Celebrating 70 years of ‘Hallmark Hall of Fame’

On Christmas Eve 1951, NBC aired the very first “Hallmark Hall of Fame” with the world premiere of Gian Carlo Menotti’s Christmas opera “Amahl and the Night Visitors.” Rosemary Kuhlman and 12-year-old Chet Allen starred in this Peabody and Christopher Award-winning holiday story of the three Magi who stay with a young physically disabled boy and his widowed mother on their way to Bethlehem to find the Christ child.  The presentation was so popular, the cast reprised their roles the following April.  The production was done three more times in the 1950s on NBC, but Bill McIver played Amahl because Allen’s voice had changed.

The “Hallmark Hall of Fame,” which would air on NBC, ABC and CBS and is now exclusively on the Hallmark Channel, is the longest-running primetime series in TV history. In the past 70 years it has won over 80 Emmy Awards and dozens of Peabody Awards, Golden Globes, Humanitas Prizes and Christopher Awards.

In 1961, Hallmark Cards became the first sponsor to receive an Emmy; the franchise also received the prestigious Governors’ Award in 1982. The franchise brought Shakespeare to the small screen, as well as works by Arthur Miller, Robert E. Sherwood, George Bernard Shaw, Elmer Rice, Lillian Hellman and Garson Kanin.

Here’s a look at some of the highlights from the first 70 years of “Hallmark Hall of Fame” history:

The first original play commission for the franchise was James Costigan’s haunting “Little Moon of Alban,” which aired on March 24, 1958. Set during the Irish rebellion, the romantic drama revolves a young woman (Julie Harris) grieving the loss of her fiancée at the hands of a British. She vows to become a nun for a year where she is assigned to take care of the enemy-a badly wounded British soldier (Christopher Plummer). The critically acclaimed drama received four Emmys for Single Dramatic Program (one hour or longer); single performance by an actress for Harris, direction of a single dramatic program for George Schaefer and writing. It also won a Peabody and Christopher Award. Six years later, “Hallmark” remade the show with Harris, Dirk Bogarde and Ruth White, who won the Emmy.

Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne were the premiere Broadway acting couple for over three decades. They made their last Broadway performance in 1958 in “The Visit.” And seven years later, they brought the curtain down on their acting partnership with “The Magnificent Yankee,” a biographical drama spanning 30 years in the life of Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes and his wife. Their swan song earned five Emmys in 1965: program achievement in entertainment; individual achievements in entertainment for both Lunt and Fontanne, lighting director Phil Hymes and make-up artist Bob O’Bradovich.

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The 1969 social drama “Teacher, Teacher” was among the first TV shows to cast a mentally challenged individual in a fictional presentation. The drama starred David McCallum as an alcoholic former schoolteacher trying to restart his life who takes a job to tutor a mentally challenged youth (Billy Schulman). Ossie Davis also starred as a handyman working for the boy’s father who also takes interest in helping the youth. “Teacher, Teacher” won Single Dramatic Program and an Emmy special plaque to Schulman. The young man never acted again. He died a 31 in 1986 when he was hit by a car.

In 1970 “Hallmark” had a hit with “Hamlet,” starring Richard Chamberlain as the melancholy Dane. The tragedy won five Emmys that year for Margaret Leighton in the supporting role of Gertrude plus art direction; costume design; lighting direction, and tape sound mixing.

1986’s “The Promise” was a poignant drama about a middle-aged man (James Garner) who attempts to fulfil the promise he had made 30 years earlier to his mother that he would take care of his younger schizophrenic brother (James Wood). It bagged Emmys for Best TV Movie, lead Woods, supporting actress Piper Laurie, directing for Glenn Jordan and writing for Richard Friedenberg (teleplay) and Kenneth Blackwell, Tennyson Flowers and Friedenberg (story). It also won Golden Globes as well as the Christopher Award, Peabody Award and Humanitas Prize.

“Hallmark Hall of Fame” celebrated its 50th year with one of its most popular presentations “Sarah, Plain and Tall.” The heartwarming 1991 family film was the highest-rated TV movie of the decade. Based on the Newbery Medal-winning story by Patricia MacLaclan, “Sarah” was embodied by Glenn Close as an independent-minded unmarried woman at the turn of the 20th century who leaves the comfort and love of her family to become the mail-order bride of a lonely widower (Christopher Walken) and his two children grieving the loss of her mother. The San Francisco Chronicle declared the drama was a “wholly entertaining movie with a clear head, a straight spine and a bedrock American sense of decency “ “Sarah” received nine Emmy nominations including two for Close as actress and producer. It won in the editing category. Two years later, Close received an actress nomination for the sequel “Skylark.” Close and Walken also starred in the final film in the trilogy: 1999’s “Sarah, Plain and Tall: Winter’s End.”

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