Father Patrick Peyton’s Family Theater

Born 110 years ago today, Father Patrick Peyton, C. S. C., (1909-1992) went from a small farm in County Mayo, Ireland, to New York and Hollywood and world-wide recognition as “The Rosary Priest.”  Through vast outdoor rallies, as well as radio, film, and television, Peyton promoted the practice of family prayer, especially urging Catholic families to pray the Rosary together every day.  In 2001, the Vatican approved Peyton’s cause for canonization, and in 2017, Pope Francis declared him Venerable.

One aspect of Peyton’s ministry that bears highlighting is one he never expected.  His original idea was a weekly national radio program on the Mutual network; the program would be about the Rosary.  Executives at Mutual rejected the proposal, saying it was too sectarian.  However, they had no objection to a weekly national program with a broader appeal.

Baffled by what seemed to be God closing a door while opening a window, Peyton nevertheless agreed.  Mutual generously donated the air time, but Peyton had to pay all production costs himself.  Moreover, Mutual insisted upon each episode having the highest quality and that each week’s show would feature a famous Hollywood star.

Thus began a nearly ten-year run of Family Theater.  From February, 1947, to July, 1956, it aired as a half-hour radio anthology series, consistently maintaining superior production values and featuring major Hollywood stars.  The show’s 482 episodes are available commercially and on line, and their wholesome, if at times now seemingly corny, nature make them ideal for parents homeschooling their children and looking for a way to engage the kids’ imaginations.

The first episode, “Flight from Home,” set the standard, with a heart-warming drama about a young couple starting out with every dream and opportunity, only to have to learn how to face adversity with faith.  The host was James Stewart, a practicing Presbyterian, and Peyton wrote in his autobiography, All for Her (1967), that “I was particularly happy to have” Stewart as host, “for it was a proclamation to Mutual that I was going to live up to my undertaking to make the program non-sectarian.”  Music for that debut performance was by a well-known radio personality, Meredith Willson, who in 1957 earned lasting fame with his Broadway play, later a popular film, The Music Man.

As did other radio anthology series of the time, such as Escape or Suspense, Family Theater explored a variety of genres.  Most episodes were dramas written just for the series, such as “Last Run,” first broadcast in June, 1953, and telling the story about a railroad conductor’s last run before retirement.  Other episodes drew upon the lives of famous authors, such as “Once on a Golden Afternoon,” about Lewis Carroll thinking up the story that became Alice in Wonderland.  Science fiction and comedy were also on the bill, respective examples being “UFO” and “The Golden Touch.”  In the latter, Jack Benny played upon his persona as a miser and portrayed King Midas.  History also had a place, and “The Bid Was Four Hearts” related the heroic sacrifice of four United States military chaplains during the Second World War.

Although the host of each program spoke of the importance of prayer, the shows themselves were rarely overtly religious.  Two exceptions are worth noting.  “Curtain Call for Genesius,” starring Tyrone Power, told the story of a fourth-century Christian martyr who became the patron saint of actors.  “The Passion and Death of Christ,” epically reverential, starred Ethel Barrymore; she not only narrated the drama, she spoke the words of Christ, so that in a daring directorial move, Jesus was portrayed by a lady.

For Peyton, producing a weekly radio series posed numerous challenges outside his education and experience.  In All for Her, he said that he began by simply cold calling Hollywood stars, hoping to sell them on the idea of appearing on Family Theater.  As Richard Gribble put it in “The Rosary Priest,” in the March, 2018, issue of Columbia magazine, “At first, he knew virtually no one of significance, but famous personalities, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, soon became captivated by Father Peyton’s charm and total dedication to Mary and family prayer.”  Actors appearing on Family Theater donated their time and talent to the show.

From the start, anybody who was anybody in Hollywood back then wanted to be part of Family Theater.  Many of them were Catholic, such as Fred Allen, Jack Webb, and Loretta Young, while many others were not.  As John Dunning wrote in One the Air (1998), “It can safely be said that no series offered more Hollywood personalities in the same span of time:  Gary Cooper, Gregory Peck, Shirley Temple, Jack Benny, Robert Mitchum—the list, after a while, becomes meaningless.”

Another angle that was new to Peyton was how to market a national radio series.

Advertising executives at the Madison Avenue firm of Young and Rubicam donated their services to create publicity for Family Theater.  Their premise, Peyton wrote, was “if you were going to sell family prayer on radio, you had to use the techniques which had proved successful in this medium for selling soap and automobiles.”  In particular, Al Scalpone, a young copywriter at the firm, came up with three lines to sum up the show.

Each week the host of Family Theater introduced the show and used these three catch phrases:  “More things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of;” “A world at prayer is a world at peace;” “The family that prays together stays together.”  The first statement came from Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem, Idylls of the King (1885), echoing William Shakespeare’s Hamlet telling Horatio, “There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”  As officials at Mutual required, it was a thoroughly non-sectarian sentiment; even Marcus Aurelius or Confucius could have concurred.

The other two lines were coined by Scalpone.  They can become topics for discussion, since skeptics could say that prayer does not necessarily lead to peace.  As Abraham Lincoln pointed out in his Second Inaugural Address (1865), each side in the American Civil War turned to God in prayer:  “Both [sides] read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other.”

A skeptic’s doubts about polished slogans aside, homeschoolers and others can find entertainment and inspiration in Father Patrick Peyton’s unexpected apostolate that was Family Theater.

Daniel J. Heisey
Daniel J. Heisey, O. S. B, is a Benedictine monk of Saint Vincent Archabbey, Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where he is known as Brother Bruno. He teaches Church History at Saint Vincent Seminary.

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