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Fireside Theatre: Low Budget, But Still Popular

The show called Fireside Theatre was one of the anthology drama series that started in 1949. It was aired on NBC Television Network in that year and lasted until 1958. The show’s name might be familiar to some people, especially if they’re approaching sixty or seventy years of age. 

While the show didn’t receive too much kindness from its critics, it’s still considered as the first successful TV series that was filmed in the history of American television. Perhaps the critics didn’t think too much of the fact that this show had quite a low budget

Even with the negative critics’ reviews at the time, The Fireside Theatre show was still more than a decent success. The low budget meant that the featured stories were usually public domain and penned by freelance writers. According to some sources, this show was among the top ten most popular plays. It also had an impressive 7 seasons, which is much more than we see in the very early drama anthology series. 

The directors of this show did vary, even though they had outdated equipment to work with. In addition to the success, Fireside Theatre also had a few directors in addition to its regular one. Jacques Tourneur, for instance, has directed no less than three episodes ‘Kistri’s’, ‘The Mirror’,  and ‘A Hero Return’. Incidentally, the show ‘I Love Lucy’ also aired after just two years of Fireside Theatre. 

Jane Wyman, and Sidney Lanfield, both directors of Fireside Theatre, are mainly responsible for directing most of the episodes. The creator of Fireside Theatre, however, was Frank Wisbar, who both directed full episodes and also wrote them. 

For the first six years, the program Fireside Theatre was given a hose to connect with the audience and move the narrative forward. Frank Wisbar was the first host, General Raymond second, and Jane Wyman. When this program was having reruns on ABC during summer in 1963, the title on the episodes was ‘Jane Wyman Presents’. When the first-run episodes were the one hosted by Wyman, the title was sometimes changed to ‘The Jane Wyne’s Show’. 

Another name for Fireside Theatre was Jane Wyman Presents. This was because Jane was the person most connected with this series, at least in the public eye. This is why it’s sometimes called the Jane Wyne’s Show.

Among the most interesting offers from Fireside Theatre is a condensed version of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol’. This featured Ralph Richardson playing Ebenezer Scrooge. He would then go on to recreate the role, just for a moment. This might be construed as a sign that he enjoyed playing this role.  . 

The most praised episode of Fireside Theatre is probably ‘The Lottery’. This episode was especially appreciated by Billboard magazine. The latter stated that the cast was ‘all turned in taint, exciting performance to make’. This episode also aired live, which we can’t say about other forms of entertainment. 

Billboard also voted the drama series itself at the fourth-best in 1954. This was ahead of the show ‘General Electric Theater’, which is admittedly more memorable now. However, the list from Billboard excluded many mystery shows. 

The ratings for Fireside Theatre were quite high, so we’d count this as an impressive hit for the NBC channel. It was always with the top 30 shows after every season ended. However, in 1956 to 1957, the ratings for Fireside Theatre. After this rut, the show never got into the Top 30 again.

Seasonal ratings, which are based on the total views per episode, were also  quite high until very near the end.  Part of this might have been because the show started out as a way to showcase new ideas. 

In fact, Fireside Theatre was among the first-ever filmed dramatic shows that were produced initially just for American televisions.

Sidney Lanfied and Jane Wyman on the set of Fireside Theatre in 1955

The first three months of the Fireside Theatre’s running, directors were simply using the show as a way to film the dramatic content written by freelancers and anyone else who wanted to voice their story ideas. Some of these ideas were broadcast, while others were recorded. The producers would try out these ideas and the network executives would see if they could possibly be included on the network schedule, perhaps even as a show of their own. 

The first-ever episode of Fireside Theatre is also a sort of situation comedy. The name of this episode was ‘Friend of the Family’, with Peter Barry, Virginias Gilmore, and Yun Brynner. Among the musical revues for this episode was Leonard Sillman’s popular ‘New Faces’. 

Win Elliot started out as the original announcer for Fireside Theatre. However, he left the show after just eight telecasts. After this, the show went on for a few years without any regular announcer or host. 

In 1949, this show started airing film stories. These would usually be dramas, movies, and other sorts of entertainment. Further on, the magazine TV Guide would say that these are just ‘quickie’ films. One came out every 2-3 days, and the majority of the dramas were within 15 minutes in length. There would also be two of these sessions in a week. When 1950 began, however, every telecast was a 30-minute one.

In 1952, the host was Frank Wisbar. He was also the producer, and felt like having the same host would give the series some continuity. This was a logical step, as most of the actors and actresses were only hired for one-time gigs. 

Gene Raymond would act as host and actor in 1953 to 1955. He appeared in several of the dramatized stories as well.  From 1954 to 1955, producers wanted to go with a regular group of actors, including Dorothy Malone and George Brent. 

Of course, the host that’s usually identified the most with the show was Jane Wyman—she first appeared as host in 1955. She was also a part of several episodes, and the show was eventually renamed to become The Jane Wyman Show. Special theme music was also written especially for her. 

When Ms. Wyman was not available during this time, well-known actors were engaged instead. These included Gene Lockhart, Keenan Wynn, Imogene Coca, etc.

This program was to continue until spring 1958. Even after it retired, it still saw a very long syndicated run. Reruns on NBC were a summer replacement during 1954. ABC also ran them during 1963 under the name ‘Jane Wyman Presents’. 

Conclusion

Before and after Jane Wyman became a part of the show, it’s evident that Fireside Theatre was quite a popular hit during the 1950s. It might not have been the most star-studded show or the one with consistently high ratings. However, it did give rise to several hundred dramas and proved that a filmed series was valuable for the medium of television. 

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