Mr. Hall of Fame

Dec 3, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Of the 210 “Hallmark Hall of Fame” productions over the past 50 years, 63 were directed by the same man: George Schaefer. Mr. Schaefer, who died in 1997 at age 76, first worked for “Hallmark Hall of Fame” on the series’ landmark production of “Hamlet” in 1955.
In 1957, Mr. Schaefer produced and directed for Hallmark a live production of Marc Connelly’s play, “The Green Pastures.”
The story is about the “Bible as imagined by children in a black Sunday school class as their teacher tells them the stories,” Mr. Schaefer wrote in his 1996 memoir, “From Live to Tape to Film: Sixty Years of Inconspicuous Directing.” “It’s a moving and religious experience, which as a play won the Pulitzer Prize.
“It was a wild, wild show, and one of the most controversial `Hallmarks.’ Southern stations were not interested in an all-black cast performing the Bible, and some of them did not air it. On the opposite side, Ebony magazine took strong exception to it because it showed blacks as primitive folks with dice and knives, completely misunderstanding the style and purpose of the show. We were being attacked from both sides, but [Hallmark founder and President Joyce ] Hall and NBC stood firm.
“Marc Connelly was a witty and brilliant man, one of the original members of the Algonquin Roundtable. He came to the final dress rehearsal before it went on the air and couldn’t stand it, declared it a disaster, `If I had a million dollars, I’d buy [the license rights] back so it wouldn’t have to be seen.’ Marc left the studio in a fury. We gathered before we went on the air, had a sort of prayer meeting and asked the Lord to see that everything went smoothly. He was with us. … Everything worked, and it was an inspired performance.”
The reviews were generally ecstatic, though the ratings were low because the show was scheduled opposite a gala celebrating the release of one of the biggest movies of the year, “Around the World in 80 Days.” “Hallmark said, `We will not be defeated,”’ Mr. Schaefer recounts, and scheduled a repeat of the show, again live, the next year.