Created by Goodman Ace
Presented by Walter Cronkite
In the early days of TV, the networks took their obligation to inform very seriously. It wasn’t just news – it also included an obligation to teach history in an entertaining form. You Are There was how CBS managed to meld history and entertainment, using a conceit that was brilliant.
The show covered historical events in what was (at that time) a modern manner. It was set up as a news report from the event. Walter Cronkite – not yet the CBS anchorman – would start the report by setting the scene. Then, he’d go to reporters “at the scene.”
The entire thing was done as a straight news report without a hint of irony. The reporters would give their report as if they actually were on the scene, speculating on what might happen and being surprised by events.
The shows were a mixture of actors playing the roles, as well as stock footage. The various reporters might show up on the scene – in modern clothes – and introduce it. It would show the action, then return to Cronkite in the studio for a wrap-up.
Topics covered included the Hindenberg disaster, the Boston Tea Party, The Hamilton-Burr duel, the death of Socrates, they Dreyfuss Case, Benedict Arnold’s treason, and Napoleon’s abdication. As the titles indicate, the show ranged throughout history to bring a sense of being an eyewitness to history.
Like many shows of the time, some of the actors and directors went on to have long careers. Sidney Lumet and John Frankenheimer did a handful of shows, and actors who appeared included E. G. Marshall, DeForest Kelley, Whit Bissell,* Claude Akins, Dabbs Greet, Richard Kiley, Lorne Greene, Ray Walston, Jerry Paris, Tor Johnson, Fred Gwynne, Beatrice Straight, James Gregory, Charles Durning, David Jannsen, John Banner, John Cassavetes, Robert Culp, Peter Cushing, James Dean, Eartha Kitt, Burt Mustin,** Patrick McGoohan, Mildred Natwick, Rod Steiger, Joanne Woodward, Barbara Billingsly, Ray Collins, Simon Oakland, Frank Cady, Russell “The Professor” Johnson, William Schallert, Robert Vaughn, and Richard Dreyfuss***
I remember watching it at some point – either in the final season or in reruns. I became interested in American history when my parents took me to Gettysburg, so this was right up my alley.
The show was created by radio legend Goodman Ace for the radio, though he had little to do with it on the air.
In 1971, it was decided to do a new version, in color. Once again, Cronkite was the host, but it only lasted one year.
It was one of the joys of early TV and especially memorable is Walter Cronkite intoning “You are there” each episode.
*A very familiar face in 50s monster movies.
**Playing, unsurprisingly, “An Old Man.”
***I wasn’t going to list so many, but damn, that’s a lot of familiar names. The show was the Law and Order of its time in giving actors employment.