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Family Theater at 50:
Father Patrick Peyton Remembered

[Feature 2 Photo]

Photo Courtesy of The Family Rosary

After receiving a cure from Mary as a seminarian, Father Patrick Peyton dedicated his future ministry as a priest to the Mother of Jesus and to family prayer.

Next, Father
Peyton picked up the phone and
asked the operator
to contact
Bing Crosby
in Hollywood.

Father John Phalen, C.S.C., is today’s successor to Father Peyton as president of Family Theater Productions.

Photo by Karen Zieff Pratt

Founded in 1947 by Holy Cross Father Patrick Peyton, Family Theater is still searching for ways to bolster family life today. By Jack Wintz, O.F.M.

 Family Theater’s Start

 Reaching Millions

 Family Theater Today

Vision for the Future

Jane Wyatt Interview

FIVE YEARS AGO THIS MONTH, on June 3, 1992, one of the most famous evangelizers of the American Church died. He was Father Patrick Peyton, C.S.C. (Congregation of Holy Cross). Father Peyton’s Rosary Crusades gathered people by the millions in cities from Manila to São Paulo to pray for peace and family unity. In our country, too, he drew crowds as large as 500,000 in places like San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park and New York City’s Polo Grounds.

He was also a media pioneer who had a genius for enlisting Hollywood’s top stars to share their talents and help him reach millions more through radio, film and TV.

For all this, Father Peyton’s accomplishments are not always in the forefront of our national memory today. In the eyes of some, his style of piety hearkened back to another era. Yet his important place in the history of Catholic media seems secure. In 1996, for example, Father Peyton’s contributions were recognized by Unda-USA, the national association of Catholic broadcasters. Unda’s Gabriel Award for Personal Achievement was presented in Father Peyton’s name, acknowledging him as “a pioneer in producing radio and TV programs to uplift the human spirit.”

A fifth-anniversary Mass commemorating Peyton’s death will be celebrated on Sunday, June 1, at 10:15 a.m. at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, New York City. Cardinal John O’Connor will preach on Peyton’s life and meaning.

Father Peyton’s legacy is also very much alive in the two major organizations he founded, both heading toward the new millennium still under the watchful guidance of the Eastern Province of the Congregation of Holy Cross. The Family Rosary, started by Peyton in 1942, is located in Albany, New York, with foreign offices in the Philippines, Brazil, Peru, Ireland, East Africa and Uruguay. Meanwhile, across the country in Hollywood, California, Family Theater Productions keeps Peyton’s commitment to family values alive by producing new radio and video projects.

In these pages, we especially focus on Family Theater, which marks its 50th anniversary this year.

How Family Theater Got Started

Family Theater traces its origins to February 13, 1947. That is the day its first radio program aired on the Mutual Broadcasting Company. Jimmy Stewart, Loretta Young and Don Ameche starred in that historic radio drama, “Flight From Home.”

No one can deny that Father Peyton’s radio venture was a success: Family Theater of the Air became one of the longest-running weekly dramatic radio programs in history. Starting that night in 1947, it aired weekly until 1969, featuring hundreds of Hollywood’s top stars.

But let’s back up for a moment and see how Father Peyton got to Hollywood. Patrick Peyton, one of nine children, was born in 1909 in County Mayo, Ireland, into a devout Catholic home that recited the Rosary every day as a family. At age 19, Patrick immigrated to the United States, along with his brother Thomas, to pursue the priesthood.

In time the two brothers entered the Congregation of Holy Cross and were sent to the Holy Cross Seminary at the University of Notre Dame, South Bend, Indiana. As Patrick neared his ordination, however, he found himself near death from tuberculosis. Turning to Mary for a miracle, he promised that if he lived he would dedicate his ministry to her. His prayers were answered, and he and Thomas were ordained on June 15, 1941.

In 1942, he founded the Family Rosary in Albany, New York. America was at war and Peyton believed that world peace ultimately depended on peace in the human heart and in the family. A key to achieving world peace, he believed, was the Rosary and family prayer. In time, this conviction would be converted into one of Father Peyton’s famous billboard slogans: “A world at prayer is a world at peace.”

Because of the war, families were in chaos. Husbands and sons had left home to be part of the war effort while many mothers worked in factories. Juvenile delinquency was on the rise. Peyton began to preach the message of family unity and prayer.

