Discovering a “Lost” Treasure of American Culture: The Anthology Dramas of “The Golden Age of Television”

Hundreds of those 1950s episodes are NOT Lost

 

the pictures above are in the public domain

The world is in such serious trouble right now, writing this post may seem frivolous. I have, in the pipeline, serious upcoming posts, but like some of you, sometimes I like to take a mental break from the dark and depressing. This post is intended to shed light, and appreciation, on a significant phase of American culture—thought to be lost, but actually not.

In 2018, I wrote a blog post, “The Real Reason There Was a ‘Golden Age of Television’” which became a chapter in my paperback 13 Pieces of the Jigsaw. It should be considered a companion piece to this one.

In that post/chapter, I explained that, in order to entice Americans of the 1950s (then mostly moral if not outright Christian) to purchase TVs, it was necessary to persuade them that they were buying not just entertainment, but dramas that taught lessons which were rooted in Christian and traditional ethics, and, not infrequently, patriotism. Many of my readers will recall series that endorsed those values, such as Leave It to Beaver and Father Knows Best.

However, there was another device used to attract new television buyers: high-quality dramas that were not structured like the shows that later became predominant in the 1960s—formulaic series with the same cast each week (though typically featuring varied guest stars) in a quickly produced show, often based on a quickly written script. By contrast, the 1950s dramas could take their time, featuring a unique cast for each episode, and they were often based on novels or published short stories, or scripted by top-notch writers (such as Rod Serling, Reginald Rose and Horton Foote) as well as superb directors “getting their feet wet in television” like Fred Zinneman (A Man for All Seasons, Day of the Jackal) and Blake Edwards (of Pink Panther fame as well as Breakfast at Tiffany’s).

I’ve long been a fan of Turner Classic Movies on cable TV. Now personally—and this is my subjective observation, it’s not based on any statistical analysis—TCM seems to be narrowing its selection, repeating the same films more frequently. Movies like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre are great, but there’s only so many times you want to see them. I’ve been personally concerned that recent censorship of Gone with the Wind might signal the progressive banishment of other films for no other reason than they featured white actors and were therefore “white supremacist” and depicted “white racist culture,” giving the politically correct further justification for their ongoing erasure of history. Will Turner Classic Movies—one of the last bastions of when Hollywood still preserved some moral sanity—eventually be forced to cancel its service?

For myself (I don’t expect others to agree), Hollywood movies peaked at the same time as television—the 1950s to early 1960s. For a whole decade, between 1953 (end of the Korean War) and the summer/autumn of 1963 (Kennedy assassination, Vatican II, elimination of God from public schools by the Freemason-dominated Supreme Court, and the threshold of Tonkin Gulf, the Beatles, and the Woodstock generation), America enjoyed its own “golden age”: peace, economic prosperity, and—in general—national unity, including moral values that were widely shared. As I covered in my Golden Age article, there may even have been a technological methodology behind the timing: when TV ownership surpassed the critical level of 90% of American homes, the shift in TV content began, as did the Vietnam War;1 World War 2 struck after ownership of radios hit well over 80%;2 9/11 after half of all homes owned a computer;3 and COVID after levels peaked for mobile devices (in 2019, 96% of American adults owned cellphones, 81% smartphones).4

But what about those drama anthologies from the 1950s? I’m going to copy and paste a passage from my post, “The Real Reason There Was a ‘Golden Age of Television.’”

One day in the 1970s, my sister and I, both twenty-somethings, were visiting my father’s house. We flicked on the TV. For some reason, the local station departed from its normal routine and played something we’d never seen before: one of the dramas uniquely featured in the 1950s.. . .

I don’t recall which anthology series my sister and I encountered that day, or the name of the play. But I do know that for the next 60 minutes—or was it 90?—we sat spellbound, watching one of the best-written, best-acted dramas we’d ever seen. We were somewhat “literate” regarding drama, because my father was a salesman, and his company always gave him tickets to take customers to plays in Boston—which was Broadway’s “trial run” city for new shows. When Dad’s customers couldn’t make it, the family got to go, so we spent many a night viewing Broadway’s best at the Schubert, Wilbur, and Colonial theaters.

After the TV drama finished, my sister and I discussed it at length. Why was it, we asked, that television no longer featured high-quality entertainment like that? We didn’t quite realize it, but we had just stepped in and out of a personal Twilight Zone moment—a trip into the lost “Golden Age of Television.“

Of course, we had tasted the “Golden Age” in real time (my family succumbed to social pressures and bought its first television set in 1955 or 1956)—but my sister and I were then only ready mostly for the kiddie shows.

