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Original NBC Star Playhouse header art

The NBC Star Playhouse Radio Program

Dee-Scription: Home >> D D Too Home >> Radio Logs >> NBC Star Playhouse


New York Daily News Drama Critic John Chapman hosted the entire run of
NBC Star Playhouse























































































The Billboard revew of the premiere of NBC Star Playhouse from Oct 17 1953
The Billboard revew of the premiere of NBC Star Playhouse from Oct 17 1953

Background

As we've indicated in other Definitive articles, the 'playhouse' format was a popular staple of Radio Drama throughout the Golden Age of Radio. The 'theatre of the mind' that Radio had become almost from its first dramatic broadcasts, made the notion of live theatre being brought to the living rooms and parlors of post-Depression America both uplifting and entertaining for the exponentially growing Radio audiences of the 1930s and 1940s.

Even as other popular genres waxed and waned in popularity throughout the Golden Age of Radio, the 'playhouse drama,' usually showcasing one or two major Film or Stage stars of the era brought fine drama--and fine dramatic performances--to audiences who, for the most part, had never had the opportunity to enjoy such performances on Broadway or the larger, more prestigious drama venues of the era. And indeed, by the mid to late 1930s and early 1940s, the playhouse drama genre became a highly competitive programming vehicle among the three, then four major networks.

The 'playhouse format' appears to have been a popular recurring vehicle of choice for both the two major networks--CBS and NBC--and an emerging favorite of both MBS and ABC. And of course it was also a popular advertising vehicle of the era.

NBC had been a prolific producer of quality stage play adaptations throughout the Golden Age of Radio. Beginning in 1942, NBC had reinaugurated its concept of the NBC University of The Air and its companion NBC Inter-American University of The Air. Throughout the mid-1940s NBC produced some twenty-five productions conceived specifically to both educate and entertain. Indeed, many of those programs were incorporated into the curricula of high schools, colleges and universities throughout the U.S. and Canada.

Upon celebrating its 25th Anniversary throughout 1951 NBC found itself at a crossroads. Television was on the rise. NBC was straddling both Television and Radio and trying to utilize its capital to both promote its new Television productions while still maintaining a dominating presence in Radio--no mean feat for any network of the era. Still hoping to maintain its preeminence as a producer of prestigious dramatic productions, it enlisted the New York Drama Critics Circle's John Chapman, a drama critic for the New York Daily News to fashion a series of 'Best Plays' from the annual compilations of the Drama Critics' Circle. Originally compiled and edited by Robert Burns Mantle until his death in 1948, John Chapman had become Burns Mantle's protege, and continued the 'Annual Best Plays' compilations after Burns Mantle's death. Chapman continued to edit the Best Plays annuals until 1953.

In enlisting the talents of John Chapman for it's 1952 dramatic series Best Plays, NBC was assured of both selections of some of the finest Stage plays for the series, as well as a virtuoso critic to act as host for the series. Chapman waxed eloquently throughout the Best Plays broadcast prologues, framing each production with both its performance history and that of its playwright. Best Plays ran from June of 1952 through September of 1953, for a total of fifty-three broadcasts. Both the inaugural Summer Season of 1952 and the full season of 1953 were well received both critically and by the listening audiences. The series also attracted some equally prestigious sponsors during its run, including Packard Motor Cars, Seaboard Finance and Entre Cafeterias. But given the prohibitively expensive cost of the productions, the series finally came to an end on September 27, 1953.

NBC had been undertaking some ruthless cost-cutting measures throughout the late 1940s and 1950s in an effort to keep NBC Radio in the black, while at the same time promoting NBC Television productions. Continually persuading its affiliate stations to share part of the burden, NBC also set some arbitrary limits on its budgets for dramatic Radio productions. That budget, which had begun at approximately $5,000 per half-hour, had been halved by 1952 to a ceiling of $2,500 per half-hour.

NBC sustains NBC Star Playhouse, with John Chapman

All manner of 'playhouse' format programming had begun airing over the networks since 1949. NBC had already aired eighteen installments of Philip Morris Playhouse On Broadway from September 1951 to January 1952, at which point Philip Morris took its production to CBS for the remainder of the run. Several other 'Star Playhouse' type productions were also successfully competing for audiences of the era. It was both a strong format and a popular format. Major Film and Stage stars, performing in either critically acclaimed Stage plays or in productions specifically penned for a particular star and his or her talents were holding onto Radio audiences in spite of Television's incursions.