He started a 15-minute local radio program in Albany, New York, based on the simple idea of families saying the Rosary together. It was a success, so he tried a bolder idea—approach network radio with the idea of a show on family prayer. He talked with Mutual Broadcasting Company in New York. They agreed that the U.S. family was disintegrating and that family prayer might be the answer.

The network chief said that Mutual Radio would give Father Peyton a half hour of radio time if he could come up with a good idea and a big star. Though Father Peyton had no knowledge of show business, he went to work. He persuaded the mother and father of the famous Sullivan brothers to lead the Rosary on the radio show. The five Sullivan brothers had recently become national heroes and headline news: They had all given their lives for their country on a battleship that sank in the Pacific. Next, Father Peyton picked up the phone and asked the operator to contact Bing Crosby in Hollywood. Somehow he reached Crosby, one of the biggest superstars of the era, and the singer agreed to be part of the program!

The program, which aired on Mother’s Day, May 13, 1945, reached a tremendous audience, so much so that Father Peyton began searching for a way to get a half-hour weekly show on Mutual Radio. Later that year, Father Peyton traveled by train from New York to Hollywood on a donated ticket to begin laying the groundwork for a network radio show for the family. In less than two years, Father Peyton’s long-running series of radio shows, known as Family Theater, was ready to be launched on Mutual Radio.

Family Theater Reaches Millions

When actor Jimmy Stewart hosted that first episode of Family Theater in 1947, he told the radio audience that Family Theater was dedicated to the family “with the hope that families everywhere will always be together and that your home will be a happy one—with the conviction that prayer, simple prayer, will help keep it that way.”

Each Sunday night, a celebrity host would make similar comments about prayer and family unity before and after that week’s radio drama. No mention was made of the Rosary or the Catholic Church. Nonsectarian in its approach, Family Theater’s basic message was simply that of strengthening the family through faith in God and prayer. Each program was preceded by the familiar announcement: “More things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of”—a quote from Alfred, Lord Tennyson. And always worked in somewhere before the end of the show was the famous slogan that became Peyton’s signature: “The family that prays together stays together!”

Father Peyton’s vision of the family is expressed in his book, The Ear of God: “The family was meant to be the cradle of religion,” he wrote. “Restore to the family its religious soul and you enrich the entire country, you strengthen civilization.” Many people, including Hollywood entertainers, were happy to support this vision.

The lineup of stars that Peyton recruited for his radio show included Hollywood’s best: Gary Cooper, Loretta Young, Lucille Ball, Jane Wyatt, Henry Fonda, Jack Benny, Rosalind Russell, Shirley Temple, Margaret O’Brien, Gregory Peck, Jimmy Durante, Gene Kelly, Natalie Wood, Vincent Price, Charlton Heston and Raymond Burr, to name a few.

In early March, I went to Los Angeles on behalf of St. Anthony Messenger to attend Family Theater’s 50th-anniversary banquet at the Beverly Hills Hotel. During the banquet, special recognition was given to two movie stars who had helped Father Peyton by frequent appearances on his radio and film programs.

One of the honors went to Jane Wyatt (see story on page 22). The other honor went to Loretta Young “for sharing the vision of Father Peyton so creatively—for using her stature to help him recruit other stars and for participating in numerous Family Theater productions.” Young, a longtime friend of Father Peyton, could not attend the celebration in person, but sent a taped message through a son and a grandson who were present to accept the special award.

Two days later, I visited Family Theater Productions at 7201 Sunset Boulevard, Hollywood. After touring their modern offices, I was given a set of audiocassettes containing 18 of Family Theater’s original radio programs.

Upon listening to these programs, I was amazed at the production quality of these old shows. Though a bit uneven in dramatic quality and sometimes drifting into sentimentalism, many of the episodes still have appeal today. I was delighted to hear familiar voices from my youth like those of Fibber McGee & Molly (Jim and Marian Jordan), the famous radio couple whose weekly show kept audiences laughing in the 40’s and 50’s. They starred in a 1947 Family Theater episode entitled “Advice to the Lovelorn,” in which Fibber and Molly help a young brokenhearted woman find love again.

