‘Playhouse 90’ was the thing

Sep 2, 2002  •  Post A Comment

We think of “Playhouse 90” as belonging to, even epitomizing, TV’s Golden Age of live drama. But this most famous of all weekly anthologies really served as a bridge between two eras: the bitter and the sweet, but not in that order.
When it premiered on the CBS Television Network on Oct. 4, 1956, it could boast a new live 90-minute production every week. By the time it signed off as a regularly scheduled broadcast on Jan. 21, 1960-more than 100 plays later-the output had been reduced to one play every other week, and instead of being strictly live, the plays were either entirely or partially on videotape. Some were even shot on film.
Even at the outset it was ending an era, the era of “Live from New York.” Live it was, at least at the beginning, but “Playhouse 90” originated at “Television City in Hollywood,” the vast and handsome production complex CBS had built at the corner of Beverly and Fairfax-near another great cultural landmark, Canter’s Delicatessen. While Television City has become vaster if not handsomer in the intervening years, Canter’s, unlike almost everything else in the world, remains relatively and mercifully unchanged.
So great is the renown of “Playhouse 90” and so lustrous its reputation that casual chroniclers of TV history assume it to have been among the first of the weekly drama anthologies when it was one of the last. “Playhouse 90” ushered the era out, though that was hardly considered its mission at the time. In subsequent years, CBS has attempted the occasional de facto revival of the “Playhouse 90” brand name, affixing it to this or that drama special, even one 120 minutes long, but in this case as in so many others, “Nothing can bring back the hour [and a half] of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower.”
Should we, “Grieve not, but find strength in what remains behind?” No, let’s grieve. The demise of “Playhouse 90” marked the demise of the Golden Age and all these years later that’s still to be mourned.
Popular myth has it that the first “Playhouse 90” drama was Rod Serling’s “Requiem for a Heavyweight”-a “Requiem” to rank with Bach’s-but in fact it was the second broadcast; the first, “Forbidden Area,” also by Serling, is largely forgotten. Not forgotten are such other intensely memorable dramas from that amazing first season as “The Miracle Worker,” the story of young Helen Keller and her teacher Annie Sullivan-one of several “Nineties” later turned into a theatrical movie.
But two of the first-season productions that remain especially vivid for me, polar opposites on the drama scale, are “The Comedian,” a mordant shocker, and “Eloise,” a sprightly adaptation of some pretty adult children’s books about a little girl who lived at the Plaza Hotel. The great Kay Thompson, who also contributed songs, was in the cast. For some reason I still remember the refrain, “Eloise! What are you doing, doing, doing?!”
There was nothing sprightly about “The Comedian,” a brutally scathing portrait of a big-time TV comic who seemed loosely based on Milton Berle, though Berle would deny that in later years, and who was played like a house afire-like a whole city block afire-by a sweating, shouting Mickey Rooney. Critics of the time were not particularly kind, as I recall, to singer Mel Torme, doing a rare straight acting role, but he was painfully poignant as the comedian’s poor old doormat of a brother, ridiculed and exploited by the comic both onstage and off.
Sponsor interference supposedly restricted the topicality of “Playhouse 90” and other anthologies at the time, but many of the dramas proved extremely powerful, even shattering, nevertheless; the monster Rooney played in “Comedian” was in its way as scary as the hungry creature of “Alien” many years later.
The 1959-60 season of “Playhouse 90” ended on a bravely bleak note with an adaptation of Pat Frank’s novel “Alas, Babylon,” a grim vision of nuclear Armageddon replete with mobs ravaging supermarkets for what little food remained. A young Burt Reynolds was featured, though Don Murray was the star.
These plays could be disturbing to a degree matched by very few of today’s network drama shows, even those that tackle social and political issues and court controversy on a regular basis.
Other great moments for “Playhouse 90” included a new production of “Charley’s Aunt” starring Art Carney. Plays later adapted into major motion pictures included not only “Requiem” and “Miracle Worker” but also “The Helen Morgan Story” with Polly Bergen; J.P. Miller’s “The Days of Wine and Roses” which starred Piper Laurie and Cliff Robertson in the TV version (Lee Remick and Jack Lemmon in the movie); and “Judgment at Nuremberg,” with Claude Rains in the role that Spencer Tracy later played in Stanley Kramer’s film.
