90 minute dramatic television anthology series.
134 episodes of 90 minute duration. CBS. USA. 1956 - 1960.
The last great gasp of the live dramatic anthology on American television, Playhouse 90 was certainly ambitious – a 90-minute original drama every Thursday night, with the finest actors and scriptwriters at work. It brought some of the best original productions ever to television (and spawned several classic films in the process). But when Playhouse 90 made its debut in 1956, live dramas such as Studio One, Robert Montgomery Presents and Kraft Television Theater were already on their last legs, victims of high production costs and low ratings compared to the growing number of filmed dramas and comedies available to viewers. It was also a risk for CBS.
Playhouse 90 appeared live three times a month (a filmed production was presented once a month to relieve pressure on the production team). For its first two seasons, Playhouse 90 aired immediately after another anthology drama, Climax! (which was replaced once a month with the musical variety showcase Shower Of Stars). That meant CBS carried two-and-a-half consecutive hours of live drama on the Thursday nights when Climax! appeared.
Playhouse 90 aired from CBS’ Television City complex in Hollywood (taking advantage of the large talent pool available in Tinseltown). The October 4th, 1956 premiere featured an adaptation of the Pat Frank novel Forbidden Area by Rod Serling. While Forbidden Area received so-so critical reviews, the following week’s production had a much happier fate. Another original story by Serling, Requiem For A Heavyweight starred Jack Palance as washed-up boxer Harlan “Mountain” McClintock. It also featured Keenan Wynn as his two-timing manager Maish and the famed radio and film comic Ed Wynn (Keenan’s dad) as Mountain’s “cut man” Army. Serling came up with a compelling storyline--Mountain’s steady decline in the boxing world and Maish’s underhanded method to make a buck off the fading fighter. The main cast rose to the occasion with powerful performances under the able direction of Ralph Nelson.
“Requiem” was much revered by critics and was later nominated for nine Emmy awards (Nelson, Palance and Serling all went home with trophies; the production itself and Playhouse were also Emmy winners). The show also won broadcasting’s coveted Peabody Award. “Requiem” was adapted for UK viewers; it was shown March 31st, 1957 on BBC’s Sunday Night Theater, with Sean Connery in the McClintock role. Additional material was written to fill the entire 90 minute slot on the non-commercial BBC.
Future Playhouse 90 instalments included The Helen Morgan Story, with Polly Bergen winning an Emmy for portraying the troubled torch singer; The Miracle Worker with Teresa Wright as Annie Sullivan, who taught a blind Helen Keller (Patricia McCormick); and Judgement At Nuremberg, starring Maximilian Schell as defence attorney Hans Rolfe in a fictional version of the post-World War II Nuremberg Trials. Miracle Worker and Judgement at Nuremberg later became successful theatrical films, as did another Playhouse 90 production – The Days of Wine & Roses, with Piper Laurie and Cliff Robertson as a couple facing the damaging effects of alcoholism. (The 1962 film starred Lee Remick and Jack Lemmon in the lead roles.)
Starting in the fall of 1957, Playhouse 90 was no longer broadcast live. Instead, newly developed videotape technology allowed the show to be shot in advance. Critics didn’t seem to mind, and prerecording the show resulted in fewer logistical problems than a live broadcast. The real problem was ratings. Playhouse 90 was turning out to be more of a prestige vehicle for CBS than an audience magnet. While it had critical support, the high costs of mounting a 90-minute original drama every week made the show a poor bargain compared with the growing number of filmed episodic series it competed against. (According to a “Time” magazine article of the period, each Playhouse 90 episode cost CBS about $100,000–a relatively expensive sum in the late 1950's, and increasingly hard to justify as a national economic recession set in during its second season).
By the fall of 1959, CBS decided prestige was no longer enough. The network cut back Playhouse 90 to every-other-week status with The Big Party, a Revlon-sponsored variety programme with revolving guest hosts and big-name guests such as Rock Hudson, Sammy Davis Junior and Esther Williams. But poor ratings ended The Big Party; the final episode aired December 31st, 1959. Its demise also marked the beginning of the end of Playhouse 90 as a regular series. CBS aired additional ‘Playhouse’ episodes in irregular time slots; the final broadcast came May 18th, 1960. (Reruns of selected Playhouse 90 episodes aired as summer filler from July to September 1961.)
Though it did not have the long run of some anthology series from television’s early years. Playhouse 90 is probably the best remembered of the genre because of its consistent high quality. It was also a sharp reminder of how filmed episodic series helped end the live original dramatic anthology on American TV.
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Unlike most anthology programmes of the period, Playhouse 90 did not have a single sponsor; several advertisers bought time on the show, one of them being Allstate Insurance (which launched its first national television campaign on ‘Playhouse,’ with its now-familiar slogan “You’re in good hands with Allstate.”) Other co-sponsors included Camel cigarettes and the American Gas Association (the marketing arm of the natural gas utility industry). The AGA became involved with a Playhouse 90 incident that remains one of television’s best-known examples of sponsor-related censorship. As noted by Time magazine in its 1959 review of Judgement at Nuremberg:
“After the film clips of concentration camps with their crematoriums, Judgment built to its climax in a live scene in which an American judge (Claude Rains) faces the Nazi jurist (Paul Lukas) whom he has sentenced to life imprisonment. "How in the name of God," asks Rains, "can you ask me to understand the extermination of men, women and innocent children in ______?" For an odd moment the sound went off. Rains's lips moved, but no words came. The missing words: "gas ovens." The show's sponsor, who insisted on the fadeout in sound: the American Gas Association, which supplies some 95% of the gas used in U.S. kitchen ranges.”
The Gas Association argued that the removal of “gas ovens” from the script was justified; according to historians, Nazi Germany actually used carbon monoxide from car exhausts and an insecticide called Zyclon B–which contained lethal hydrogen cyanide--to execute Jews, homosexuals and any other group the Nazi regime found “unacceptable”.
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