The Pepsi-Cola Playhouse


© History Oasis

As the early 1950s saw television rapidly gain prominence as a new mass entertainment medium, The Pepsi-Cola Playhouse emerged in 1953 as an ambitious anthology drama series, emblematic of a brief creative period when corporate sponsors invested in quality prestige programming.

While the show aired on ABC in the two years prior to Rosa Parks sparking the Montgomery Bus Boycott and early Cold War tensions mounting, The Pepsi-Cola Playhouse stood out for fusing advertising, Hollywood talent, and imaginative live storytelling on a new visual platform still discovering its artistic voice.

Though brief in its two-season, 80-episode anthology run cut short by declining ratings, The Pepsi-Cola Playhouse represented an important transitional link between TV's experimental era to its later mass-appeal sitcoms and dramas.


Portrait of Lucille Ball
© History Oasis

The creative forces behind The Pepsi-Cola Playhouse reflected the diverse talents propelling early television's rise.

Actress and producer Lucille Ball served as the development impetus for the anthology series.

Ball pioneered television production through her Desilu Studios, and brought her artistic vision to shaping the dramatic showcases featured on The Pepsi-Cola Playhouse weekly.

The opening theme song also bore the compositional flair of 20th century musical giant George Gershwin.

That a titan from the world of Broadway and Tin Pan Alley contributed the signature tune for The Pepsi-Cola Playhouse underscored television's ability to synthesize contributions from all artistic spaces.

Much as Pepsi's sponsorship connected consumer branding to creative programming, Gershwin's theme united television's visual format with classic compositions from other mediums.

In these two creative figures—pioneering producer Ball and acclaimed composer Gershwin—we see how The Pepsi-Cola Playhouse bridged multiple realms of show business while forging television's early identity as a new storytelling form, reliant on expansive artistic talents.

Their involvement elevated the production quality and cultural weight of a live anthology series sponsored by a soft drink company—no trivial achievement for early network television.


portrait of Arlene Dahl
© History Oasis

The on-air talent featured on The Pepsi-Cola Playhouse reflected the breadth of performers that anthology showcases assisted in promoting.

Over its two-season span, the series featured three different female hosts—Arlene Dahl, Anita Colby and Polly Bergen.

This array of charismatic actresses presided over an unpredictable mix of dramatic and comedic episodes aired live each week. Bergen's comedic background and Colby's modeling experience allowed them to adeptly engage the viewing audience between tonal shifts.

The individual teleplays also benefited from famous guest stars, akin to special guest appearances common during the vaudeville era.

Performers like Charles Bronson, Lee Marvin and Vera Miles underscored the production quality and appointment viewing status expected of The Pepsi-Cola Playhouse.

For both the regular hosts and weekly guest stars, this branded drama series provided early acting opportunities that helped launch extensive careers on the large and small screen.

In transitional early television history, where programs moved from live theatrical presentations to filmed episodes, The Pepsi-Cola Playhouse represented an important training ground and exposure platform for new talent.

Its unpredictable variety and sponsors-enabled production budgets allowed charismatic performers to reach mainstream popularity through a show backed by Pepsi's distribution and marketing.

In the breadth of its hosting lineup and cameo appearances by future stars, the series demonstrated commercial television's growth potential as a medium for acting prospects outside New York theaters and Hollywood studios.


the studio where The Pepsi-Cola Playhouse was fillmed
© History Oasis

As one of ABC's early staged dramatic anthology series, The Pepsi-Cola Playhouse originated as a weekly live production in 1953.

However, the limitations of early 1950s television soon necessitated a shift in format. In its second season, the show switched to filmed episodes, which eased the tight production schedule and enabled higher quality visuals.

This change also reflected Desilu Studios' proficiency in pioneering TV filming techniques to create a more polished end product.

Over its two season run until 1955, The Pepsi-Cola Playhouse produced a total of 80 episodes—an impressive output for a primetime drama series in just a few years. But the loss of control over syndication rights , in addition to declining ratings, cut short its lifespan.