But NBC's Best Plays series--prestigious or not--hadn't seemed to be able to keep up with audience expectations of the era, flooded as they were with competing 'playhouse format' programming both lighter and featuring more popular stars of the era. NBC's solution was the best of both worlds: compelling dramatic vehicles presented and framed by their already established famous critic, John Chapman. Presented in an hour-long format, the full hour afforded the opportunity for both a finer production and to capture their audience for an hour instead of a half-hour--if they could keep the series compelling.

Against that backdrop, NBC premiered its NBC Star Playhouse on October 4, 1953, the week following its final production of Best Plays. No longer showcasing the 'Best Plays' from the Drama Critics Circle's annual compilations, the series mounted dramatic productions of demonstrated popularity, starring the most popular Film and Stage stars of the era--albeit within a dramatically reduced budget for each production.

But as the series unfolded, it soon appeared that NBC's reach was exceeding its grasp:

  • Previously announced featured stars couldn't make their commitments for one reason or another; among them, Jane Wyman, Judy Holiday, and Margaret O'Brien
  • Often announcing major Film or Stage talent to headline the productions, by air time a lesser known star was substituted.
  • The series was forced on three occasions to employ transcriptions from NBC's Best Plays canon to fill in for a failed or delayed production, John Chapman simply reintroducing and reframing the repeat from Best Plays.

In all fairness to NBC, both the Best Plays and NBC Star Playhouse productions were transcribed, the better to ensure they'd have a production to air, should any of the above mentioned situations arise. Failing to find a sponsor didn't help, either. Any full-hour production of the era was expensive to mount; moreso when NBC was on the hook for the entire budget.

If the handful of circulating exemplars of the series are any measure, the productions were indeed superbly mounted, with fine musical direction, crisp stage direction, excellent adaptations, and fine performances by the featured stars. But the series was a bit thin on the variety of name talent it showcased:

  • Husband and wife, Frederick March and Florence Eldrige, appeared together or separately in six of the twenty-eight productions.
  • Husband and wife Rex Harrison and Lili Palmer appeared together or separately in three of the twenty-eight productions.
  • Helen Hayes headlined two of the twenty-eight productions.
  • Joan Fontaine headlined two of the productions.
  • Margo headlined or costarred in two of the productions.

Thus, all told, seven stars headlined over half of the twenty-eight productions. Subtract from that, the three Best Plays transcriptions substituted at the last minute during the run, and only ten other original productions remained--half of those featuring well-seasoned character actors of the era, but clearly not the 'stars' the series promised.

Had the series been dubbed "NBC Twelve-Star Playhouse," it might have been a bit more accurate. As it was, the series ultimately folded at twenty-eight broadcasts comprising only twenty-five original productions; somewhat thin, overall, compared to what the series originally promised.

That's not to say that the series didn't present some potentially stand-out productions. We've yet to hear them, but one might well imagine that Cyril Ritchard's performance in Great Expectations would have set a high mark. Just as Helen Hayes must have in both What Every Woman Knows and Victoria Regina. Edward G. Robinson had to have been compelling in A Slight Case of Murder. And one can only imagine Glenn Ford's interpretation of The Lost Weekend. And, of course, Barbara Stanwyck's and Vincent Price's performances had to have been equally compelling.

Of the circulating exemplars from the canon, young Barbara Ruick, Lurene Tuttle's daughter, was charming--and competent--in Alice In Wonderland (appearing as a last minute substitute for the previously announced Margaret O'Brien). Alfred Drake acquited himself well as Marc Antony in Julius Caesar, with Santos Ortega as Julius Caesar, Staats Cotsworth as Cassius, and Alexander Scourby as Brutus. [Note: the Ides of March theme was all the more appropriate on March 14, 1954, since the IRS deadline for filing taxes was still March 15 in 1954]. Biography, starring Joan Fontaine was also a splendid production.

But as the series evolved, it left more and more to be desired and NBC wisely abandoned the project in favor of a new series it built around Dave Garroway. And so it was that Sunday with Dave Garroway ultimately inherited the prime-time Sunday night slot from NBC Star Playhouse--a potentially fine production idea whose reach simply exceeded its grasp during the waning years of The Golden Age of Radio.

