Orson Welles and The Mercury Theatre on the Air

There is little left to be said about Orson Welles and his accomplishments on film. The man’s incredible voice and vision have ensured his filmography a distinct status of legend. As I’ve stated before, however, for me Welles’ true genius is most evident on the medium of radio where he all but revolutionized the medium with his extraordinary talent as a raconteur, voice artist, and teller of tales. This is why I chose Orson Welles’ radio work with emphasis on The Mercury Theater on the Air as my topic for ‘Some Kind of Man’ Orson Welles Blogathon hosted by Sean Munger.

The earliest examples of Orson Welles’ radio appearances that I’ve been able to find are from 1932, two guest appearances he made at the ripe old age of 17. A couple of years after those performances, Welles made frequent appearances on the CBS Radio version of The March of Time, a documentary series that was later made into a video version for movie theaters. Later still he played The Shadow for a season in 1938. But it was 1937 that proved an important year for him with the production of Les Misérables, a seven-part series broadcast from July to September of that year on the Mutual Broadcasting System. In my opinion, that series is still one of the best productions anywhere of Victor Hugo’s popular novel. Les Misérables aired on Friday nights at 10 p.m. with the 22-year-old Welles starring as Jean Valjean. For the first time on radio Orson Welles took on the additional duties as producer-writer-director. The cast in the Les Misérables series is fantastic with Martin Gabel, Alice Frost, and Virginia Nicolson Welles (Mrs. Orson) leading a superb lot of supporting players that included Ray Collins, Agnes Moorehead, and Everett Sloane. Those actors would be long-time Welles collaborators. You must do yourself the favor of listening to the series here.

Many consider the Les Misérables series the first production of The Mercury Theatre because the same players performed, but I do not think that is correct. The Mercury Theatre came to be in August 1937 when collaborators John Houseman and Orson Welles decided to create their own independent theatrical production company. Houseman, who worked with The Negro Theatre Unit in New York as part of the Federal Theatre Project (FTP), invited Welles to join him. The Federal Theatre Project was a program established during the Great Depression as part of the New Deal to fund live artistic performances and entertainment programs throughout the country. The best-known and most active FTP was The New York Negro Unit (1935-1939). Located at the Lafayette Theatre in Harlem, the unit staged over 30 productions, with the most popular being “voodoo” Macbeth (1935), an adaptation of Shakespeare’s play set in the Caribbean, under the direction of the 21-year-old Orson Welles. The FTP was administered from Washington, D. C., but its many companies stretched the full breadth of the Nation. It functioned from 1935 to 1939 when its funding was terminated. In that brief period, it was responsible for some of the most innovative staging of its time. (LoC) Needless to say, Welles became the most famous participant of the project.

“The Tragic History of Doctor Faustus” by Elizabethan dramatist Christopher Marlowe (1564–1593) opened at Maxine Elliott’s Theatre on January 8, 1937. Twenty-one-year-old Orson Welles, under unit director John Houseman, not only played the title role but also directed and designed the costumes for the FTP production. (LoC)

Houseman and Welles left the Federal Theatre Project in 1937 due to a disagreement concerning the cancelation of a musical. The two then founded The Mercury Theatre, which presented live versions of radio programs and motion pictures. Virtually all Mercury Theatre productions were performed at the newly-minted Mercury Theatre, formerly the Comedy Theatre, located at 110 West 41st Street in New York. This became home to the Mercury Players. By the way, you may have seen a nod to them in the credits of Citizen Kane.

As an aside, I’ve been by the address listed as where the Mercury Theatre stood and could find no structural clue of its existence. It turns out the building’s name was changed to Artef, a Yiddish theatre, in 1940 and was demolished in 1942. However, there is a plaque located nearby that reads:

“On this site in 1937, legendary American actor-writer-director-producer Orson Welles founded the Mercury Theatre with John Houseman. Here Welles directed groundbreaking productions of Julius Caesar, The Shoemaker’s Holiday, Heartbreak House and Danton’s Death. Welles and the Mercury would go on to make history with ‘The War of the Worlds’ broadcast and ‘Citizen Kane.’ Astonishingly, he would accomplish all this by his 26th birthday.”

I get chills.

