Kraft Television Theatre


The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Foundation Presents

02:26

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About

Kraft Television Theatre proved to be one of the most durable and honored programs of the Golden Age, airing on NBC from 1947 to 1958. Produced by the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency, this live anthology drama was designed to mesh with Kraft's overall marketing strategy, which stressed the concept of "gracious living," an appeal to middle class, suburban, family values. Kraft Television Theatre featured quietly paced, intimate dramas; as one Kraft representative put it, the show was be a "respectful guest in America's living rooms."

Although Kraft Television Theatre quickly established itself as a critical favorite after its premiere in May 1947, in Kraft's estimation the show was only as useful as its ability to move product. In this it succeeded beyond fondest expectations. The first indication of the magnitude of the program's sales prowess came from Thompson's Sales Department which reported in June that McLaren's Imperial Cheese, a new Kraft product advertised nowhere else but on television, was flying off grocers' shelves.

The decision to feature food preparation over hard-sell personality or price appeals was not made lightly. Kraft's advertising personnel were concerned that using a model or a recognized spokesman would detract from the product, so Thompson designed live commercials that used a single-focus technique. Each program had, on average, a pair of two minute breaks, at which time cameras focused on a pair of feminine hands as they demonstrated the preparation of various dishes as announcer Ed Herlihy relayed the recipe to the viewer. This careful approach paid off for Kraft; sales of advertised products rose dramatically in television cities and, even more importantly, a poll conducted by Television magazine in November 1947 showed that Kraft Television Theatre had the highest sponsor identification of any show on television.

Kraft and Thompson prided themselves on keeping costs at a minimum in the early years. The dramatic emphasis was on warm and engaging family fare ("realism with a modest moral," as one executive said) solicited from young playwrights in New York; all performers were selected by Thompson's Casting Department. Although the show was almost entirely an agency product, NBC took a great interest in the program's operation--too much, at times, for the agency's liking.

Still, Kraft Television Theatre remained Thompson's defining program, and through its long run (the show never went on hiatus during its eleven years on the air), featured such outstanding plays as Rod Serling's "Patterns," "A Night to Remember," in which the Titanic disaster was memorably reproduced, and a version of Senator John F. Kennedy's book Profiles in Courage. Several noted directors, including George Roy Hill, Fielder Cook, and Sidney Lumet, also served their apprenticeships on the program.

In October 1954, a second Kraft Television Theatre debuted, this time on ABC. The addition of another series surprised many industry observers who expected Kraft, if anything, to pare their television activities. The original Kraft Television Theatre was never a ratings success, but Kraft apparently never expected it to be, consistently claiming that they measured the show's popularity by the number of recipe requests, not by its Nielsens. The ABC version was conceived with the intent of creating another advertising vehicle for Kraft's burgeoning product line, such as the new Cheez Whiz. However, sales figures from products advertised on the ABC program did not justify the additional $2 million in costs, so Kraft pulled the show in January 1955.

By 1958, the anthology drama had yielded to serial narratives with their recurring characters and situations, and in April 1958, after a sustained period of ratings lassitude, Kraft decided to sell the rights to the program to Talent Associates, a production company headed by David Susskind. The movement from agency to package production relieved much of Kraft's financial obligation to the show, as they could now split production costs with Susskind. Kraft Television Theatre remained on the air only a few more months before it was completely reconfigured by Talent Associates as Kraft Mystery Theatre, which lasted until September 1958.

-Michael Mashon

ANNOUNCERS

Ed Herlihy (1947-1955)

Charles Stark (1955)

PROGRAMMING HISTORY

NBC

May 1947-December 1947   Wednesday 7:30-8:30

January 1948-October 1958   Wednesday 9:00-10:00

ABC

October 1953-January 1955   Thursday 9:30-10:30

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.

Highlights
Jack Klugman on writing "Big Break" for Kraft Television Theatre
02:46
Mary Kay Stearns on appearing in Kraft Television Theatre's "A Kiss For Cinderella"
01:26
Who talked about this show

Dick Berg

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Dick Berg on writing for Kraft Television Theater and Studio One
02:05

Paul Bogart

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Paul Bogart on directing Kraft Television Theatre
01:01

Kirk Browning

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Kirk Browning on working on Kraft Theatre; on the show's commercials
03:24

Henry Colman

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Henry Colman details being production coordinator on Kraft Television Theatre
07:00

Sam Denoff

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Sam Denoff on observing the early days of live television while working as a page at NBC's Studio 8H where Kraft Television Theater, Robert Montgomery Presents, and other live anthology series were filmed
02:57

Horton Foote

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Horton Foote on Kraft Television Theatre's production of his play "Only the Heart"
03:07

Lee Grant

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Lee Grant on appearing on various episodes of Kraft Television Theatre, produced by David Susskind
01:39

Jack Klugman

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Jack Klugman on writing "Big Break" for Kraft Television Theatre
02:46
Jack Klugman on writing "Code of the Corner" for Kraft Television Theatre
00:57

Jack Lemmon

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Jack Lemmon on acting on Kraft Television Theatre  and appearing on live television
04:07

Sidney Lumet

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Sidney Lumet on directing Kraft Television Theatre, and on producer David Susskind
05:17

Stewart MacGregory

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Stewart MacGregory on being stage coordinator for Kraft Television Theatre  produced by David Susskind
03:46
Stewart MacGregory on live commercials for Kraft Television Theatre
03:32

E. G. Marshall

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E.G. Marshall on doing "MacBeth" for Kraft Television Theater
04:56
E.G. Marshall on appearing on Kraft Television Theatre
05:00

Paul Monash

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Paul Monash on writing "The Singing Idol" for Kraft Television Theatre
02:33

Howard Morris

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Howard Morris briefly on his appearance on Kraft Television Theatre's "Code of the Corner"
00:51

Alan Neuman

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Alan Neuman on directing Kraft Television Theatre
02:13
Alan Neuman on his relationship with the advertising agency for Kraft Television Theatre, and memorable bloopers on the show
05:49

Abraham Polonsky

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Abraham Polonsky on writing for Kraft Television Theatre and Seaway
09:51

Carl Reiner

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Performer/writer Carl Reiner on Kraft Television Theater's "Forty Weeks of Uncle Tom," directed by George Roy Hill
01:55

Gene Reynolds

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Gene Reynolds on appearing on Robert Montgomery Presents and Kraft Television Theater
01:49

John Rich

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John Rich on being a stage manager at Kraft Television Theatre
04:22

Dick Smith

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Dick Smith on makeup mishaps with Nancy Marchand as "Queen Elizabeth" on Kraft Television Theatre
03:05

Mary Kay Stearns

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Mary Kay Stearns on appearing in Kraft Television Theatre's "A Kiss For Cinderella"
01:26

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