Besides, most of those drama anthologies aired “after bedtime.” Here’s a partial list of them. This is not to bore my readers with a bunch of names and dates, but to convey some sense of just how prolific these series were.

Philco Television Playhouse (1948-55)
Ford Theatre (1948-57)
Westinghouse Studio One (1948-58)
Fireside Theater (also known as Jane Wyman Presents) (1949-58)
Somerset Maugham TV Theatre (1950-51)
Danger (1950-55)
Robert Montgomery Presents (1950-57)
Lux Video Theatre (1950-57)
Armstrong Circle Theatre (1950-63)
Schlitz Playhouse (1951-59)
The Unexpected (1952)
Your Jeweler’s Showcase (1952-53)
Four Star Playhouse (1952-56) (which usually rotated David Niven, Charles Boyer, Dick Powell and Ida Lupino in the leads)
Calvacade of America (1952-57)
Revlon Mirror Theater (1953)
Orient Express (1953)
The Motorola Television Hour (1953-54)
Your Favorite Story (1953-55), hosted by Adolphe Menjou
Pepsi-Cola Playhouse (1953-1955)
Rheingold Theatre (1953-57), hosted by Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.
General Electric Theatre (1953-62)
The Elgin Hour (1954-55)
Producer’s Showcase (1954-57)
TV Reader’s Digest (1955-56)
Stage 7 (1955-56)
Screen Directors Playhouse (1955-56)
Damon Runyon Theater (1955-56)
Frontier (1955-56)
Ford Star Jubilee (1955-56)
NBC Matinee Theater (1955-58)
Errol Flynn Theater (1956-57)
Playhouse 90 (1956-1960)
Goodyear Theatre (1957-60)
DuPont Show of the Month (1957-61)
Alcoa Theatre (1957-60); which evolved from a half-hour show into the one-hour
Alcoa Premier, hosted by Fred Astaire (1961-63)
Desilu Playhouse (1958-60)
The David Niven Show (1959)
Sunday Showcase (1959-61)
Golden Showcase (1961-62; one episode in 1964)

A few notes about this. I’m sure that many will notice that some of the biggest (and sometimes despised) multinational corporations in America were sponsoring these shows, and exploiting them for advertising.

Nevertheless, with that financial support, America saw a surge in quality drama that has perhaps never been equaled in the nation’s history. Much of television was performed in New York at the time, and many gifted Broadway actors were recruited—a few of whom later became film stars in their own right. And some of the biggest names of the day—Bette Davis, James Stewart, Audrey Hepburn, James Mason, Ingrid Bergman, Jack Lemmon, Dorothy Malone, and numerous others—acted on television, which might surprise some of their fans who thought their screen careers were confined to Hollywood motion pictures.

I’m sure my list of anthology shows will also bug a few of my readers. “Where’s The Twilight Zone? Wasn’t that an anthology show?” Yes, and so was Science Fiction Theatre, One Step Beyond, Thriller, and The Outer Limits, the latter of which brought creepiness to a new level, debuting during the transitional TV season of 1963-64. One reason I omitted these shows is that they frequently focused on aliens, the paranormal and the occult. And years of study have taught me that these are within the realm of the demonic, which television was incrementally introducing to the public (some might wish to check my post Making Sense of the Supernatural).

And what about the anthology series Alfred Hitchcock Presents? To be sure, Hitchcock was one of history’s most gifted directors (though he mostly just hosted his TV show), and I count Rear Window and North by Northwest among my favorite films. However, Alfred Hitchcock Presents had a tendency for endings that were morally ambiguous. I remember often feeling “not right” after finishing it. There was a code in Hollywood back then: crime could not be shown to pay. As the host, Hitchcock had a uniquely clever way of circumventing this rule: the criminals would often “get away with it” in the drama, but in his epilogue, Hitch would add a sentence dryly remarking that they were later caught and paid their debt to society. But it was the drama itself, not the concluding banter, that really impacted his audience.

