There was a Golden Decade in American television between the years 1952-1963 when live theatre performances were aired live on the young ABC Television network. The show was called — ”The United States Steel Hour” — and it was produced by The Theatre Guild, and we’ve never had such a perfect blending of live performance for a national audience.
For a decade, new writers and actors were discovered, and the U.S. Steel Hour set the standard for quality television programming that no other effort has been able to match or sustain since for even a tenth of the show’s run.
My good friend, and mentor, Marshall Jamison, worked as a producer and a director on the U.S. Steel Hour and it was a high-stakes, higher-pressure job. Mistakes were common. You had to learn how to recover your thoughts in real time with no mulligans.
ABC was a new network trying to get a foothold in American homes and The Theatre Guild was dedicated to producing only the best theatre possible — in performance on a stage or television set did not matter — The Guild was only interested in sustained excellence.
With the introduction of digital editing and the concept of “live on tape” that took hold in the 1960’s — there was too much risk is producing a live production every week and the show was canceled in the names of cost and convenience and accessibility — and television hasn’t been any good since.
We owe our theatre and television pioneers a debt of gratitude and a bucket of thanks for the hard work they did blazing a path of access and viability for new work to be seen by, and to be shared with, a whole new audience hungry to see something fascinating on what would later become The Boob Tube.
It’s hard to believe today that there was a time in America when the television set was a special and revered guest in the home — just as radio was before it — and to remember those divine moments of live performance, and the inspiration it brought to the masses, all helped create a high expectation of quality on a live stage, and that recognition of a national aesthetic is the greatest gift The Theatre Guild and ABC could’ve ever left behind for rediscovery and, we hope, a resurrection one day.
I would think in this digital age in which we live, it would be even easier to bring back the Theater Guild. Maybe it just has to be a small production — individuals instead of corporations that do it.
The Theatre Guild was founded by the Washington Square Players — and their idea was to promote and produce performances of non-commercial Playwrights and to bring over Playwrights from other countries and give them their first USA productions. It was a magnificent and noble idea that had tremendous success. We have no producers like that today.