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.