Nothing Cheesy About It: The Story of KRAFT SUSPENSE THEATRE

By John C. Alsedek:



Memory is the strangest thing, isn’t it? For example: a few years back, I was going down random rabbit holes on YouTube (you all do that, right?) when a clip started and I instantly froze. The frantic, threatening orchestral music and the spooky, surreal animation . . . I’d seen this before! And I even remembered exactly where. It had been in my grandparents’ living room, Locust Lane in Harrisburg, 1 p.m. Sunday afternoon . . . it was raining out, so I was watching TV at a time when I’d have normally been out playing . . . WTAF Channel 29, Philadelphia. It was the only time I ever saw the show.


That had been FIFTY YEARS AGO! See what I mean about memory being a strange thing?


Anyway, that clip I’m talking about was the intro to Kraft Suspense Theatre, a TV anthology series that originally aired on NBC from 1963 until 1965. Sponsored by Kraft Foods (of macaroni & cheese fame), Kraft Suspense Theatre was produced by the production company of singing star Perry Como, Roncom Films (named for Como’s son, Ronnie). At first, that might seem like an unlikely combination: crime dramas produced by the most squeaky-clean man on television. But Como hosted his own program for Kraft, Kraft Music Hall, that aired once a month; Kraft Suspense Theatre filled the same one-hour time slot for the other three weeks each month.



Though Kraft Suspense Theatre was technically a new production, it’s generally considered to be the continuation of two other closely linked anthology programs also sponsored by Kraft. The first and longest-lived was Kraft Television Theatre, which ran from 1947 until 1958, totaling some 650 episodes. Intro’d by a cute stop-motion camera figurine and broadcast live from Studio 8-H at 30 Rockefeller Plaza (the current home of Saturday Night Live), Kraft Television Theatre was perhaps one of the most influential TV series of all time, having launched the careers of countless actors, directors, and writers; perhaps the best-known of these is the late, great Rod Serling, who won his first Emmy in 1955 for the pioneering teleplay "Patterns." Viewed as a prestige series by NBC, it was a solid if unspectacular performer in the Nielsen ratings, peaking at #14 for the 1950–1951 season and generally finishing in the mid-twenties or thirties.


By 1958, Kraft Television Theatre had run its course; the last episode was an adaptation of the one-act Tennessee Williams play "This Property Is Condemned," which aired on October 1, 1958. However, before then it had already morphed into its next form: a summer replacement series titled Kraft Mystery Theatre, which ran sporadically until 1963. Kraft Mystery Theatre kept the one-hour anthology format but dropped the dramas and comedies of its predecessor in favor of, you guessed it, mysteries. The new program was hosted by Frank Gallop, a radio and television veteran best known as the creepy "floating head" host of the 1950–1952 horror/supernatural TV anthology Lights Out. Apparently, there were two different Kraft Mystery Theatre programs, both hosted by Gallop; the original ran for 18 episodes during the summer of 1958, and then a second one filled that same summer spot until 1963. What differences (if any) there were between the two iterations of Kraft Mystery Theatre are a mystery to me, as there’s not a lot of information around about the series.


The final episode of Kraft Mystery Theatre was "Man Without a Witness" starring Lin McCarthy; it aired on September 25, 1963 (side note: McCarthy also starred in the final episode of the great Boris Karloff anthology Thriller just a year earlier. Was Lin McCarthy the proto-Ted McGinley? Hahaha). The first episode of Kraft Suspense Theatre came just two weeks later, on October 10. Due to the lack of information on Kraft Mystery Theatre, I’m not sure if that show and its successor used the same theme music and/or animated intro; I do know that legendary composer John Williams (then a fresh-faced 30-year-old) is listed as having done the theme for the final season of Kraft Mystery Theatre, so it might very well be the same piece of music.


Kraft Suspense Theatre apparently began with a pilot episode, "Shadow of a Man," on June 19, 1963; I say "apparently" because "Shadow of a Man" is listed as both the Kraft Suspense Theatre pilot and Episode 1 of Season 3 of the Kraft Mystery Theatre. Its official run began on October 10, 1963 with "The Case Against Paul Ryker," starring Lee Marvin; it would end up being the pilot for a new series, Court Martial. A total of 60 episodes of Kraft Suspense Theatre were produced between October 1963 and July 1, 1965; it was unusual for the early 1960s in that the entire run was produced in color, even though over 95 percent of households still had black-and-white television sets in the early 1960s.


Over the past few years, I’ve noticed episodes of Kraft Suspense Theatre on YouTube but never actually watched them—I started to a couple of times, but for someone who grew up on the moody, evocative black-and-white shows such as The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits (not to mention the gothic horror of Boris Karloff’s Thriller!), Kraft Suspense Theatre looked a little too Leave It to Beaver suburban to me. But before I wrote this, I binged episodes for two nights. And you know what? It’s really good! The show is a very different animal than The Twilight Zone or Thriller—or even than Alfred Hitchcock Presents, to which it’s occasionally compared. The episodes lean more toward crime drama and suspense (it’s in the title, after all!) than the aforementioned shows, and while that’s generally not my cup of tea, they’re so well performed that I found myself drawn in. My favorites of the ones I watched were "The Case Against Paul Ryker," starring Lee Marvin, Vera Miles, and Bradford Dillman; and "The Threatening Eye," starring Jack Klugman, Annie Fargue, and Phyllis Thaxter. But there wasn’t a bad one of the bunch I watched, and if you’re a fan of sixties drama, I’d very highly recommend giving Kraft Suspense Theatre a watch.



Among the great talents who directed on Kraft Suspense Theatre were Robert Altman, Buzz Kulik, Sydney Pollack . . . and Hollywood renaissance woman Ida Lupino. We’ll be taking a look at Lupino’s career and influence next time. Until then, thanks for tuning in!

 

SUSPENSE writer, producer, and radio-drama aficionado John C. Alsedek shares the history of early radio and television and the impact it has made on the world of entertainment in his ongoing series for Flapper Press.

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