Here’s the latest from the crossroads of faith, media & culture: 05/02/22

Bittersweet doesn’t begin go describe last night’s moment at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. As Mental Health Awareness Month begins, the world is mourning the tragic news that the condition has taken the earthly life of country music giant Naomi Judd just a day before she and her daughter/singing partner Wynonna (joined at the ceremony by her sister Ashley) were to be officially inducted for their contributions to country music.

The Judds (as Naomi and Wynonna were known) were first discovered by RCA label head Joe Galante after the duo landed a spot on WSM-TV’s The Ralph Emery Show in 1983. Within a year they scored a hit with Had A Dream (For The Heart) and the pair were on their way to becoming one of the best-selling duos of all time. For the rest of the 1980s, each single from The Judds released by RCA went to the Billboard​ ​Top 10, with 14 hits going all the way to number one. The Judds swept the CMA’s Vocal Group/Duo category from 1985 to 1991 and garnered six Grammy Awards. They embarked on their ‘Farewell Tour’ in 1991 after Naomi’s diagnosis of Hepatitis C forced her to retire from the road. Naomi beat the disease and went on to write several New York Times best-selling books. The duo reunited briefly in the 2000s and again to honor Kenny Rogers in the fall of 2017. They were planning another tour set to begin shortly.

Besides her daughters, she is survived by her second husband Larry Strickland.
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On a happier note…Family Theater Productions just celebrated its 75th anniversary. The gala event happened last Wednesday at the iconic Roosevelt Hotel on Hollywood Boulevard which, FYI, was also site of the very first Academy Awards. Since 2014 the family and faith friendly media production company has been run by Father David Guffey. Our conversation follows this video retrospective.

JWK: Congratulations on 75 years of Family Theater Productions! Tell me about the party you had.

Father David Guffey: We had a gathering of friends, benefactors and collaborators at the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood. The Roosevelt Hotel is a storied old Hollywood hotel that’s beautifully restored to the way it was in the Golden Age of Hollywood. We were in the ballroom there. We had music. We had great food. We did a reenactment of a one of our radio plays. We had actors  (and) even found a sound effects guy that did old-time radio sounds. So, that was part of the night.

JWK: What was they play?

DG: It was called One in a Million. It’s a play that we put on the air as part of our regular radio show at the time. It was broadcast in July, 1948.

JWK: How did Family Theater Productions begin? What was the genesis of it, so to speak?

DG: There was a young priest. His name was Father Patrick Peyton. He had just been ordained and he was really drawn to promote family prayer, especially the Rosary. He had done letter writing campaigns and he did a lot of missions and retreats in parishes but he realized that the way to get into people’s hearts and homes was through mass media. The mass media of his day was radio.

He started doing some local radio in Albany, New York. He really got the bug. He talked to Bishop Fulton Sheen and others and he got one radio show on Mother’s Day, 1945 on Mutual (Radio) and it went very well. So, he decided he was going to try to do it every week. They told him he really needed to go to Hollywood to do that.

He came to Hollywood in October of 1946. By February of 1947, the young priest had a weekly show on the second-largest radio network of the time, the Mutual Broadcasting System. What it was every week was a radio play. The Mutual Network said that Payton had to have great scripts. They had to be widely appealing to people of faith – not just Catholics but all people of faith – and they had to have big stars every week.

Payton and his team got big stars. The first show had Jimmy Stewart, Loretta Young and Don Ameche. After that we had the great A-list stars and the great character actors of that time – Jack Benny, Fred Allen, Lucille Ball, Gregory Peck – just a whole list of other people that did the radio plays for us in the day.

So, that’s how we got started, We kind of count that first show as the origin of Family Theater. We’re called Family Theater because our radio show  was Family Theater of the Air. 75 years later we’re still making media. We don’t do radio anymore but over the years we’ve kind of evolved to different formats and ways of doing media.

JWK: When did you take the helm?

DG: I became national director in 2014. I started working the film and television department in 2008.

JWK: What brought you the job? Did you always have a passion for storytelling?

DG: You know, as a young man I always loved photography. I loved filming with my parents’ Super 8 movie camera. In college I was I was on the campus radio station and I did a little bit at the school newspaper but, as it turned out, when I was at the University of Notre Dame I really found my vocation and really discerned a call to be a Holy Cross priest. I was a member of the Congregation of the Holy Cross.

I thought (the media) was all behind me but almost as soon as I got ordained I realized that there were so many ways the Church needed to tell its story. So, as a young priest I did that informally. I started looking into Church media and reading a lot. I took a lot of encouragement from Pope St. John Paul II who, in the eighties, was really encouraging people of faith – even especially priests and religious – to get involved in media. At one point my order was encouraging me to study and I realized I wanted to study more of visual storytelling. So, they sent me to film school. I came to the film school at Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles. They have a great film school. I graduated from there and then I started working at Family Theater and I’ve been at Family Theater ever since.

