Screen Guild Theater began as a charity with the stars that appeared on the show donating their wages from it to Motion Picture Relief Fund. All in all the stars raised more than $800,000 to help build the Motion Picture Country House.
This facility was created and maintained to house retired film stars who were elderly or impoverished and needed a comfortable place to live. The mission of the show to raise money for fellow actors surely fueled the desire of Hollywood’s biggest stars to appear.
George Murphy hosted the show in 1939 then from 1940 on Roger Pryor hosted the show. Screen Guild Theater began as a general variety show and later changed formats to include radio versions of popular films starring most of the big name Hollywood celebrities of the time.
Guests included Jack Benny, Gary Cooper, Marlene Dietrich, Jimmy Cagney, George Burns, Gracie Allen, and Bing Crosby to name but a few with the first show opening on 8th January 1939 with Judy Garland, Joan Crawford and Jack Benny. While the show became wildly popular, it wasn’t always so. During the first year of production, the show seemed disjointed, and while it had big stars, it seemed that those stars weren’t enough to make it successful. The introduction of a new host – Roger Pryor – helped to smooth it out and make it into something worth listening to.
In 1942 it was dropped by its sponsor, Gulf because of problems in the oil industry during the time of World War II. However, it didn’t take long to find a new sponsor. Lady Esther began to sponsor the show and a new format was added.
It was at this time that popular films were adapted for radio programs. They were turned into short scripts of about 22 minutes. Many of Hollywood’s top stars would continue to appear on the show including Betty Davis, Judy Garland, and Humphrey Bogart. In fact, anyone who was anyone appeared on the Screen Guild Theater show.
On June 29, 1952 Screen Guild Theater signed off the airways. While it was no longer live, there are many recordings of it. In fact more than 200 shows can be heard from this era and it may be safe to say that few radio shows ever rivaled the Screen Guild Theater in star power and mass appeal.