Series Derivatives:

Best Plays; Philp Morris Playhouse On Broadway [NBC run]
Genre: Anthology of Golden Age Radio Stage Play Adaptations
Network(s): NBC
Audition Date(s) and Title(s): None
Premiere Date(s) and Title(s): 53-10-04 01 What Every Woman Knows
Run Dates(s)/ Time(s): 53-10-04 to 54-04-11; NBC; Twenty-eight, hour-long programs; Sundays, 8:00 p.m.
Syndication: NBC
Sponsors: Sustaining
Director(s): Ed King, Andrew C. Love, Fred Weihe [Directors]; William Welch [Supervising Producer]; in association with Gayle and Adams
Principal Actors: Helen Hayes, Frederic March, Margo, Myron McCormick, Rex Harrison, Lilli Palmer, Marlene Dietrich, Carl Esmond, Celeste Holm, Florence Eldridge, Angela Lansbury, Anna Lee, Margaret O'Brien, James Cagney, John Forsythe, Blanche Yurka, Paul Stewart, Van Johnson, Nina Foch, Edward G. Robinson, Leatrice Joy, Jeffrey Lynn, Glenn Ford, June Allyson, Barbara Stanwyck, Judy Holliday, Anne Seymour, Staats Cotsworth, Everett Sloane, Cyril Ritchard, Vincent Price, Judith Evelyn, Melville Cooper, Arthur Q. Bryan, Maya Gregory, Fritz Feld, Parley Baer, Jim Nusser, Dick Ryan, Jack Kruschen, Tony Michaels, Luis Van Rooten, Ralph Bell, Bill Lipton, Larry Dobkin, Marvin Miller, Ted Von Eltz, Georgia Ellis, Ann Seymour, John Seymour, Guy Spaull, Leona Powers, Richard Waring, Ed Jerome
Recurring Character(s): None
Protagonist(s): None
Author(s): Ring Lardner, Sam Berryman, Charles Jackson, Charles Dickens
Writer(s) Ernest Kinoy, Robert Kallman, Karl Hanmer
Music Direction: Henry Russell [Composer] and Robert Armbruster [Composer/Conductor]
Musical Theme(s): Original Henry Russell composition
Announcer(s): John Chapman [Host]
Fred Collins and John Wald [Announcers]
Estimated Scripts or
Broadcasts:
28 (25 original scripts)
Episodes in Circulation: 7
Total Episodes in Collection: 6
Provenances:

RadioGOLDINdex, Hickerson Guide, Martin Grams' Radio Drama.

Notes on Provenances:

The most helpful provenances were the log of the radioGOLDINdex and newspaper listings.

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[Date, title, and episode column annotations in
red refer to either details we have yet to fully provenance or other unverifiable information as of this writing. Red highlights in the text of the 'Notes' columns refer to information upon which we relied in citing dates, date or time changes, or titles.]







The NBC Star Playhouse Program Log

Date Episode Title Avail. Notes
53-10-04
1
What Every Woman Knows
N
53-10-04 Wisconsin State Journal
5:30 p.m. Star Playhouse (WIBA) new series; Helen Hayes in "
What Every Woman Knows".
53-10-11
2
A Bell For Adano
N
53-10-11 Wisconsin State Journal
5:30 p.m. Star Playhouse (WIBA): Frederic March in "
A Bell for Adano," with Margo, Myron McCormick.
53-10-18
3
No Time For Comedy
N
53-10-18 Wisconsin State Journal
5:30 p.m. Star Playhouse (WMAQ): Rex Harrison, Lilli Palmer in "
No Time for Comedy."
53-10-25
4
Grand Hotel
N
53-10-25 Wisconsin State Journal
5:30 p.m. Star Playhouse (WMAQ): Marlene Dietrich in "
Grand Hotel."
53-11-01
5
Victoria Regina
N
53-11-01 Wisconsin State Journal
7:30 p.m. Star Playhouse (WMAQ): Helen Hayes in "
Victoria Regina," with Carl Esmond.
53-11-08
6
Moby Dick
N
53-11-08 Wisconsin State Journal
7:30 p.m. Star Playhouse (WMAQ): Frederic March in "
Moby Dick."
53-11-15
7
Cluny Brown
N
53-11-15 Wisconsin State Journal
5:30 p.m. Star Playhouse (WIBA): Celeste Holm stars in "
Cluny Brown."
53-11-22
8
Twentieth Century
N
53-11-22 Wisconsin State Journal
7:30 p.m. Star Playhouse (WIBA): Lilli Palmer, Rex Harrison in "
20th Century".
53-11-29
9
There Shall Be No Night
N
53-11-29 Wisconsin State Journal
7:30 p.m. Star Playhouse (WIBA): Fredric March, Florence Eldridge in "
There Shall Be No Night".
53-12-06
10
Cashel Byron's Profession
N
53-12-06 Wisconsin State Journal
7:30 p.m. Star Playhouse (WIBA): Angela Lansbury in "
Cashel Byron's Profession".
53-12-13
11
A Farewell To Arms
N
53-12-13 Wisconsin State Journal
7:30 p.m. Star Playhouse (WIBA): Fredric March, Florence Eldredge in "
A Farewell to Arms".
53-12-20
12
The Second Man
N
53-12-20 Wisconsin State Journal
7:30 p.m. Star Playhouse (WIBA): Rex Harrison, Anna Lee in "
The Second Man."
53-12-27
13
Alice In Wonderland
Y
[Christmas Program; American Legion Commandant presents NBC with an award for its patriotic Radio and Television programming and its support of the American Legion]

