From television’s emergence as a national medium in the late 1940s through the early 1960s, much dramatic programming was broadcast live. A staple of such programming was the “Anthology.” Modeled after both radio drama and the New York stage, the Anthology drama featured a new “play” each week, with a new writer and set of actors. Anthology dramas proliferated on all of the broadcast networks in the 1950s, reaching a peak of popularity mid-decade with such shows as Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse (NBC), Westinghouse Studio One (CBS), Kraft Television Theater (NBC), and Playhouse 90 (CBS). These sixty-to ninety-minute shows were among the most prestigious items on the networks’ schedules. But, there were also down market Anthology dramas, devoted to genres such as suspense (Danger and, naturally, Suspense) and science fiction (Tales of Tomorrow).
Until they were gradually overtaken by serial dramas filmed in Hollywood, Anthologies offered audiences a feast of literary adaptations, intimate dramas of everyday life, historical pageants, and thrillers. Anthology drama became a way for established film stars and character actors to stay in the public eye. Familiar faces like Ralph Bellamy, Miriam Hopkins, Jose Ferrer, and Lillian Gish drift through many anthology episodes, in cameos or as top-billed attractions. Up and coming actors like James Dean, Paul Newman, Grace Kelly, and Sidney Poitier used Anthologies as stepping stones to stardom. Other Hollywood stars, such as Ronald Reagan, lent their Hollywood reputations to television by hosting anthology series. Playhouse 90 was, by general agreement, the last great live anthology drama on American network television.
As the name suggested, each episode ran 90 minutes, already a step beyond the typical 60-or 30-minute drama. Although Playhouse 90 featured the same wide range of subject matter as other anthologies, many episodes aspired to grand spectacle. Battlefields, sinking ships, and tropical jungles were all recreated for episodes of Playhouse 90, which was produced in both New York and Los Angeles studios. Each episode of Playhouse 90 was an “event,” heavily publicized by CBS with television and newspaper advertising and elaborate-for-the-time press kits. Budgets inflated accordingly. While a 1952 episode of Philco-Goodyear cost about $30,000, a 1959 episode of Playhouse 90 had a proposed budget of $175,000. The often-shocking cost of Playhouse 90 episodes sometimes became news itself.
Musical programs distinguished the decade. Gian Carlo Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors, the first opera written for television, was performed on December 24, 1951, at the NBC studios in New York City, where it was telecast as the debut production of the Hallmark Hall of Fame. The opera was performed live on or near Christmas Eve annually until the mid-1960s when a production starring Teresa Stratas was filmed and telecast for several years. The Broadway musical Peter Pan was televised in 1955 on NBC with Mary Martin and Cyril Ritchard in their original roles as Peter Pan and Captain Hook. The telecast drew the largest ratings for a single television program up to that time, and was restaged in 1956 and 1960. On January 28, 1956, Elvis Presley made his first televised appearance on Stage Show, while, the same year, musical film The Wizard of Oz starring Judy Garland saw its first telecast on November 3 on CBS. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella was written for a live television broadcast in 1957 and starred Julie Andrews.
Lassie was in a category of its own in terms of popularity and longevity. After a series of movies in the Forties, Lassie was televised on CBS Sunday nights, at 7:00 p.m. EST, a time slot it would maintain for the next seventeen years, from September 12, 1954, to March 25, 1973. It was the fifth longest-running U.S. primetime television series. Lassie was a smart and fearless collie that performed heroic tasks to save her human owners and friends from predicaments week after week. For the first ten years of the series (the boy and his dog era), Lassie lived on a family farm with her owners, Ellen Miller, a widow (Jan Clayton), her young son, Jeff Miller (Tommy Rettig) and the boy’s grandfather, Gramps Miller (George Cleveland). After the farm was sold, the new owners were Ruth and Paul Martin (Cloris Leachman and Jon Shepodd, later replaced by June Lockhart and Hugh Reilly) and their adopted son, Timmy (Jon Provost). Then Lassie went to work with forest rangers (The Rangers era) in the wilderness of the national park system helping with conservation and environmental problems, and, finally, she settled in at Holden Ranch, a ranch for troubled children.