It was 60 years ago today that Playhouse 90 debuted on CBS. Even upon its premiere it was something of an anachronism. Live anthology shows were already in decline by 1956. It should then be no surprise that it was the last live anthology series of any importance to debut. That having been said, except perhaps for Studio One it would prove to be the most acclaimed live anthology series of them all. It won two Peabody Awards, a Writers Guild Award, and nine Emmy Awards. It was nominated for many more. At 90 minutes in length, it was able to feature more complex stories than other shows.
Playhouse 90 was the brainchild of Dr Frank Stanton, the President of CBS and the right-hand man of chief executive William S. Paley. Simply called Program X in its early stages, the series was ultimately developed by Hubbell Robinson, CBS's vice president in charge of network programmes. It was originally intended that Playhouse 90 would alternate between three different producers: Carey Wilson, who had written screenplays during the Silent Era (including 1925's Ben Hur) and produced such films as Dark Delusion (1947) and Scaramouche (1952); Fletcher Markle, who had produced such TV shows as The Ford Television Theatre and Studio One; and Martin Manulis, who had produced the shows Studio One, Suspense, and Climax. Martin Manulis worried that disagreements would quickly arise between the three producers, and tried to leave the show. Hubbell Robinson had other ideas. He dismissed Carey Wilson and Fletcher Markle and hired Martin Manulis as the one and only producer of Playhouse 90.
The roots of Playhouse 90 trace back to the mid-Fifties television programming phenomenon known as "spectaculars". Spectaculars were essentially television specials that were ninety minutes or more in length and utilised big name talent along with large budgets and the best in production values. Spectaculars were conceived by the legendary Sylvester "Pat" Weaver, the NBC executive also responsible for Today and The Tonight Show. As conceived by Mr. Weaver, spectaculars would air every four weeks on NBC, pre-empting whatever shows were generally in a time-slot.
NBC's spectaculars met with some success, so that CBS naturally responded with their own. Ford Star Jubilee was an anthology series of nothing but spectaculars. It aired on Saturday nights at 9:00 Eastern Time and ran the gamut from live musicals to the first network broadcast of the classic The Wizard of Oz (1939). Unfortunately it would only last the 1955 to 1956 season. While The Wizard of Oz, an adaption of The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, and some of their musical specials did very well in the ratings, other Ford Star Jubilee spectaculars did very poorly. Given the sheer expense of Ford Star Jubilee and its occasional poor performance in the ratings, it should come as no surprise that its sponsor, Ford Motor Company, chose to withdraw from the programme. For the 1956-1957, they chose to sponsor the half-hour Western anthology Zane Grey Theatre instead.
Hubbell Robinson and others at CBS ultimately arrived at the conclusion that it simply was not feasible for any network to produce more than 10 spectaculars per season of a quality sufficient for them to justify their costs, not to mention the pre-emption of regularly scheduled programmes. The solution to this problem was a regularly scheduled, ninety minute programme that would boast the production quality of the spectaculars. Quite simply, the solution was Playhouse 90.
Playhouse 90 was then planned to utilise big name talent and to boast high production values. It was a very expensive show to produce. Its official budget was $100,000 per episode, but producer Martin Manulis soon realised that amount would not get the big name talent that CBS wanted. He then reached an agreement with Hubbell Robinson that Playhouse 90 would pay for the first star out of its budget, while CBS would pay extra for any others. In the end, then, most episodes ran over $150,000 to make. Not only were the actors on Playhouse 90 paid very well, but so too were writers and directors. Writers could be paid upwards of $7500 for a teleplay, while directors could be paid upwards of $10,000 per episode.
To help alleviate the high costs of the live telecasts, it was decided from the beginning that every fourth episode would be a filmed one rather than live. Screen Gems produced some of the filmed episodes, while CBS produced others.
In terms of quality, the budget of Playhouse 90 certainly paid off. John Frankenheimer, who had earlier worked with producer Martin Manulis on Climax, directed the most episodes of any director. He would go onto direct such films as Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), The Manchurian Candidate (1962), and The Train (1964). Franklin J. Schaffner, who would go onto direct Planet of the Apes (1968) and Patton (1970), would also direct several directors. Other directors who worked on Playhouse 90 included Arthuer Hiller, Sidney Lumet, Arthur Penn, and George Roy Hill.