Very few kinescopes or early film recordings have survived across the decades. Today, only a handful of episodes remain as testimony to the talents involved and diversity of imaginative stories told under The Pepsi-Cola Playhouse banner.

As with much early television programming across news, comedy and drama, large swaths of creative content have evaporated over time—making the show's cultural contribution harder to properly assess.

The transition from live to filmed anthologies also signified the industrial shifts soon to transform the television landscape in the late 1950s.

But for a brief period, The Pepsi-Cola Playhouse offered imaginative escapism and dramatic performing opportunities, bridging early TV's experimental era with its later consolidated, mass entertainment role.


© History Oasis

The Pepsi-Cola Playhouse garnered critical acclaim during its brief run, as evidenced by two Primetime Emmy nominations.

Competing directly with longer-running corporate sponsored anthology series on NBC and CBS, the ABC dramatic showcase was nominated for Outstanding Dramatic Anthology Series—recognizing the quality of writing, acting and production obtained across weekly, stand-alone filmed episodes.

Lead actress Arlene Dahl also received an Emmy nomination in 1954 for Outstanding Lead Actress, honoring her on-air hosting duties and lead acting performances across select episodes.

For a fledgling ABC series with only a two-season span to make an impact, these Emmy nominations indicated how The Pepsi-Cola Playhouse measured up against anthology veterans in the creative primetime sphere.

That such a short-lived, branded program could stand alongside venerable series like The U.S. Steel Hour and Philco Television Playhouse is a testament to the level of talent, imagination and dedicated sponsorship enabling The Pepsi-Cola Playhouse to thrive during network TV's dynamic expansion in the early 1950s—even if its later cancellation confirmed the fickleness of primetime dramatic anthologies at the dawn of the sitcom wave.


a colored TV of the 1950s
© History Oasis

As commercial television matured in the early 1950s, technological innovations slowly transitioned programming toward full color broadcasting.

The Pepsi-Cola Playhouse stood at the forefront of this development - as one of the first network series to feature full color transmissions in tandem with its filmed episodes.

This necessitated an evolution in production, lighting, staging and camerawork—to take creative advantage of NBC's color studio system by 1954.

The added vividness undoubtedly enhanced set pieces, costume design and overall visual dynamism—vital for an anthology series aiming to make an impression on audiences tuned to competitors.

Though most households still owned black-and-white sets at this transitional phase, NBC's limited color broadcasts hinted toward the eventual industry standard, with The Pepsi-Cola Playhouse among the first non-spectacular programs enhancing drama storylines through splashy early color production values made possible by corporate sponsorship.

As color broadcasting spread nationwide in the late 1950s, the visual pop and creative partitioning between episodes pioneered by The Pepsi-Cola Playhouse and select contemporaries provided useful learning lessons for a maturing television business.


portrait of Lucille Ball sad
© History Oasis

Despite earning critical plaudits and industry award recognition, The Pepsi-Cola Playhouse struggled to build a consistent audience throughout its two season run.

As with most early television dramatic anthologies, the series faced notable ratings declines leading to its cancellation in 1955.

Unable to compete with variety hours and situation comedies on rival networks, the precipitous loss of viewership signifies how quickly primetime preferences were changing as the 1950s progressed.

It's possible the very anthology format - with no recurring characters to build loyalty among viewers—hurt prospects.

Rising production costs for what was still a fledgling ABC series likely also played a role. But the unfortunate timing of launching an anthology just as audiences were shifting to sitcoms and westerns appears the most logical explanation, despite the show's quality.

So while nominating The Pepsi-Cola Playhouse for Emmys symbolized industry acknowledgment, the lack of sustaining public interest to justify continued sponsorship abbreviated its tenure.

Nonetheless, brief primetime visibility helped rising actors and served as a marker that event television, predicated less on familiar plotlines and personalities than spectacle and novelty, would struggle without independent financing or a change in network mandates.

The Playhouse’s ambitious formula could not escape the harsh realities of commercial viability.