhouse 90 was an outstanding program, and representative of the best that drama anthology programs could offer, it was also the last of its genre to be shown as part of a regular network schedule.

-Kevin Dowler


Playhouse 90: Requiem for a Heavyweight

PRODUCERS Martin Manulis, John Houseman, Russell Stoneman, Fred Coe, Arthur Penn, Hubbell Robinson

PROGRAMMING HISTORY 133 Episodes

CBS
October 1956-January 1960              Thursday 9:30-11:00 July 1961-September 1961                Tuesday 9:30-11:00

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.

Skutch, Ira. Ira Skutch: I Remember Television: A Memoir. Metuchen, New Jersey: Scarecrow, 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, 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 Anthology Drama; Coe, Fred; Golden Age of Television; Mann, Abby; Robinson, Hubbell; Serling, Rod