The G&S Operas on Television
The Early Days
In the spring of 1939, a new broadcast medium called television was demonstrated at the New York World's Fair in Flushing Meadow, Queens. Barclay Gordon wrote to me with his father's recollection of what he saw:
In one of the pavilions (I forget which) he saw a demonstration of television for the first time. To his amazement when the small screen lit up, he watched three costumed characters singing "Never mind the why and wherefore" from Pinafore.
In June, 1939, The Pirates of Penzance was one of RCA's first experimental television broadcasts from Rockefeller Center, said to be the first-ever televised opera. Alma Kitchell, who died in 1996 at age 103, played Ruth. Cox and Box came next, in July, although I have no information on the cast. A production of Pinafore with many of the same performers as Pinafore, was broadcast in September.
In 1952 or so, Martyn Green appeared as the Judge in Trial By Jury, in one of the early episodes of the CBS program Omnibus. Also in the 1950s, Kukla, Fran, and Ollie presented an abridged version of The Mikado on a number of occasions. The version reviewed here appeared on NBC-TV in 1954.
In 1957, an abridged production of Yeomen, sponsored by the Hallmark Hall of Fame, was shown on NBC. The production starred Alfred Drake, Barbara Cook, and Celeste Holm. Though not available commercially, a kinescope has survived and is available at the UCLA video archive.
In the 1960, a cut-down Mikado starring Groucho Marx as Ko-Ko and Wagnerian soprano Helen Traubel as Katisha was one of many fine programs that appeared on the Bell Telephone Hour, on NBC. An audio of the performance was issued on LP many years later. Though no more than a curiosity today, this Mikado is a lasting symbol of the days when broadcast television cared about serious music.
Marc Kenig has kindly supplied a complete list of G&S programs that appeared on the Omnibus series.
Starting in the 1970s, several G&S operas were recorded and broadcast by the BBC. The Gondoliers came in 1972, followed by The Mikado in 1973 and Yeomen in 1974. A BBC Promenade Concert version of Trial By Jury was broadcast in 1982.
Chris Webster has prepared an article listing all of the broadcasts (both radio and television) that he knows about, including many not listed above.