Kraft Television Theatre

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Kraft Television Theatre

From the opening night on May 1, 1947, until its close on October 1, 1958, the Kraft Television Theatre produced 650 small screen dramas of remarkably high quality and consistency. Ranging from Shakespeare to original contemporary plays, and presented live on camera by some of America's best actors and directors, Kraft Television Theatre helped to bring the television industry out of its infancy. In May 1946, the number of television sets produced in the United States totaled a mere 225. A year later, when Kraft Television Theatre premiered, there were 8,690. Set production soon began to soar, as Kraft's prestigious series of live theatrical events signaled the advent of television's Golden Age.

Television drama became an important showcase for young writers such as Rod Serling, Paddy Chayefsky, Reginald Rose, and Tad Mosel. The motion picture studios owned the rights to most of the important new plays and were reluctant to permit the works to be aired by their upstart rival, thus television was forced to seek out and buy original drama. During the 1956-57 season Kraft offered a $50,000 prize for the best original play produced during the year, to be judged by Helen Hayes, Walter Kerr, and Maxwell Anderson. The prize went to William Noble for his television play Snapfinger Creek.

Actors who appeared on the Kraft Theatre, many in the early stages of their careers, included Jack Lemmon, Art Carney, Joanne Woodward, Paul Newman, Martin Milner, Cloris Leachman, Lee Remick, James Dean, Grace Kelly, Anthony Perkins, Rod Steiger, and E.G. Marshall. Among the memorable productions were a drama about the sinking of the Titanic (1956), with a cast of 107; Alice in Wonderland (1954), starring Robin Morgan as Alice and Art Carney as the Mad Hatter; Romeo and Juliet (1954), starring sixteen-year-old Susan Strasberg; and Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones (1955), with Ossie Davis in the title role. In 1956 James Whitmore starred in Profiles in Courage, and the show was introduced by then Senator John F. Kennedy, author of the book from which the script was adapted.

In order to attract a more youthful audience, in the mid-1950s a number of plays centered on popular music were presented in the series. Popular singers who acted and sang in these shows included Gisele Mackenzie, Ferlin Husky, and Julius LaRosa. Rock and roll reared its head in 1957 with Tommy Sands playing an Elvis Presley-type role in The Singing Idol. A song featured in this telecast, "Teenage Crush," sold one million records. That same year, Sal Mineo introduced his biggest hit, "Start Movin'," in a Kraft Theatre production, Drummer Man.

An important footnote to the Kraft Theatre series was the proof it presented of television's ability to sell products. In early 1947, Kraft decided to give the new medium an acid test, promoting a new product, McLaren's Imperial Cheese—selling poorly at a then-expensive one dollar per pound—exclusively on its new dramatic series. By the third week, every package of the new cheese in New York City had been sold.

When the series ended its long run of live television drama, TV Guide summarized the astounding statistics: During its eleven and a half years, Kraft Theatre had presented 650 plays chosen from 18,845 scripts, starred or featured 3,955 actors and actresses in 6,750 roles, rehearsed 26,000 hours on 5,236 sets. Costs rose from $3,000 for the debut production in 1947 to $165,000 in 1958. Ed Rice, who was script editor during the show's entire run, said that the entire studio space used in 1947 was half the size needed to produce commercials alone in 1958. These statistics, however, do not begin to measure the importance the series had in elevating popular culture in America during the Golden Age of Television.

—Benjamin Griffith

Further Reading:

Brooks, Tim, and Earle Marsh. The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network TV Shows:1946 to Present. New York, Ballantine, 1981.

Castleman, Harry, and Walter J. Podrazik. Watching TV: Four Decades of American Television. New York, McGraw-Hill, 1982.

McNeil, Alex. Total Television: A Comprehensive Guide to Programming from 1948 to Present. New York, Penguin, 1991.

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Kraft Television Theatre

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