“Nuremburg” was among the infamous examples of sponsor interference cited in “Television’s Most Censored Moments,” an enterprising documentary that aired earlier this summer on Trio. The American Gas Co. one of the sponsors, you may recall, and its advertising agency wanted all references to gas chambers removed from this drama about accountability for the Holocaust. Rains conspired with fellow cast members to defy the idiotic censorship and say “gas chamber” as originally written in the script, but a loathsome toady in the booth deleted the words with the flip of a switch. Alas, Babylon, indeed.
The list of names associated with “Playhouse 90” both behind and before the cameras was about as auspicious as a list can get, starting with the show’s first producer, Martin Manulis, and the legendary CBS executive, Hubbell Robinson, who with William S. Paley’s approval got the show on the air in the first place; when Paley saw how commercial breaks disrupted the dramas, he decreed that most “Playhouse 90’s” have commercials grouped at the beginning and end.
Actors participating included a virtual Who’s Who of stars. Johnny Carson, of all people, starred in the comedy classic “Three Men on a Horse.” Eartha Kitt and Oscar Homolka were odd-coupled in a TV adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s so-often-adapted “Heart of Darkness.” Another auspicious name that definitely merits mention is that of Oscar-winner Alex North, the composer who came up with the imposing musical theme that introduced “Playhouse 90” each week. That theme signaled something important ahead.
A two-part version of Hemingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls” starring Jason Robards, Maria Schell, Nehemiah Persoff and Eli Wallach was one of the later “Playhouse 90” productions, and it was all too clear for whom the bell was tolling. It was tolling for live drama.
“Bell” was also one of several “Playhouse 90s” to be directed by the late John Frankenheimer, who was intimately involved with the anthology from the beginning; “Days of Wine and Roses” was another of the several “90s” he directed. Frankenheimer often credited the tightrope walking he did on live TV with teaching him how to cope with unexpected catastrophes. He had a repertory of stories about on-the-air mishaps-the night the corpse got up and walked away and that sort of thing-and recounted one of them to the authors of “Television,” companion book to a so-so 1985 documentary made by England’s Granada TV and shown on public TV here.
Frankenheimer worked as assistant director on a particular production, whose title he could not recall. The director, also nameless in the anecdote, wanted to end one scene with a shot of star Lee Marvin smoking a cigarette and begin the next scene with Marvin talking in a telephone booth. Frankenheimer pointed out the obvious logistical problem: how to get Marvin from Point A to Point B in time to make the second shot. The director’s eventual solution: Put the phone booth on wheels so it could be rolled up to Marvin and as one camera moved in for a closeup of the cigarette smoldering in an ashtray Marvin could hop into the booth for the next shot.
Unfortunately when the live show aired and the camera moved in for the closeup of the smoking butt, Marvin experienced “this terrifi
c burst of adrenalin” common on live TV shows and hit the rolling phone booth at, Frankenheimer estimated, about 20 miles an hour. Result: It kept rolling, right across the studio floor, with a camera panning to keep up. “We even panned past one actress who was completely naked, changing for her next scene,” Frankenheimer recalled. The trip “came to an end when the booth hit the wall at the end of the studio.”
That adrenalin rush Marvin experienced was integral to the whole experience of doing live TV drama. It’s also what gives “Saturday Night Live” an indefinable extra spark of electricity, and it is something that cannot be simulated or faked on film. It gave live dramas like “Playhouse 90” the edgiest edge of all-even though having an “edge” wasn’t the cliche and badge of honor in those days that it is now.
We all know the factors that helped kill the genre: Economics, economics and economics. Filming programs and showing them over and over and over was ever so much more cost-effective. And dull.
But while their era lasted, “Playhouse 90” and its brethren brought glory and honor to television. “Playhouse 90” ended the age with artistry and excellence and will stand forever as a credit not only to CBS but to all those who ventured out onto the barren terrain of television and brought taste, dignity and class to the new frontier.
“My Favorite Year” was an affectionate look back at the comedy, not the drama, of TV’s Golden Age, and yet it’s hard to watch that film and not recall “Studio One”-also on CBS- and “Kraft Television Theater” and, naturally, “Playhouse 90” as well. The dramas were the real shows of shows, and director Richard Benjamin wisely began “My Favorite Year” with poetry that serves as an apt epitaph to the genre-the verse, just the verse, to Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust”:
“You wander down the lane and far away/ Leaving me a song that will not die/ Love is now the stardust of yesterday, the music of the years gone by.”
Tom Shales is a regular columnist for Electronic Media. His latest book, “Live From New York City: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live,” co-written with Jim Miller, will be published Oct. 5 by Little Brown.