JWK: What are some of the productions – both before you arrived and after you arrived – that you’re most proud of?

DG: Some of the TV and film shows that we did in the fifties still hold up. They’re still played on Catholic networks fairly often. A lot of our early stuff held up.

JWK: There’s one interesting clip that I saw that featured James Dean in the cast.

DG: Yeah, that’s Hill Number One. EWTN and a lot of our other Catholic affiliate partners still play that. The Life of Christ series that we did Master, Savior, Redeemer, it’s three films – they’re still played frequently. They’re still great sellers.

Recently, we’ve done a lot of documentaries that we hope will inspire families. We just released the story of Father Patrick Peyton. It’s called Pray: The Story of Patrick Peyton…That’s one of our big documentaries. We had another documentary that won a Christopher Award we just found out last week called The House That Rob Built. It’s not really a religious film. It talks about the importance of sports. Rob Selvig is a legendary women’s basketball coach in Montana. He kinda got into women’s coaching right at the beginning of Title IX and he saw that sports and athletics could do for women what he knew it could do for men. It could help them built confidence, character, a sense of community with the other players and be a great support to them for the rest of their lives.

DG: We have a couple of web series that are really going strong right now. Catholic Central and Lente Católico (are) done with some fun and animation. We’ve got a number of projects that I’m really proud of right now.

JWK: What are your criteria for choosing a project?

DG: We want things that the family can watch together. We want things that celebrate the human condition and celebrate family and things that affirm the values of faith.

JWK: You’ve mentioned some of the great Hollywood stars Family Theater has attracted over the years. Are you still attracting the stars? It seems to me that Hollywood has changed a lot over the years and may be a bit less supportive of organized religion.

DG: Yeah, I think that probably is a good observation. You know, in the 1940s and 50s, first of all, there were a lot of stars that were fairly open about worshiping as a Catholic. So, there were those people to draw from but even people who weren’t Catholic were anxious to be part of a production that was high quality and supported a kind of common set of values. Frankly, at that time it was probably good for their careers to appear in a show like Family Theater. That changed. Now, there’s a certain aspect of the entertainment industry that’s hostile to faith and faith-based programs. So now, you know, some actors may see it as a risk to their careers. Many still do it and make faith-based things but it’s not the same world as it was then.

What I do find, however, in Hollywood is that there are so many people who really want to be part of quality projects. They’re not afraid of having faith be part of a storyline (and to) depict faith and belief in God as some part of the transformational process of a character. Even the studios are learning a lesson. They’ve learned that there’s an audience for faith-friendly and family content. The evidence of that is you’ve seen major studios and major networks set up faith divisions within their companies to try to develop this kind of content for their audience and for their streaming platforms. So, I think we’re on the verge of a really wonderful time actually in family and faith-based content.

JWK: I definitely think the audience is there. There’s no doubt in my mind about that.

Along with your company, when people think of Catholic media they often think of Paulist Productions? Do you guys view yourselves as in competition with one another or allied with one another? How does that relationship work?

DG: We’re great friends. We’ve collaborated on a couple of projects and we keep in regular communication with them. The projects that they would make and we would make sometimes overlap. Whenever there’s a chance for collaboration I think we’re both really excited to do it again. We collaborated on a beautiful film called The Dating Project. This was a documentary of a few years ago that kind of looked at the ways that young people actually don’t date in the way that my generation (did). I’m about 60. In my generation people went out on dates and got to know each other. Now, that’s not the reality for a lot of young people. Anyway, this film explores this and kind of centers around a college professor who’s trying to teach young people how to date in a way where you really get to know somebody and feel good about yourselves and feel good about the relationship.

DG: We did that with Paulist…Mike Sullivan and Father Tom from Paulist were (at our party). It was really wonderful to have them there.

JWK: What do you see as your primary audience? Is it families? Is it the young generation? Who are you most trying to reach?

DG: To some extent that varies project by project. In general, for most of our projects we hope they’re things that families could watch together. Kind of our sweet spot would be for families with children still in the home – so, parents between 25 and 50 – but it varies a little bit project to project.

For the most part, our core audience is probably Catholic and then audiences interested in faith-based content. For many of our projects now – take something like The House That Rob Built – they’re written and produced in such a way that really anybody could enjoy the film. So, they’d be for wider audiences as well.

JWK: As you mentioned, The House That Rob Built dealt in a positive way with Title IX and its impact on women and women’s sports. Title IX, of course, has been in the news a lot lately with the transgender issue. How do you deal with controversial subject matter like that or do you think it’s best to sorta avoid them?

DG: We’ve probably survived 75 years by not getting too much embroiled in the specific controversies of the day. What we do try to do is hold up and support the values of a particular Christian or Catholic way of looking at things – a way at looking at being human, a way of looking at being a family, a way of looking at being a man or a woman.

JWK: Any current stars you would like to work with?