By 1938 Mr. Welles was a proven “boy wonder.” The news that he and Houseman were creating The Mercury Theatre group garnered him the cover of Time magazine on May 8, 1938 with a cover story entitled, “The Theatre: Marvelous Boy.” Then came the group’s most famous accomplishment, The Mercury Theatre on the Air, a radio series originally broadcast from New York that showcased the talents of the Mercury Players for the entire country. These productions cemented Welles’ legend as a supremely talented genius. For my money these are the greatest radio productions of their time and still stand as fantastic entertainment. They are regarded by many as the best example of radio drama.

The Mercury Theatre on the Air was originally marketed as First Person Singular, which ran for nine episodes before its name was changed. The Mercury Players had established a reputation on stage and Orson Welles insisted that the same actors and crew be involved in the radio series. Welles had come to trust the group and they him. CBS initially disagreed with the idea, but in the end gave Welles full creative control. I remember reading in Charles Tranberg’s biography of Agnes Moorehead, I Love the Illusion: The Life and Career of Agnes Moorehead, that CBS wanted Irene Dunne to be a part of The Mercury Theatre on the Air instead of Moorehead, but Welles pushed back hard. As much as I love Irene Dunne, there is no greater radio voice aside from Welles himself than Agnes Moorehead whose work in the medium made history. The genius was right. The voices of Moorehead, William Alland, Ray Collins, Joseph Cotten, George Coulouris, Arlene Francis, and Everett Sloane can be heard on these productions just as they were seen on stage.

The Mercury Players rehearse as Welles directs

The Mercury Theatre on the Air is an hour-long anthology series spotlighting classic and contemporary works of literature. Having had extensive experience on radio by the time work began on The Mercury Theatre on the Air, Orson Welles in conjunction with John Houseman, chose dramatic works with the medium of radio in mind. In other words, the group didn’t just perform works the Mercury Players had done on stage. The radio productions were chosen carefully to take full advantage of the medium.

Orson Welles wrote, directed, and performed in the Mercury Theatre radio productions, which included adaptations of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, A Tale of 
Two Cities
, The Magnificent Ambersons, Heart of Darkness, and other major
novels. John Houseman wrote the early scripts for the series later turning the job over to
Howard Koch. Music for the program was conducted by CBS staff composer/conductor Bernard Herrmann, you may have heard of him, and the sound effects were fantastic. The first production of Mercury Theatre on the Air was Bram Stoker’s Dracula with Welles playing both Count Dracula and Doctor Seward. Here are a few examples of other works tackled by the Mercury Players on radio:

“The Thirty-Nine Steps”

 

“The Count of Monte Cristo”

 

“Three Short Stories”

 

The Mercury Theatre on the Air was originally scheduled for a nine-week run in the summer of 1938. CBS extended the program into the fall of that year and moved it from its original Monday night slot to Sunday opposite Edgar Bergen’s variety show. Despite the program’s outstanding performances, quality production, and critical acclaim, audiences didn’t warm to the series and ratings were low through the summer and early fall of 1938. However, that changed dramatically on October 30, 1938.

The Mercury Players’ most famous, or perhaps I should say infamous, production was War of the World, a special Halloween episode of The Mercury Theatre on the Air that was broadcast on October 30, 1938. Directed and narrated by Orson Welles, the episode was an adaptation of H. G. Wells’ novel The War of the Worlds and remains the most influential fiction radio program of all time. Welles was extremely fond of magic, as you may know, and it occurs to me that this broadcast was the greatest magical illusion he could have ever conceived.

Following is The War of the Worlds” broadcast. Before you listen let’s go back to October 30, 1938. It’s a Sunday night at about 8 p.m. The majority of radio listeners are tuned in to Edgar Bergman’s Chase and Sanborn Hour, a comedy-variety show. After the opening comedy routine ends, a singer comes on. Many people changed the dial at that point to come across this…

“Ladies and gentlemen, we interrupt our program of dance music to bring you a special bulletin from the Intercontinental Radio News. At twenty minutes before eight, Central Time, Professor Farrell of the Mount Jennings Observatory, Chicago, Illinois, reports observing several explosions of incandescent gas, occurring at regular intervals on the planet Mars. The spectroscope indicates the gas to be hydrogen and moving towards the Earth with enormous velocity…”

or perhaps this…

“Ladies and gentlemen, this is Carl Phillips again, out at the Wilmuth farm, Grovers Mill, New Jersey…I hardly know where to begin…I guess that’s the thing buried in front of me, half buried in its vast pit.”

or this…

“Ladies and gentlemen, this is the most terrifying thing I have ever witnessed…Someone’s crawling out of the hollow top…The whole field’s caught fire…It’s coming this way. About twenty yards to my right—”

followed by dead silence.