53-12-27 Wisconsin State Journal
7:30 p.m. Star Playhouse (WIBA): Margaret O'Brien in "
Alice In Wonderland."
54-01-03
14
Champion
Y
[Truncated; close edited out]

54-01-03 Wisconsin State Journal
7:30 p.m. Star Playhouse (WIBA): James Cagney in "
The Champion".

54-01-03 Zanesville Times Recorder
Kilocycle Keyhole:
Tonight at 8:30 there's a real top-notcher on radio WHIZ. Jimmy Cagney the hard-hitting star, stars in the hard-hitting drama by Ring Lardner ... "
The Champion"

54-01-03 New York Times
8:30-9:25--NBC Star Playhouse: "
The Champion," With James Cagney--WBNC.
54-01-10
15
For Whom the Bell Tolls
N
54-01-10 Wisconsin State Journal
8 p.m.Star Playhouse (WIBA): "
For Whom the Bell Tolls," with John Forsythe, Blanche Yurka, Margo, Paul Stewart.
54-01-17
16
John Loves Mary
Y
54-01-17 Wisconsin State Journal
WIBA 8:00 Star Playhouse.

54-01-17 New York Times
9-9:55--NBC Star Playhouse:
John Loves Mary, With Van Johnson and Nina Foch--WNBC.
54-01-24
17
A Slight Case Of Murder
N
54-01-24 Wisconsin State Journal
8 p.m. Star Playhouse (WIBA): Edward G. Robinson in "
A Slight Case of Murder".
54-01-31
18
Sunset Boulevard
Y
54-01-31 Wisconsin State Journal
8 p.m. Star Playhouse (WIBA): Leatrice Joy, Jeffrey Lynn in "
Sunset Boulevard".
54-02-07
19
Biography
Y
54-02-07 Wisconsin State Journal
8 p.m. Star Playhouse (WMAQ): Joan Fontaine in "
Biography."
54-02-14
20
The Lost Weekend
N
54-02-14 Wisconsin State Journal
8 p.m. Star Playhouse (WIBA): Glenn Ford in "
The Lost Weekend".
54-02-21
21
The Major and the Minor
N
54-02-21 Wisconsin State Journal
8 p.m. Star Playhouse (WIBA): June Allyson in "
The Major and the Minor".
54-02-28
22
The Lady Eve
N
54-02-28 Wisconsin State Journal
8 p.m. Star Playhouse (WIBA): Barbara Stanwyck in "
The Lady Eve."
54-03-07
23
Dream Girl
N
54-03-07 Wisconsin State Journal
8 p.m. Star Playhouse (WIBA): Judy Holliday in "
Dream Girl".
54-03-14
24
Julius Caesar
Y
54-03-14 Wisconsin State Journal
8 p.m. Star Playhouse
Julius Caesar," with Anne Seymour, Staats Cotsworth, Everett Sloane.
54-03-21
25
Great Expectations
N
54-03-28 Wisconsin State Journal
8 p.m. Star Playhouse (WIBA): Cyril Ritchard in "
Great Expectations".
54-03-28
26
Madame Bovary
N
54-03-28 Wisconsin State Journal
8 p.m. Star Playhouse (WIBA): Joan Fontaine in "
Mme. Bovary".
54-04-04
27
Angel Street
N
54-04-04 Wisconsin State Journal
8 p.m. Star Playhouse (WIBA): Vincent Price in "
Angel Street," with Judith Evelyn, Melville Cooper.
54-04-11
28
Death Of A Salesman
N
54-04-11 Wisconsin State Journal
8 p.m. Star Playhouse (WIBA): Frederic March, Florence Eldridge in "
Death of a Salesman".
54-04-18
--
--
54-04-18 Wisconsin State Journal
WIBA 8:00 Sunday with Garroway









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