There is, however, a more important reason why I omitted these shows.  Alfred Hitchcock Presents, One Step Beyond, The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, Thriller, and even (though very pricey) the more ancient Science Fiction Theater, have all been made commercially available and can be bought (all episodes] on Amazon. On the other hand, the 40 drama shows on my list have not, with just two exceptions: Four Star Playhouse and Screen Directors Playhouse. One can buy the Studio One Anthology, but it features only 17 of the original 467 episodes. (I asked my wife to buy me this for Christmas a few years ago, and was pleased to find it included the first-ever filming of George Orwell’s 1984, as well as a performance by Charlton Heston before he ever made a movie). It is also possible to collectively view—from multiple sources, about a dozen (of the original 133) episodes of Playhouse 90. The Criterion Collection put out a DVD called The Golden Age of Television, but with only three discs, it’s extremely scant. Finally, Amazon has made available, for download, one episode of TV Reader’s Digest. That is all I could find currently of the 40 shows, and though I undoubtedly missed something here or there, it’s clear that the 1950s drama anthologies have been virtually consigned to oblivion, while nothing has been spared to sustain the horror genre.

I consider it no coincidence that the drama anthology shows came to a hard stop in spring 1963, when American television also bid good-bye to Leave It to Beaver, Dobie Gillis, network reruns of Father Knows Best, and even the original version of 77 Sunset Strip. America was about to undergo a massive culture shift, and television had its assigned role to play.

I’d be remiss if I said drama anthologies vanished 100 percent that fateful spring. Richard Boone made a valiant effort to sustain the genre with The Richard Boone Show, but NBC cancelled it in 1964 after one season. Likewise ABC Stage 67 lasted one season (1966-67). And there was Kraft Suspense Theatre (1963-65), but it seemed designed to gradually acclimate the public to new levels of horror and the “new morality” of the sixties. The “Golden Age of Television” didn’t die; it was murdered.

But, a few months ago, I was delighted to discover that the drama anthologies of the 1950s still existed—some of them had many preserved episodes, and all of them had at least a few. I had ambled online to a sales platform I rarely use (eBay) and found a seller who was offering 43 episodes of Playhouse 90. After I became a preferred customer, they let me know they had access to a vault of the old drama anthologies. And so, over the last few months—as a respite from work, not as a pastime—I’ve been privileged to watch multiple episodes from nearly all 40 drama series that I listed above. I’m going to tell you how you can access these programs, but first I need to write a list of disclaimers. If you choose to purchase some of them, you should first know the following:

Disclaimers

(1) Don’t expect color and “high definition” TV. Older shows used older technology, and what you see is what you get. Nearly all these shows are in black and white, and on average, the sound and image quality is, well, “average.” In some cases, the sound and image quality is poor, but I haven’t forgotten the 1950s, when we often had to fiddle with the rabbit ears on our TV sets to get halfway-decent reception.

(2) You’ll need a DVD player for your TV, or a DVD drive on your computer. These shows are not sold as downloads.

(3) Not everything made during the Golden Age was “golden.” Reviewing these dramas, I found:
• Some were outstanding;
• Some were very good;
• Some were good;
• A few were mediocre;
• And a few were—unfortunately—duds. I was given access to four episodes of Damon Runyon Theater, and found every one of them so corny and dull, I turned each off after a couple of minutes. But many other shows were quite good. It’s like Forrest Gump’s mother’s “box of chocolates” advice—when you start to play one of these shows, you never know what you’re going to get.

Many of these anthology dramas were only 30 minutes long, meaning less than 25 minutes after deducting commercials, opening and closing credits and (in cases) host introductions. Since the cast was different each week, the audience had to become newly acquainted with every character. To do all this and still produce a quality drama was quite a challenge.

Your Favorite Story consisted of classic tales—often more than a century old—reset in modern times. Playhouse 90 (whose name resulted from its introducing 90-minute dramas) was esteemed by many as the best of the anthologies. A personal favorite for me, despite its occasional emphasis on tragedy (yet hope within it), is Alcoa Premier, which ran from 1961 until the “hard stop” of spring 1963. If you buy it, watch out for Charlton Heston as a half-blind Irishman who reports a murder, but isn’t believed by the British police—while the murderers begin hot pursuit of Heston. I was impressed that Heston, even after starring in the Oscar-studded Ben Hur (1959) still accepted television roles

Of course, taste is individual, and things I like may well be things you don’t, and vice versa.

(4) This shouldn’t disappoint anyone, but “drama” anthologies did not consist exclusively of dramas. They mixed in comedies, westerns, mysteries, cops-and-robbers stories, and—rarely—supernatural stuff that would later find a home on The Twilight Zone.

(5) A small number of shows come with their original commercials. Some people like this because the ads are “vintage” and remind them of old-time America. Others will be annoyed by them, but here’s where the “fast forward” on the DVD control comes in handy.