Another 1947 episode, called “T-Formation,” starred Bob Hope. In this often comic story, hosted by Joan Leslie, Hope plays a hotshot football star intoxicated by his own fame until sobered by an automobile accident. While he lies paralyzed in a hospital room, a little girl convinces him to pray and thus find healing.

(This set of 18 shows, called “Family Theater Vintage Radio Dramas,” can be ordered from Family Theater. You can call their toll-free number, 1-800-299-7729, or write to their shipping center at Family Rosary, Inc., 4 Pine West Plaza, Albany, NY 12205. The same number and address can be used to obtain information about other Family Theater products, including those mentioned in this article.)

Listening to the old shows of this special collection (originally aired between 1947 and 1949) helped me realize that Father Peyton had achieved something extraordinary for his day. In an era when radio was king, he had succeeded in making Family Theater a Sunday-night fixture in many American homes. He had found a niche for his message in the most important popular mass medium of the 1940’s. His radio series, moreover, received numerous awards, such as Best Program of the year on the Mutual Network by the Daily Radio trade magazine for four consecutive years, 1948-1951. By the time the last radio program was aired in 1969, Family Theater had produced some 550 shows, reaching many millions of listeners at home and abroad.

As the radio days began to be eclipsed by the arrival of television, Father Peyton and Family Theater Productions shifted gears and energetically moved into that new medium. Already in the 1950’s, Family Theater was producing award-winning television shows. Among other projects, Father Peyton took on the monumental task of producing 15 biblical dramas based on the mysteries of the Rosary, filmed in Spain with a cast of thousands.

In all, Family Theater has produced more than 58 films and TV specials. Again, Father Peyton enlisted top talent from Hollywood—stars like Frank Sinatra, Loretta Young, William Shatner, Bob Newhart, Bing Crosby, Raymond Burr and Helen Hayes. Special mention should be made of Princess Grace (Kelly). The last three films in which she appeared, prior to her tragic death in 1982, were for Family Theater.

Family Theater Today

Family Theater did not close down by any means when Father Peyton died in 1992 at age 83. A significant five-film project he had begun a year earlier was carried to completion in 1993 with solid success. In 1991 Father Peyton had recruited former Universal Studios’ executive producer and vice president Peter Thompson (Quincy, The Ann Jillian Story) to create the stories and co-write the scripts. These films were directed by Emmy-winner Corey Allen (Star Trek: The Next Generation and Hill Street Blues).

The films—The Hero, The Choice, The Visit, The Journey and The Search—linked modern-day situations confronting teens and their families with biblical stories. The five award-winning half-hour films have had more than 2,500 broadcasts by more than 350 commercial and public broadcasting stations and cable systems since their release in 1993, reaching over 50 million viewers. Because of popular demand, Family Theater very recently decided to start producing an additional three to five similar half-hour films.

Other recent projects of Family Theater include:

1. Voices of Appalachia (1996), an hour-long documentary examining the challenges and triumphs of several families in Appalachia. It was distributed via satellite to NBC-TV affiliates last August with over 70 stations agreeing to schedule the program. In March of 1997 it was distributed to PBS-affiliated stations. (The documentary is available on videocassette from St. Anthony Messenger Press, 1615 Republic Street, Cincinnati, OH 45210.)

2. A World at Prayer: The Vision of Patrick Peyton, C.S.C. (1997), a 30-minute program reviewing the life and work of Father Peyton. The program is narrated by Loretta Young, the first of over 400 Hollywood stars who gave time and talent to Father Peyton’s media projects.

3. Un Camino de Esperanza: El Rosario Devoción del Pueblo (A Journey of Hope: The Rosary in the Latino Community) (1997), a 60-minute film, available in both Spanish and English, which applies the mysteries of the Rosary to life situations in the Latino community. The programs were made in cooperation with the Hispanic Telecommunications Network (HTN) of San Antonio, Texas. Produced by HTN President J. Roberto Gutiérrez, the Spanish version will air later this year on Univision (a Spanish-language network). The English version will air on Odyssey, a national interfaith cable channel.

4. Latino Radio Dramas (1997), soon to be released by Family Theater. They are the first-ever serialized Spanish-language radio dramas. Comprised of 43 half-hour dramas for the U.S. Hispanic community, this radio series is very close in spirit to what Father Peyton began 50 years ago in his radio dramas for the family. Radio is a very popular medium in the Latino community.

