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Hirschfeld's Play of the Week

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“The most agonized drama in the TV industry was going on behind the scenes of the best dramatic series on television.  In imminent danger of being thrown off the air, with most hope gone and little help in sight, the series was saved by the happiest of endings in the corporate board room…” (LIFE, January 25, 1960, p. 79)

The Play of the Week was an anthology series, broadcast on NTA from October 1959 to May 1961.  It aired a total of 67 productions over 3 seasons, seen in the New York area on WNTA, Channel 13.   Many of the presentations were adapted from recent stage productions, and showcased New York actors and directors.   The Dybbuk, directed by Sidney Lumet, is available on DVD in the Library’s Circulating Collection.

A well-publicized campaign to rescue the highly acclaimed series was led by National Telefilm Associates’ (NTA) Ely Landau and advertising agency head David Oglivy.  NTA expressed its gratitude to supporters by letter and through a full-page thank you note in The New York Times.   The January 15, 1960, full page advertisement repeated the Thank you in various sizes and weights. 

NTA’s gratitude may have also resulted in a much more decorative thank you.  The Billy Rose Theatre Division has a large limited edition portfolio of Al Hirschfeld lithographs illustrating productions from Season 2 of the series.  It is likely that the portfolio was a particularly wonderful pledge gift. 

On exhibition on the 3rd floor currently are 3 of the lithographs—illustrating the Play of the Week productions of Henry IV, part 1, The Dybbuk, and Rashomon, the last two examples of Sidney Lumet's television work.  The Hirschfeld illustrations are based on his drawings of the recent Broadway or Off-Broadway productions on which they were adapted.  There were different actors cast in major roles; two broadcasts featured actors in dramatic roles then known better for musicals—Theodore Bikel (The Dybbuk) had been the first Captain von Trapp, while Carol Lawrence  and James Mitchell (Rashomon) were famous for their West Side Story and Brigadoon roles. 

The Rashomon lithograph is particularly striking.  The play by Fay Kanin (based on the same short stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa  as the better known film by Akira Kurosawa) concerns lying—is the husband, the wife or the bandit telling the truth about their encounter?   The three characters are shown in a beautifully balanced triangle of drapery, swords and cheekbones,  The never-resolved triangle reminded me of the ending of House of Flying Daggers (2004).  It is similar to the New York Times illustration for the play, as reproduced on the Al Hirschfeld Foundation's web site.   I put various versions of Rashomon and some of NYPL's many books on Hirschfeld into this  list.

The lithographs show:

  • Stephen Joyce, Eric Berry and Nan Martin in Henry IV, Part 1 (broadcast September 20, 1960)
  • Ludwig Donath, Carol Lawrence and Theodore Bikel in The Dybbuk (broadcast October 3, 1960)
  • Ricardo Montalbano, Carol Lawrence and James Mitchell in Rashomon  (broadcast December 12, 1960)

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