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Fireside Theatre

NBC (ended 1955)



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Fireside Theatre

Show Summary

Fireside Theatre was the first successful filmed drama series on television at a time when everything else on the networks was being produced live. The first brief "season" was one of experimentation, with shows of every type being tried, from brief filmed and live dramas to ballet to Broadway reviews. By the second season (the first full season), the series had settled on filmed episodes, generally fifteen minutes in length, that were paired together to fill a half-hour program. The subjects were primarily dramas, with mysteries and a few comedies thrown in. By the next season, the series was concentrating on full half-hour dramas. Since the West Coast was not yet connected to the national coaxial cables, Fireside Theatre was one of the networks' first series to originate from Hollywood. Many episodes were filmed at the Hal Roach Studios in California. The driving force behind the program was a one-man-band named Frank Wisbar. His "Frank Wisbar Productions" produced most of the series and was able to keep costs down because Wisbar often produced, wrote, directed and hosted the episodes himself. Whenever possible, he adapted public domain stories as scripts. Through mid-1951, the weekly cost of producing the series was a paltry $17,000. During the series' final two seasons, actor Gene Raymond was hired as host and starred as a performer in numerous episodes. Fireside was a top ten ratings hit for most of its run, airing in the cushy time slot following TV's biggest hit, Texaco Star Theater starring Milton Berle. By 1955, the ratings had begun to sag and the sponsor, Proctor & Gamble, decided to overhaul the program to such a degree that it became a totally new series. Jane Wyman Presents the Fireside Theatre is the program it became. Beginning in 1951, the 50-plus segments produced for the 1949-1950 season were repackaged as Royal Playhouse and sold into syndication. Other later episodes were syndicated under various titles including TV Theater and Theatre Time. They also turned up on the networks during the 1950s packaged together with reruns of other programs to air as a summer filler series with new titles.moreless
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  • Fireside Theatre was a pioneer filmed series of half-hour stories for television, produced on a low budget for an emerging market - and it retains its power to entertain those who believe an interesting story should be told swiftly and simply.moreless

    It is lamentable that Fireside Theatre is not presently being televised and is a highly unlikely candidate for home video release, as its well-told stories endearingly reflect the era in which they were created. Sponsored on NBC by Procter & Gamble beginning in 1949, at which time television customarily aired either live broadcasts or vintage theatrical features, the series was made as economically as possible, its focus being on intriguing stories rather than renowned actors.

    An anthology series, Fireside Theatre focused on scripts with appeal for the entire family. Producer-director Frank Wisbar sometimes used vintage public domain short stories by such authors as Bret Harte. At other times, he found older magazine stories which could be converted into teleplays. The 26-minute length of each film required compressed action, great economy of language, and dramatic shortcuts which seem quaintly charming today. A stock company of sorts was assembled, with most actors working in numerous installments of the series over the years.

    Melodramas, historical dramas, comedies, family stories, and an occasional western showed up on Fireside Theatre over the years. Above all else, the show was characterized by the swiftness with which the individual stories unfolded. As was the case with all half-hour anthology series, no viewer had to wait very long for the denouement of each individual tale. Character development had to be addressed with what would seem to be alarming rapidity to later generations familiar with the two-hour "made-for-television" film. Viewers in the early 1950s found the stories satisfying, and this was among the highest-rated network programs of its era.

    German-born series producer Frank Wisbar served as on-camera host for a time, and a "backstage bouquet" was tossed to a member of the production staff at the end of the program. In the autumn of 1953, actor Gene Raymond took over as host. Later, after the original Wisbar-produced series ended production, there was a revamped version of the show hosted by Jane Wyman. It is the delightful Wisbar-generated Fireside Theatre series, however, which remains vividly and warmly recalled by those who enjoyed the uncomplicated stories during their initial network run and in many syndicated situations, sometimes under another title, which ran in some markets until the early '70s.

    The half-hour filmed anthology format disappeared long ago. The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents are much-appreciated exponents of that particular genre. Fireside Theatre was the first, setting the stage and the tone for all the shows which followed during the 1950s and 1960s. It is a classic format, many of the individual episodes remain memorable, and as a pioneering filmed series from the first years of American television, Fireside Theatre merits re-examination and appreciation sixty years after its initial appearance on NBC.moreless