“The Kraft Television Theater”…TV’s First Anthology Series
This was the earliest and, at the time, the most famous of television’s live dramatic anthologies, and helped define the “golden age” of television. The hour-long series, sponsored by Kraft Foods, premiered on Wednesday, May 7th, 1947 on NBC. It would run continuously, with no summer breaks, for the next eleven and a half years. The final episode was broadcast on Wednesday, October 1st, 1958.
The Kraft show set the stage for all that followed, including “The Philco Playhouse,” “Playhouse 90,” “Robert Montgomery Presents.” and many more.
Below are two very rare photos taken in early May, 1947, in what was at the time, NBC’s only television studio…3H. If you ever wondered what camera the Kraft Cameraman was based on, now you know. It was the RCA A 500 Iconoscope camera, which was used in Studio 3H until April of 1948, when they were replaced by RCA TK30s. As a reminder, “The Howdy Doody Show” started in December of ’47 with the A 500s, and in May 1947, Studio 8G became NBC’s second 30 Rock TV studio.
As you can see in the photo of the Kraft Cameraman opening graphic, the cameraman model originally rotated on a round countersunk piece of balsa wood. At the link above, is a 1953 opening with the cameraman now mounted on a stick that dollies in and rotates. There is an announcer mention of “two fine plays each week all year long”. This refers to the NBC version on Wednesday nights, and an ABC version on Thursday nights. The ABC version was broadcast for 18 months and then became “The Ponds Playhouse.”
The in-studio photo is from the first broadcast on May 7, 1947, which was titled “Double Door”, and was one of the first network directing jobs for NBC legend Fred Coe.
Between 1947 and 1958, the Kraft Television Theater presented more than 650 comedies and dramas, and in all 11 years, it was ranked in the Top 25 shows.
Although Kraft Television Theater 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 Kraft’s ad agency, J. Walter Thompson, which reported in June ’47, that Imperial Cheese, a new Kraft product advertised nowhere else but on television, was flying off grocers’ shelves.
The decision to feature food preparation commercials, 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 they 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 Theater” had the highest sponsor identification of any show on television.
Actors on the series included James Dean, Anne Francis, Lee Grant, Helen Hayes, Jack Lemmon, Grace Kelly, Jack Klugman, Cloris Leachman, Patrick McVey, Michael Higgins, John Newland, Paul Newman, Leslie Nielsen, Anthony Perkins, Judson Pratt, Lee Remick, George C. Scott, Rod Steiger, and Joanne Woodward.
Directors for the series included Sidney Lumet, George Roy Hill, Fielder Cook, and John Boulting, and the many contributing writers included Rod Serling and JP Miller.
Serling won an Emmy for scripting “Patterns”, which was the best remembered episode of the series. The drama had such an impact that it made television history by staging a second live encore performance three weeks later and was developed as a feature film of the same name. -Bobby Ellerbee
By the way, it was only in 1954 that Kraft made the now famous toy cameraman available for 50 cents, and a couple of box tops.