Praying for a Free Press?

“The Family Theater” was a classic old time radio show that ran from 1947 to 1957 with an unusual sponsor: Prayer. book jacket for Kent Cooper's "Anna Zenger, Mother of Freedom" But it also found itself telling the stories of newspaper editors and reporters from time to time… So here is one of those episodes, the story of John Peter Zenger, Anna Zenger, and a landmark libel trial. (In fact, it was a story that had been told before in radio dramas and a biography by an Associated Press executive. Click on its image for a previous JHeroes essay.)

The series was the creation of the Rev. Patrick Peyton, a Catholic priest who wanted to promote family unity and praying the rosary, according to radio historian John Dunning and articles about Peyton and his radio programs at Wikipedia. His 1945 rosary-crusade broadcast, endorsed by Bing Crosby, led to this not exactly religious dramatic series, which enlisted an amazing array of Hollywood stars, including episode narrators at least as willing to deliver a closing message about the importance of “family prayer” as they were to endorse “Lux beauty soap” in the closing minutes of Lux Radio Theatre.

In the first two months alone it featured as hosts or stars an ecumenical array of Hollywood celebrities: Crosby, James Stewart, Don Ameche, Loretta Young, Walter Brennan, Irene Dunne, Dana Andrews, Van Heflin, Robert Young, J Carroll Naish, Edward G Robinson, and Pat O’Brien, among others. Religious faith and prayer do not always enter into the stories themselves, but they do support positive values.

Telling the truth about government corruption is the main value celebrated in this November 15, 1950, episode, “Peter Zenger”, narrated by Pat O’Brien. The key “intervention” involved is not an appeal to divine power, but the eloquence of a lawyer from Philadelphia, although Father Peyton’s promotion of family and community values comes through in the Zengers — and the jury at the John Peter Zenger’s trial.

The radioplay presents one of American journalism history books’ most famous real-life dramas: The libel case of colonial printer, newspaper editor & publisher Zenger, including the role of his courageous wife, Anna, who kept the presses running while he was jailed for criticizing New York’s colonial governor. In the process she became one of the first women newspaper publishers in America. Since the cast announced at the end includes only one woman, Jeanne Bates, it’s a safe guess she plays Anna, who also was featured in a Cavalcade of America dramatization of the Zenger case, dubbing her “Mother of Freedom,” the subtitle of her biography by Kent Cooper, executive director of the Associated Press.

Raymond Burr — later known as Perry Mason — plays the starring and decisive role of defense attorney Andrew Hamilton of Philadelphia, who successfully argued that the truth of a publication should be a defense against libel. The historical details may have been adjusted by writer Robert Turnbull to make a more listenable half-hour radio drama, but Hamilton’s appeal to the jury — and to truth — is powerfully presented.

The announcer does not identify the actor playing Zenger himself, but other cast members to choose from include Michael Hayes, Tudor Owen, Herb Rawlinson, Bill Johnstone, Stan Waxman and Jack Kruschen. (I’m asking old time radio fans whether anyone identifies Zenger’s voice.)
I’ll double-check on future listenings, but despite the “sponsorship” of the series, I don’t recall prayer and divine intervention as being explicitly mentioned in Turnbull’s script for the Zenger story, only in the program’s “commercials,” including O’Brien’s closing message, a slogan of Father Peyton’s crusade: “The family that prays together, stays together.” And the Zengers’ story does reflect family unity as well as Freedom of the Press.

Meanwhile, it is easy to imagine O’Brien wearing a Roman collar for that closing benediction. He had played so many charming Irish priests in his career that his his 1983 obituary said he once joked, “One more and they will have to ordain me.” However, his memorable roles also included more than one rascally newspaperman, starting with Hildy Johnson in the original 1931 “The Front Page,” his first major hit.

Thanks, as usual, to the Old Time Radio Researchers group for an email list discussion of The Family Theater that got me started listening to the series, and to its OTRR Library for the links to the MP3 files of the program, which I’ve linked above. The OTRR library has 579 episodes of the program, and judging by their titles or plot summaries, at least 10 present newspaper reporters or editors in one way or another.

After posting my first draft of this essay, I was alerted to the fact that the oldtime radio preservation company Radio Spirits published a collection of episodes of The Family Theater as high-quality CDs, with a booklet of notes by radio historian Karl Schadow. The collection does not have the Zenger episode, but does include another of the “newspaperman” episodes I’d downloaded to review later, “Little Boy Blue,” so I hope to give a listen, read Karl’s booklet and say more about the series next time! Incidentally, the “Little Boy Blue” episode is about a newspaperman who became more famous as a poet — so much so that Family Theater presented its biographical radio play a second time.

About Bob Stepno

mild-mannered reporter who found computers & the Web in grad school in the 1980s (Wesleyan) and '90s (UNC); taught journalism, media studies, Web production; retired to write, make music, photograph sunsets & walks in the woods.
This entry was posted in Colonial America, courtroom, editors, historical figures, History, journalism, New York City, newspapers, political corruption, publishers, true stories, women and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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