Of course, in 1956 television was still to some degree a writer's medium, and the strength of Playhouse 90 was arguably its teleplays. The show made its mark with only its second episode, Rod Serling's legendary teleplay "Requiem for a Heavyweight". It was later adapted as the 1962 film of the same name. Walter Gibson would adapt his Playhouse 90 teleplay "The Miracle Worker" as a three-act play that premiered on Broadway in October 19 1959 and later provided the basis for the 1962 film of the same name "The Helen Morgan Story", written by Paul Monash, Lulu Morgan, and Leonard Spigelgass and based on the life of singer Helen Morgan, was adapted as the 1957 film of the same name. "Judgement at Nuremberg", written by Abby Mann and based on the actual military tribunals in Nuremberg, was adapted as the 1961 film of the same name.Rod Serling picked up two Emmy Awards for Best Writing of a Single Dramatic Program - One Hour or Longer for his Playhouse 90 episodes "Requiem for a Heavyweight" and "The Comedian". The show was nominated for yet other episodes in the Best Writing of a Single Dramatic Program - One Hour or Longer category.
Playhouse 90 featured many well known actors, including stars of stage and screen who rarely appeared on television. Indeed, Charlton Heston appeared in the very first episode of the show, "Forbidden Area". Among the many well known actors to appear on Playhouse 90 were Peter Lorre, James Mason, Melvyn Douglas, Mary Astor, Jackie Coogan, Everett Sloane, Vincent Price, and Boris Karloff. Not surprisingly, some of Playhouse 90's Emmy wins were in the acting categories. Jack Palance won the Emmy for Best Single Performance by an Actor for "Requiem for a Heavyweight", while Polly Bergen won the Emmy for Actress-Best Single Performance-Lead or Support for "The Helen Morgan Story". It was nominated several other times in the acting categories.
While Playhouse 90 was critically acclaimed and won several awards, it was never a smash hit in the ratings. Sadly, its ratings would decline over time. This situation was complicated by the sheer cost of the programme to produce. With its third season cancellation was a very real possibility for Playhouse 90. Unfortunately, for its fourth season Playhouse 90 would share its time slot with the short lived variety show The Big Party, airing only every other week. As the season progressed, it aired even less frequently. Playhouse 90 then ended its run with the 1959-1960 season. CBS would air reruns of Playhouse 90 during the summer of 1961.
Playhouse 90 debuted just as the Golden Age of Television was coming to an end. Some might even argue that the Golden Age of Television had already come to an end when it debuted. By 1956 television was increasingly dominated by filmed series with continuing characters, such as Gunsmoke and The Phil Silvers Show. In the mid to late Fifties most of the long running, live anthology shows would go off the air, including The Kraft Television Theatre, Goodyear Television Playhouse, and, a show often counted among the greatest of them, Studio One. Playhouse 90 was in many ways a last hurrah for the live anthology shows. Except for Hallmark Hall of Fame (which continued to air live programmes into the Sixties), it was the last major live anthology show ever aired. There are those who have argued that with its exceedingly high budgets and lavish production values Playhouse 90 inadvertently led to the demise of the live anthology shows; however, that seems unlikely, as the live anthology shows were on the way out the very season that Playhouse 90 debuted.
While Playhouse 90 was among the last of its kind, it was also arguably the greatest of its kind. The show produced a number of critically acclaimed and award winning teleplays, including "Requiem for a Heavyweight", "The Miracle Worker", "The Helen Morgan Story", "Judgement at Nuremberg", "The Comedian", and many others. Many of these teleplays would later be adapted as films and one was even adapted as a Broadway play ("The Miracle Worker"). Many of those who wrote episodes of Playhouse 90 would go onto highly successful careers. Abby Mann (who wrote "Judgement of Nuremberg") went onto a successful career as a screenwriter. Leslie Stevens also went onto a highly successful career as a screenwriter, as well as creating the TV series The Outer Limits. Rod Serling, already a somewhat established name when he wrote "Requiem for a Heavyweight", went onto create The Twilight Zone. As pointed out above, many of its directors went onto work on feature films.
Although it is not often acknowledged, Playhouse 90 could be considered as being pivotal in the development of TV movies. At ninety minutes in length, its filmed episodes could essentially be considered early television movies. They pre-date what is generally considered the first TV movie, See How They Run (1964), by several years. Regardless, Playhouse 90 certainly proved that audiences were willing to watch dramas longer than an hour in length.
The cancellation of Playhouse 90 can be seen as a turning point in American network television. After Playhouse 90 the only anthology show to regularly air anything live would be the irregularly scheduled Hallmark Hall of Fame. Only a few filmed anthologies would persist after the cancellation of Playhouse 90, and most of those would be devoted to a specific genre. By the mid-Sixties even such successful filmed anthology shows as The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, The Twilight Zone, and Thriller, would no longer be on the air. Playhouse 90 was not only arguably the greatest live anthology show, but it also truly marked the end of an era.