After a long and distinguished career in the U.S. armed services, Stephenson became one of the most admired, prolific and influential production designers in the television industry.
Edward Stephenson, a Primetime Emmy-winning production designer whose television credits spanned five decades and included classic variety shows as well as scripted series, died in Los Angeles on February 28, 2011.
Born Edward Sheffield Stephenson in Iowa, Stephenson moved to California with his family when he was a child, settling in Glendale. He was a graduate of the renowned Pasadena Playhouse College of the Theatre.
From the late 1930s through the early 1940s Stephenson worked as a director, art director and producer for various playhouses and theaters throughout the United States.
Following service in the U.S. Air Force during World War II, he accepted an appointment to General Douglas MacArthur’s special staff section as the civilian Director of Entertainment and Music for the Commander in Chief, Far East and Supreme Commander, Allied Powers. Based in Tokyo, Stephenson administered a recreational program for both military and civilian Allied Forces in Japan, Korea, Okinawa, the Philippines, Guam and numerous other islands and outposts.
As part of this appointment, he produced plays at the Ernie Pyle Theatre in Tokyo, including the first production of The Mikado ever to be attended by a member of the Japanese royal family. Six years later, at the conclusion of the Korean War, Stephenson returned to Washington, D.C., and New York City to compose the Standard Manual of Operating Procedures for worldwide U.S.O. and Department of Army Entertainment and Music programs.
After leaving the military he returned to the theater and also found work in feature films and the expanding medium of television. Upon showing his portfolio to the art department at NBC Television at Sunset & Vine in Hollywood, he was hired on the spot and began what would become a long and illustrious career designing for what was then known as “the small screen.”
His work as a staff designer at NBC spanned the early years of live television and into the dawning of the age of color TV. In this period he designed numerous musical and variety shows, including The Betty White Show (1954), beamed live from the west coast weekday mornings, and The Tennessee Ernie Ford Show (1956). In 1955, when he designed a live broadcast of The Petrified Forest, starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, the elaborate sets occupied all of the available studio space at the new NBC Burbank facilities, forcing the studio orchestra to set up in the old studios back at Sunset & Vine, where they were cued by telephone.
Stephenson was awarded the first of his three Primetime Emmys for designing the landmark special An Evening with Fred Astaire (1958), one of the first television productions to be shot and broadcast using color videotape. Other notable musical-variety series designed by Stephenson include The Danny Kaye Show (CBS 1963) and The Andy Williams Show (1959), on which he was both producer and art director; he was credited with creating the show’s unique style and won a second Emmy for his design.
His work in this genre encompassed shows starring Gene Kelly, Mitzi Gaynor, Ann-Margaret, Jack Benny, George Burns, Duke Ellington and Jimmy Durante, among others. Baby boomers will recall Lesley Ann Warren’s “own little corner” of Stephenson’s sets for Rodgers & Hammerstein’s classic, Cinderella, which CBS broadcast nine times from 1965 through 1974.
A long association with the producing team of Bud Yorkin and Norman Lear saw Stephenson working as production designer on the feature film Divorce, American Style (1967), and as associate producer on the films Start the Revolution Without Me (1970) and Cold Turkey (1971). Also at Yorkin & Lear’s Tandem Productions, he produced the first (unsold) pilot of All in the Family (in 1968 for ABC), and designed the series Maude (1972), Sanford & Son (1972) and Good Times (1974). For Bud Yorkin’s Toy Productions, Stephenson designed series including What’s Happening! (1976) and Carter Country (1977).
Television movies designed by Stephenson included Judgment: The Trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg (1974), Judgment: The Court Martial of the Tiger of Malaya – General Yamashita (1974), Judgment: The Court Martial of Lieutenant William Calley (1975), and Collision Course: Truman vs. MacArthur (1976). For producer David Wolper he designed Victory at Entebbe (1976). Notable designs for television specials in that period include The Fatal Weakness (1976) and Steambath (1973) for PBS (he also designed the 1983 Steambath revival/series on Showtime).
Stephenson’s long collaboration with the creative team Paul Witt, Tony Thomas and Susan Harris began with Soap (1977), for which won Stephenson his third Primetime Emmy for production design. Other long-running Witt-Thomas/Witt-Thomas-Harris successes included Benson (1979), It’s a Living (1980), The Golden Girls (1985) — for which he received an Emmy nomination — Empty Nest (1988), Blossom (1990), Herman’s Head (1991), Nurses (1991) and The Golden Palace (1992).
As a businessman, Stephenson developed a successful chain of retail clothing stores, pioneering imprinted casual sportswear, He began in 1972 with one Super Shirts store on Hollywood Boulevard, and eventually expanded to 12 outlets in California, plus national mail-order sales. Several years later, his desire to increase the quality of the decoration of his sets for television and film led him to create the Hollywood Studio Gallery, an extensive collection located in the former Technicolor laboratories, which over more than three decades has become the foremost source of original and reproduced art used in motion picture and television production.
Survivors include his daughter, Tara Stephenson, who has worked as a set decorator on such series as 3rd Rock from the Sun, That ’70s Show and Greek, and her mother, Maria Stephenson.