The series, called “La Historia de Quien Soy” (“The Story of Who I Am”), is produced and directed by Cecilia Gonzalez, head of Latino programming at Family Theater Productions. The story is that of a U.S. Latino family whose multigenerational adventures center on real issues faced by Latinos living in the United States today: violence, drugs, teen pregnancy, AIDS and unemployment. The first half hour of these programs is the radio drama itself, while the second half hour is a call-in talk show with a host and guest experts discussing the issue taken up in that episode.

Vision for the Future

Father Peyton’s successor today is 49-year-old Holy Cross Father John Phalen. A native of Waterbury, Connecticut, Father Phalen is president of Family Theater Productions of Hollywood, as well as of Family Rosary in Albany, New York. He lives in Albany when not on the road. Father Peyton’s legacy, Phalen told St. Anthony Messenger, is “the message that prayer keeps the family together.”

“Father Peyton was a pioneer in producing family programs and entertainment,” he affirms. “Family Theater Productions will continue to foster family prayer and to entertain, inspire and educate families through the media.”

As to future projects, Father Phalen revealed that Family Theater is “planning to do biographical pieces on strong Marian leaders, such as the late Cardinal Leo Suenens of Belgium and the Filipino people who brought about a peaceful change of government [in the 1980’s], a turn of events ascribed to the power of Marian prayer. Also, our Spanish radio dramas will address the huge Latino population in the country.” Father Phalen said that there are also plans to expand their Web site,, a site which includes information on Family Theater.

Predicts Father Phalen, “Family Theater Productions will continue as an exciting place into the next century, as it has been during the last 50 years!”

Closer to the action at Family Theater Productions in Hollywood is Franciscan Sister Judith Zielinski. A Sister of St. Francis of Sylvania, Ohio, with a background in TV, Sister Judy is director of radio/TV programming for Family Theater.

Looking to the future, Sister Judy hopes that Family Theater will “produce quality shows that lift hearts and minds and that integrate into its mission the priorities of Vatican II, such as promotion of justice and the universal call to holiness. To me, the most valuable thing Father Peyton did was to use stories to touch the minds and hearts of all kinds of people. His radio dramas were very human. They invited people to think about gospel values, their personal relationships—their roles as husbands and wives and so forth.”

It is quite clear to Sister Judy, the executive producer of A World at Prayer: The Vision of Patrick Peyton and other recent English-language TV projects, that “Father Peyton’s message was really family prayer. Media was the bait or hook to push the idea of family unity through family prayer. He saw the disintegration of the family during and after the World War II era—an era that looks innocent and idyllic compared to ours!

“Our mission today is to continue strengthening family life. That need has not changed or disappeared. It has, in fact, intensified. In Father Peyton’s day, the nuclear family was the norm. Today the situation is more challenging. We have broken families, high divorce rates, single parents, blended families.

“I think Family Theater makes its strongest contribution to the family through drama. When we do a story about teenage runaways, for example, parents and kids can see it together. The story can provide support to the family and help them think about family issues and deal with them. The focus, of course, goes beyond the Rosary to the whole breadth of gospel values.”

What does Sister Judy see down the road for Family Theater Productions in terms of future projects? Family Theater, she notes, is looking into the idea of seasonal dramatic specials (Christmas or Easter, for example) that could be offered to the networks or major cable carriers like HBO or Showtime. She is personally exploring the idea of an animated special for children about St. Francis and the Christmas crib. The show, if realized, would remind parents that more important than expensive, material gifts for their children is the gift of their time and loving attention.

When she sits back and lets her imagination roam freely, Sister Judy’s thoughts often return to radio, the original medium that Father Peyton began working in 50 years ago. She wonders if it would be possible, for example, to create a sitcom radio show about a contemporary Catholic parish. We’ll have to stay tuned!

The contemporary family needs all the help it can get. Family Theater has made important contributions to family life for the past 50 years. Surely, families of the future will continue to find inspiration as Family Theater carries its vital mission forward into the next millennium.

Jack Wintz, O.F.M., is senior editor of this publication and editor of Catholic Update. He has an M.A. in English literature from Xavier University, Cincinnati, and authored a book exploring the spirit of St. Francis, Lights: Revelations of God’s Goodness (St. Anthony Messenger Press).

Also see Jane Wyatt: Witness to Family Values

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