Here is “The War of the Worlds”

 

The War of the Worlds broadcast caused havoc across the country as people actually believed that aliens were invading. There was a clear statement during the program’s introduction saying that this was a work of fiction, but some believe that many in the audience tuned in late, missing the beginning. Those people heard what sounded like a real news broadcast, which was presented with growing concern that grew to panic. In fact, the episode was often referred to as “The panic episode” and newspapers across the land reflected that. Orson Welles was forced to address the media the next day and you can see how he enjoyed trying to convince them that his intentions with the broadcast were honorable, that he did not enjoy knowing of the panic it caused. Take a look at that interview here.

Despite the negative press, the attention garnered by the War of the Worlds episode resulted in The Mercury Theatre on the Air gaining a sponsor, which in turn guaranteed its survival. Campbell Soup became the show’s sponsor on December 9, 1938 and The Mercury Theatre on the Air became The Campbell Playhouse with the first production under that title being an adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca. I should mention that despite the official title change, these radio programs are most often referred to by the Mercury Theatre title. Anyway, everyone was so taken with Welles following the War of the Worlds broadcast that the introduction to Rebecca lauded his genius and talent. Orson Welles produced 56 episodes of The Campbell Playhouse, which moved to Hollywood from New York for the second season and lasted a few episodes past Welles’ final performance in the series in March 1940.

Orson Welles continued to do radio for years after his official move to Hollywood to work in the motion picture industry. He starred in several variety shows like The Orson Welles Show a program sponsored by Lady Esther Cosmetics in 1941 and The Orson Welles Almanac sponsored by Mobil Oil in 1944. The latter was taped before a live audience and included Welles performing magic acts.

In 1945 Welles went on the air with Orson Welles Commentaries, which were 15-minute editorials and political commentaries. Sponsored by Lear Radios, this program was a continuation of a syndicated column he wrote for the New York Post from January to June 1945. The radio version followed the same format, which included Hollywood and Broadway news and opinion as well as Welles’s political views. (Indiana U.) Orson Welles Commentaries is the only radio program mentioned in this entry that I have yet to listen to and I must change that as soon as possible.

Orson Welles (arms raised) rehearses his radio depiction of H.G. Wells’ classic, The War of the Worlds. (Smithsonian)

Although I recommend any and all Orson Welles radio appearances given his magnificent voice and flair for the dramatic, none of the subsequent programs are as memorable as those Welles made as lead actor of and creative force behind the Mercury Players for The Mercury Theatre on the Air. As an avid fan of old-time radio, I can say I have never heard anything like them with performances and intensity that illustrate the power of radio on their own merit. The importance of these radio programs can also not be discounted in the context of Welles’ entire career. It was the War of the Worlds production that led Orson Welles to Hollywood, to a contract with RKO, and to Citizen Kane as we know it. You probably know the story and the irony that resulted in the fact that what attracted Hollywood players to Welles was his ability to go outside the creative box. Yet, they never allowed him to do that with his films following Citizen Kane. On the radio though, Welles could be as creative as he liked.

It is with all of that in mind and having experienced the power of Orson Welles on the radio that I contend that his radio work was his greatest achievement. And as it turns out, Orson Welles would have agreed with that assessment. I close with his own words, “My big inventions were in radio and the theatre. Much more than in the movies.”

Be sure to visit ‘Some Kind of Man’ Orson Welles Blogathon hosted by Sean Munger to read much more about the man and the myth, Orson Welles.

 

7 thoughts

  1. Another excellent article, thank you! I’m sure you’ve seen these but just in case the novel Me and Orson Welles and the 2009 film of the same name are very good.
    My ex-wife and I were teachers at the same middle school in the 80’s. For her English classes she transcribed both the War of the Worlds and the Dracula productions word for word. During Halloween week (when else?) she handed out copies to her English classes where her students would follow along while they listened to the Mercury Theater Productions. The kids loved it!

    1. What a fantastic idea!! Bet the students enjoyed that exercise. Thank you so much for stopping in. I’ve seen the film ME AND ORSON WELLES, but have not read the book.

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