DG: Mark Wahlberg and his company did a congratulatory ad for us in Variety. I was really pleased at that. I have to say I admire the recent movie he did Father Stu a lot. It’s an R-rated movie and the language is R-rated but it’s such a great story of faith and the Church. I admire it so much. So, Mark Wahlberg is somebody who I think is at a point in his career and at a point in his own personal journey who’s looking for faith-based things. There’s a lot of other people. (At our celebration) our actors included Clarence Gilyard

JWK: Oh, Walker, Texas Ranger!

DG: Yeah, Walker, Texas Ranger and Matlock. He was also in Die Hard and Top Gun, great films! He still acts. He does a lot of theater now. He’s somebody that’s been really supportive. And then a couple of people who are character actors. Michael Harney who’s been in a lot of great things. He was in Orange is the New Black and Deadwood. He’s such a gracious and kind man and a man of faith. He was really anxious to work with us on our little radio play (at the event). I’d love to work with him again in the future. There are lot of actors like that that are around. And a lot of the people that we work with we hope will be stars someday. You know, they’re getting a start in their career or they haven’t gotten the one big series or the one big movie yet that’s gonna make them a household name but they’re wonderful people and talented and we hope that they will someday.

JWK: Are there any sort of what you would call mainstream movies or TV shows that you find inspirational and representative of the kind of content you’d like Family Theater to put out into the culture?

DG: There are a couple of things. There’s a film right now called The Adam Project that’s on Netflix. We would have made it just a little bit differently…It’s a science-fiction genre film but it’s sort of (about) coming to terms with who your parents are. So, I admire that in terms of the family aspect.

A show like Blue Bloods, which is a procedural cop show with Tom Selleck, Bridget Moynahan and some other great actors, has been on forever (and) is routinely in the top 20 of television shows. It’s got a wide audience but no one pays any attention to it. In almost every episode they just have a little snippet of something of faith. You know, they’re at their table, they say grace. What I like about that is it shows that normal high-functioning people can have faith as part of their life. I think that’s a message that’s really strong. I mean sometimes I think we have to be careful in Christian and Catholic filmmaking that we just don’t beat people over the head with it but that we instead try to show this is part of life. This is part of what can be your strength, your hope, your resilience as you do the other things you do in your life.

JWK: You touch on something that’s actually kind of interesting to me regarding Blue Bloods. As you say, it’s been on a long time and gets very good ratings on a Friday night – which is generally considered a low-rated night for broadcast television. Yet, it gets relatively little media attention – perhaps because it is so faith friendly. Do you find that’s a hurdle to overcome – that there’s, maybe, a resistance on the part of the show business media to cover they kind of stuff you’re producing?

DG: I think it can be a hurdle but I also gotta say (Blue Bloods) has been on the air for all these years. Maybe they don’t give it a lot of attention because it already has an audience. They don’t need to give it a lot of attention.

JWK: You know what show I like that I think falls within the area of what you’re doing is Young Sheldon.

DG: I really enjoy what they did with that show. They’ve looked at some really complex faith issues. Young Sheldon professes to be an atheist but he takes faith seriously and the show takes faith seriously. It’s had some really interesting story arcs as well.

JWK: What’s ahead? I understand you have a show based on the Chime Travelers book series in the works.

DG: We’re really in the early stages of development on that but it’s a beautiful book series by a marvelous woman (named) Lisa Hendey. That’s one of the things that’s on our slate. We’ve got a couple of holiday films on our slate and a number of things that we’re pretty early on in the process. As I’m sure you know, it usually takes two to five years to get a movie off the ground.

JWK: Considering Family Theater’s origins in radio, I’m wondering if you’re into scripted podcasts at all. In the course of doing this blog, I’ve discovered that beyond the more – I guess you’d say – traditional talk and documentary-style podcasts there’s a real movement toward narratives in the style of old-time radio drama. It strikes me that that would be a natural thing for you folks to get into.

DG: It’s funny you mention it. We’ve talked about it but we don’t have anything in development right now. Especially after we did the live radio show (at our celebration) people said “Oh, this is fun! We should do more of this!”

JWK: I think there’s a market there worth looking into.

DG: I think you’re right. Audio is such a great medium because, for one thing, you can do something else while you’re listening to it. The other thing about it is it really engages your imagination in a different way than a visual on the screen. So, it’s worth considering.

JWK: Is there anything you’d like to say as we wrap up?

DG: I think the only other thing I’d say is we’re a modest presence in Hollywood. We do a few things. We have a number of people that gravitate toward our place and that we’re able to interact with. I am so grateful for the other Catholics in Hollywood. I’ve met some of the strongest, most dedicated people of faith in Hollywood since I’ve been here. It’s a pleasure to know them, work with them and collaborate with them when we can.

I also think it’s just so important that in this place where where, for better or for worse, stories are told and culture is created that the Church has some presence. Family Theater is part of that presence but I’m so grateful for Paulist Productions and the other production companies that are run by lay Catholics that show that the Church is here and listening and is part of the conversation about the stories that get told to the United States and to the world.

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

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