Biographical / Historical
The Kraft Television Theatre Oral History Project is the result of a year-long study undertaken by the former Center for Advertising History. The objective of the project was to create a collection of oral history interviews that documentated the history and development of Kraft Television Theater, especially the relationship between advertising and the origins of commercial sponsorship in the early days of television programming.
Oral history interviews with fourteen former Kraft and J Walter Thompson executives were conducted in 1992 by Tom Wiener, a free-lance writer and oral historian under contract to the former Center for Advertising History. Included were Ed Herlihy, the voice of many of Kraft's memorable commercials; James Blocki, Richard Courtice, Chester Green, and Robert Powell, the architects of Kraft's advertising and marketing strategies in the television era; directors George Roy Hill and Fielder Cook, who launched their successful careers at Kraft Television Theatre; Marion Dougherty, one of Hollywood's leading casting directors who also got her start on KTT; and Dorothy Holland, a veteran of Kraft's Consumer Affairs Department and the company's first female Vice President.
The oral history interviews chart the evolution of Kraft's approach to television, from its pioneering efforts in the mediums infancy to the search to maintain identity in an increasing competitive and fragmented media landscape. Casting, directing and production of the live dramas and the commercials are discussed at length. Kraft's philosophy of advertising, its relationship with J Walter Thompson advertising agency and NBC, and consumer outreach are also featured.
On May 7, 1947, at 7:30 p.m. in New York City, advertising made a first significant step into the television era with the debut of Kraft Television Theatre. The program, which became the first regularly scheduled dramatic series on network TV presented weekly live adaptations of plays featuring performers familiar to New York theater goers. Included in each week's installment were commercials for Kraft Cheese Company products.
Kraft's foray into a new advertising medium grew out of the company's progressive advertising policies and its long running association with its primary advertising agency, J. Walter Thompson. Kraft was founded by James Lewis Kraft, a Canadian-born entrepreneur who in 1903 began buying cheese from Chicago wholesalers and peddling it from a horse-drawn wagon. Through acquisitions of other companies and their established brands, as well as development of new products, Kraft's company steadily grew into a leader in the cheese and dairy products business.
As early as 1911, Kraft began advertising on Chicago elevated trains and billboards. In 1919, Kraft inaugurated a 70-year tradition of advertising in such national magazines as Ladies Home Journal and Good Housekeeping. Fourteen years later, looking for a vehicle to promote its newest product, Miracle Whip Salad Dressing, Kraft entered the electronic era with The Kraft Program, hosted by popular bandleader Paul Whiteman on the NBC Radio Network.
Soon renamed The Kraft Music Hall, the show also acquired a new host, crooner Bing Crosby. Crosby's relaxed style was mirrored in the Music Hall's commercials. As written by J. Walter Thompson staffers, they possessed a relaxed, conversational tone, extolling the practical uses of Miracle Whip, Velveeta and other Kraft products.
The Music Hall continued on the air until 1949, but by that time, Kraft Television Theatre was into its third season, well established as the leading dramatic series on the air. Kraft Television Theatre provided a unique laboratory for both its sponsor and Thompson. As with the Music Hall, Thompson actually produced the program: its staffers adapted the dramas, directed them, and hired the casts. NBC provided only technical facilities and crew. Each week, in effect, was opening night for a play that was performed live in front of bulky cameras, under hot lights. Working with modest budgets, producer-directors Stanley Quinn, Maury Holland, and Harry Herrmann took an important first step toward exploiting the potential of television to inform and entertain.
For its part, Kraft drew on the tradition established in its radio ads. From the start, Kraft acted as if it were a guest in the viewer's home, which led to a remarkably effective means of presenting its products. No human face was ever seen, only a pair of hands demonstrating the uses of the product, as a reassuring voice explained the virtues of Cheez Whiz, Draft Cheddar, or any number of products from Draft's expanding line.
In 1958, after eleven years and over 600 programs, Kraft Television Theatre left the air. The show's ratings had slipped under increased competition from mystery and adventure shows filmed in Hollywood as well as quiz shows. Kraft's single sponsorship didn't end with the demise of the Television Theatre. It revived the Music Hall, quite successfully, with Perry Como, whose relaxed personality was a throwback to Bing Crosby. In later years, Kraft chose to be sole sponsor of several specials a year, including the Country Music Association Awards show. Although these programs were pre-recorded, Kraft continued to produce its commercials live through the 1960's, with those same hands and that same soothing voice. Kraft's place in both television and advertising history is secure. Kraft Television Theatre launched a decade of live televised drama that is still regarded as the cornerstone of TV's Golden Age. And the Kraft "hands" commercials are a reminder of the effectiveness of a low-key, low-tech approach to promoting products as humble as Velveeta and Miracle Whip.
As part of a program to document and study modern advertising, the former Center for Advertising History selected Kraft Television Theatre as the last in a series of case studies of significant American advertising campaigns.