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“More things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of…”

The man officially known as The Reverend Father Patrick Peyton, C.S.C. was chaplain of the Holy Cross Brothers of the Vincentian Institute in Albany, New York during World War II. Father Peyton established himself as a leader who promoted the importance of family strength during those tumultuous times.  One of his methods involved the ritual of praying the Family Rosary, and he pitched the idea of broadcasting the Rosary ritual.  This had been popular on a local Albany station in 1942, but the major networks politely turned him down, explaining that it wouldn’t be proper for them to endorse just one denomination.  Undaunted, Father Peyton proposed broadening the scope of his project to a weekly half-hour dramatic anthology…in which the only “commercial” would be an appeal for family prayer.  That show made its debut over Mutual on this date in 1947; when listeners to Family Theatre heard for the first time that “a world at prayer is a world at peace.”

Mutual donated the airtime for Family Theatre, but insisted on a few concessions.  The series had to be of top quality, had to be nonsectarian…and Peyton would have to shoulder the cost of the weekly program.  The network’s final request was that Family Theatre spotlight a major film star on each broadcast, but that would not prove to be a problem for the determined Peyton.  The priest had previously participated in a special Mother’s Day broadcast for Mutual in 1945, and was asked if he could get a big-time celebrity to appear – so he boldly approached Bing Crosby on the set of The Bells of St. Mary’s (in which Der Bingle plays a priest). The Old Groaner acquiesced to Peyton’s request and the broadcast proved quite successful, laying the groundwork for Family Theatre.

For the new series, Peyton met with actress Loretta Young…who gave him some pointers on how to approach her film colony brethren and sistren, and in doing so became Family Theatre’s unofficial “first lady.”  With James Stewart and Don Ameche, Young appeared on that inaugural broadcast in February, and would go on to grace more than thirty subsequent broadcasts.  A sample of the high-power celluloid wattage on Family Theatre includes notables such as Gary Cooper, Gregory Peck, Shirley Temple, Irene Dunne, Edward G. Robinson, and Maureen O’Sullivan. As OTR historian John Dunning noted in On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio: “It can be safely said that no series offered more Hollywood personalities in the same span of time.”

Family Theatre was a well-produced series whose quality matched that of higher-profile anthologies aired at that time, such as Suspense and The Lux Radio Theatre.  The stories featured only the tiniest soupçon of religion, and many times classic tales like Moby Dick and Don Quixote were brought before the microphones.  The dogma was saved for commercial breaks, with Father Peyton offering up observations along the lines of his famous slogan (created by Al Scalpone): “The family that prays together stays together.”

At the same time that Family Theatre was being welcomed into listeners’ homes every week, the series made a successful transition to the small screen in 1951 (in an hour-long version also hosted by Peyton).  The boob tube incarnation left the airwaves in 1958, running a year longer than its radio cousin…though the aural version was broadcast in repeats by many Mutual stations as late as the 1960s.  Father Peyton kept personal transcriptions of the broadcasts and made them available to collectors even as he continued his work hosting “rosary rallies” throughout Latin America and elsewhere.  Peyton left this world for a better one in 1992 at the age of 93, but in 2017 (according to his website) Pope Francis declared him “Venerable.”  This was “a rare recognition by the universal Church that Father Peyton is a person of heroic virtue” and that he lived “a life worthy of veneration by all Christians.”

One of the many celebrity performers on Family Theatre was Jack Benny, and you can sample one of his appearances on that show (“The Golden Touch” from May 23, 1951) on Radio Spirits’ collection of vintage Benny broadcasts, Be Our Guest.  Yuletide-themed episodes of Theatre can be found on our Christmas sets The Voices of Christmas Past (“Crossroads of Christmas”) and Christmas Radio Classics (“Ruth”).  But the compendium that will give you more Family value for your dollar is Every Home, an 8-CD set of sixteen classic broadcasts spotlighting the work of stars like Kirk Douglas, Gene Kelly, Donna Reed, and Ethel Barrymore.  The family that gathers ’round the radio together, enjoys Family Theatre together!

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