"There are many ways to share the gospel, and theater's one of the best," Ruth Hale announces to a near-capacity audience in Salt Lake City.
One of the Hale Center Theater's weekly "firesides" is about to begin, a theatrical production called "Are the Meadowlarks Still Singing?" Played out on a center stage surrounded by the audience, the show is entertaining, to be sure. But true to Sister Hale's introduction, it does share gospel principles - in an overt manner.It is about a minister's daughter who brings a house guest home from college. When she introduces him as Helaman Harrington, audience members laugh. They can see what is coming. Helaman turns out to be a returned LDS missionary.
With the subtlety of a spring thunderstorm in his northern Utah hometown, Helaman, a pleasant young man, expounds LDS doctrine about resurrection, baptism, the plan of salvation, the Restoration, and Joseph Smith, exacerbating the turmoil of the minister, who is questioning his own religious beliefs.
The tension makes for some hilarious situations, but poignant moments have some audience members wiping away tears, such as when the returned missionary and the daughter realize their planned wedding will not take place. He will not marry outside the temple and she feels she cannot forsake her family's faith.
Sister Hale, 81, and her husband, Nathan, 79, have supporting roles, she as a cantankerous aunt and he as the minister's formidable father, who is also a minister.
"We never get tired of doing this play," a weary but contented Sister Hale said in an interview following the show. "And this is the fifth year now."
The theater, which specializes in family-oriented drama, does a thriving business. However, when "Meadowlarks" and another LDS-oriented play, "The Girl Who Came to Dinner," are presented, no admission is charged, and opening and closing prayers are offered.
President Ezra Taft Benson attended one night and saw "Meadowlarks."
The productions are the Hales' offerings to the Lord.
"We feel we will be blessed during our other plays if we do one for the Lord," Sister Hale said.
As with the theater the Hales operated previously in California, they encourage members to bring non-member friends to the free presentations. But in Utah, the greatest success has been among Church members who were reactivated and young men who were motivated to serve missions after seeing one or both of the shows, Sister Hale said. The practice of devoting one night of drama a week to spreading the gospel follows the counsel given to the Hales in the 1930s by Elder Joseph F. Merrill, then of the Council of the Twelve.
At the time, they were living in Granger (now West Valley City), Utah. Nathan was working for a copper mining company. They had cowritten some plays that were published in the MIA Book of Plays under a program run by the Mutual Improvement Association to encourage young playwrights. Elder Merrill was visiting their stake conference. Ruth and Nathan Hale told him they were considering going to California to work in the movies.
"He said it is a wonderful thing if you can make a living at a thing you like to do," Brother Hale related. "But he said, `Remember to always put the Lord first.' "
They went to California and started a successful community theater in Glendale. Over the years, the theater helped launch the careers of such Hollywood stars as Connie Stevens, Mike Farrell, Richard Hatch, Denver Pyle and Gordon Jump.
Jump is among actors who joined the Church through the Hales' influence. He has appeared in several Church-produced motion pictures.
The Hales recommended actors for several Church movies and have appeared themselves in several, such as "All About Thad" and "Pioneers and Petticoats." Brother Hale played the part of the grandfather in the 1987 remake of "Man's Search for Happiness."
Nine years ago, the Hales moved back to Utah, intending to retire. But they could not remain idle. They purchased a building and renovated it into the Hale Center Theater in 1985. Since then, another Hale theater has been opened in the tiny southern Utah town of Grover, and one is expected to open in Orem.
The Hales, who served a mission to Nauvoo where they put on dramas for tourists, have written 73 plays.
Their posterity is as prolific as their plays, totaling about 80 including in-laws. Family members help run the theaters in California and Utah, and many have worked in the Hales' productions. All mission-age sons have served missions, and all marriages in the family have been in the temple.
Employees, such as Ann and Cody Swenson, the leads in "Meadowlarks," seem almost like family
They got engaged one night during a performance when he gave her a diamond ring that was not a prop. She was a little rattled but stayed in character.