(6) Beware occasional “political correctness”—even then. Although Christianity was almost always portrayed positively in those days, on rare occasions a writer would sneak in vicious anti-Christian stereotypes. The discerning will spot them. I even began one drama that was overflowing with Critical Race Theory. It portrayed a modern town of Arizonans as white racists. They call themselves “the good guys” and Mexicans “the bad guys.” They lynch an innocent Mexican youth, whose accused crime isn’t even a capital offense. Then we learn the crime was actually carried out by one of white lynchers. I soon “got the message” and didn’t bother finishing the drama. But this is exceptional.

(7) Finally, be prepared to wait for your DVDs. You are not dealing with Amazon or Best Buy, but with a small seller. Not all shows are necessarily ready on a shelf, waiting to be shipped. They may have to be transferred to DVDs and labeled and sleeved before they can ship. Christmas season is also upon us, and if this article generates strong demand, you might end up waiting some time for your order. However, to help tide you over, I’m going to embed and link some freebies from the Golden Age near the end of this post.

Also, a tip: Do not write the seller and demand to see the complete list of their old shows. Become a customer first, and let them take the lead in introducing you to their full collection. One other hint: I suggest purchasing one of the “1950’s-1960’s Anthology Drama Assortment” volumes. These give you varied examples of that genre. The seller’s site is: https://www.ebay.com/str/jennsvintageemporium.

Sampling “Golden Age” Anthology Dramas

Here, now, are samples from the anthologies. Obviously, I own no copyright on these. They have been uploaded by others onto YouTube, from which I am linking them.

From Westinghouse Studio One, here in two parts is The Defender (1957). A young man fresh out of law school (William “Star Trek” Shatner) joins his lawyer father (Ralph Bellamy), defending a delivery boy (a young Steve McQueen) facing a murder charge. With hope fading, Shatner tries to persuade his father to use a courtroom trick—technically legal, but ethically dubious. Written by Reginald Rose (12 Angry men, The Wild Geese). Like many shows of the “Golden Age,” it was performed live.

Part 1:

Part 2:

From Playhouse 90, also live and from 1957, here is The Comedian, featuring Mickey Rooney as a television star loved by his audience, but who in real life is conceited, and ruthless to subordinates. It co-starred Edmond O’Brien, Kim Hunter, and Mel Tormé, and was written by Ernest Lehman (North by Northwest, Sweet Smell of Success) and Rod Serling.

If you don’t like The Defender or The Comedian—if they seem too old-fashioned and slow for your tastes—I wouldn’t bother with any more anthology dramas, because these were prime examples. Anthology dramas centered on characterization, and lacked the computerized action and fast pacing of today’s TV. Sorry, no exploding helicopters or babes in bikinis.

As an example of what could be done in a half hour, here’s Kim Hunter in “The Dark File” (1958; Alcoa Theatre) as a woman who schemes to break up the engagement between two of her friends.

And if you’d like a simple example of the kind of heart that could go into these old shows, here’s Jack Carson in “High Class Type of Mongrel” (1959) from Alcoa Theatre:

If you have ordered and are waiting, or still deciding, the YouTube channel StudioGems Lost Media has various other episodes from Alcoa Theatre as well as Studio One on its playlist.

I should also mention that, for those who never tasted the Golden Age of Television, lots of non-anthology shows can be watched for free on YouTube, including many full episodes of such favs as The Honeymooners, Leave It to Beaver, Dobie Gillis and Sergeant Bilko, as well as clips from I Love Lucy. On the principle of “always leave them laughing,” who could forget Lucy and Ethel’s last chance to make good at the chocolate factory?

NOTES

  1. “Number of TV Households In America 1950-1978,” American Century, https://americancentury.omeka.wlu.edu/files/original/60e94905a0e02050a5b78f10b1b02b07.jpg.
  2. “Golden Age of Radio” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golden_Age_of_Radio.
  3. “Percentage of Households with a Computer at Home in the United States from 1984 to 2010,” Statista, https://www.statista.com/statistics/184685/percentage-of-households-with-computer-in-the-united-states-since-1984/.
  4. “Mobile Fact Sheet,” Pew Research Center, April 7, 2021, https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/fact-sheet/mobile/.

 

 

 

 

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James Perloff

James Perloff

James has been writing for alternative media since 1985 when he began contributing to The New American magazine. He is the author of six books, the subjects of which range from COVID-19 to political history to creationism.

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