The Mercury Theatre on the Air
Before creating cinematic masterpieces like "Citizen Kane", "The Magnificent Ambersons", and "Touch of Evil", wunderkind Orson Welles had already established himself on stage, performing with the legendary Katharine Cornell in productions of "Romeo and Juliet" and "Candida" in 1934. He then teamed up with producer John Houseman in 1935 to form a stormy and intense three-year partnership collectively known as the Mercury Theatre that, according to radio historian John Dunning, "created some of the most startling and talked-about theater New York had seen in decades."
But between "The Cradle Will Rock" and "Citizen Kane", Welles frequently hung his hat in the medium of radio; he had joined the cast of "The March of Time" as a regular in 1934 and was finishing his first season (1937-38) in the starring role of Mutual's "The Shadow" when CBS Radio offered both him and Houseman the opportunity to bring the much-talked-about Mercury troupe to the airwaves with a weekly one-hour dramatic program beginning July 11, 1938. Houseman was a little spooked by the whole prospect, realizing that the two of them had only two weeks to select a property, cast it, rehearse it, and perform it. Legend has it that, after Welles scrapped what was to be their first broadcast -- an adaptation of "Treasure Island" -- less than a week before the show's debut, he and Houseman worked for seventeen hours straight at a 24-hour New York eatery putting the finishing touches on an adaptation of Bram Stoker's "Dracula". Three days later, the show was broadcast as the premiere installment of what was finally titled "The Mercury Theatre on the Air".
The Mercury Theatre series was scheduled for a nine-week run over CBS, but the favorable critical buzz convinced the network to continue the series through the fall, moving it to Sunday nights beginning September 11. It is interesting to note that the program was sustained, which means that the network was footing the bill for nothing more than a little prestige. This corporate largesse was not uncommon at CBS in the 1930s, with "The Columbia Workshop" and many of Norman Corwin's works being good examples of the practice; William S. Paley, chairman of the "Tiffany Network," may have been a businessman, but he was also an individual with insight and taste, often putting programs on without expecting any kind of financial recompense -- a far cry from broadcasting today, where the bottom line is everything.
Sustained programs were fortunate in that they could afford to be a little more daring, what with not having to wrangle with sponsors by wondering if a script was going to offend listeners (and potential consumers) somewhere out in South Succotash. Programs that were sustained also encouraged experimentation, both in scripting and in sound effects; a Mercury production of "The Count of Monte Cristo", included in this collection, featured the story's dungeon scenes being played from the floor of a CBS restroom because the acoustics were ideal to recreate the subterranean reverberation. A microphone was placed inside a toilet bowl with the stopper left open, allowing, as Houseman later recounted, "a faithful rendering of the waves breaking against the walls of the Chateau D'If."
Although producer Houseman was chiefly responsible for paring down the "fat Victorian monsters" that served as the material for much of the series' plays (he would later hire a young writer named Howard Koch to take over the scripting chores), and conductor Bernard Herrmann provided the excellent scoring for the various productions, there was very little doubt that the show was an Orson Welles production. That is to say, the wonder that was Welles accepted a good deal of the credit as director, writer, and star. Listening to broadcasts of the show, even today one can't help but be a little awed by many of the productions, with even the lesser shows always having a little something distinctive to recommend them. One would also be remiss, however, if it wasn't pointed out that Welles' repertory cast -- Martin Gabel, Ray Collins, George Coulouris, Everett Sloane, Alice Frost, and Agnes Moorehead, to name only but a few -- deserve every bit of the credit for the fine acting that permeates each and every installment.
As previously noted, CBS switched "The Mercury Theatre" to Sunday nights in mid-September, continuing to support the program despite very tough competition on NBC: "The Chase and Sanborn Hour", featuring ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and dummy Charlie McCarthy. The idea was to present an alternative to those individuals who didn't listen regularly to what was at the time the number one show in radio. On October 30, 1938, many listeners did an early version of "channel surfing" and switched from Bergen over to Welles and company's broadcast: a play chosen for the Halloween holiday and adapted from H.G. Wells' classic science fiction novel "The War of the Worlds". Because many in the audience had not heard Welles' broadcast from the beginning, a percentage of them (though not nearly as many as have been previously documented) convinced themselves that there was an actual Martian invasion taking place at that moment and went full-gonzo-berserk. "Worlds" would become the most famous -- and in some ways, the most notorious -- of all the Mercury Theatre radio productions.
The resulting publicity and press put Welles and company on the map, making Welles' name a household word and securing the series a sponsor in Campbell Soups, which is why the show was rechristened "The Campbell Playhouse" beginning on December 9, 1938. The first-class status now awarded to the show by the sponsor's cash was both a blessing and a curse, however; the show's continued run may have been guaranteed but now big-name stars would be lured to each broadcast, much in the style of "The Lux Radio Theatre", crowding out many of the Mercury's supporting players. ("Lux" had previously demonstrated that big-name talent didn't necessarily always guarantee great acting.) "The Campbell Playhouse" continued as a weekly hour until March 31, 1940, scaling back to a half-hour in November of that year without Welles, who at the time had his hands full with "Citizen Kane", before ringing down the curtain June 13, 1941. The program experienced a brief revival in 1946 as "The Mercury Summer Theatre", which reunited Welles with some former Mercury thespians like Barrier, Frost, and Moorehead
Orson Welles is considered by many to be a tragic figure in cinema, due immeasurably to the fact that since his first film is considered his finest by both audiences and critics, he had no other place to go afterward but down. As talented as Welles was, he found himself in later years taking any job that was offered him in order to fund his independent film projects; his reputation was such that none of the studios would let him near a soundstage, unless it was as an actor. He simply could not keep his excesses in check...but as Richard Wilson relates in Leonard Maltin's "The Great American Broadcast", radio was an entirely different ballgame:
"Radio was the only medium that imposed a discipline that Orson would recognize... and that was the clock. When it came time for Mercury to go on the air, there was no denying it. I can't think of one theater production...that was not postponed, but [in] radio, he knew every week that clock was ticking, that red light [would come] on and say "On the Air." And good or bad, right or wrong, boy, that was it. It was the only discipline Orson was able ever to accept."
Radio Archives is pleased and proud to introduce this impressive collection: ten immortal broadcasts of "The Mercury Theatre on the Air" as originally heard between July and November of 1938. All of the programs have been transferred directly from the highest quality first generation master recordings and painstakingly restored for the best possible audio quality, making these the finest sounding versions of these broadcasts ever made available to the public.
The first program in the celebrated series is a dramatization of Bram Stoker’s novel about a vampire on the prowl in London. With Orson Welles, Martin Gabel, Agnes Moorehead, George Coulouris, Ray Collins, Karl Swenson, Elizabeth Farah, and announcer Dan Seymour.
Monday, July 11, 1938 – 60:00 - CBS, sustaining
A Tale of Two Cities
Welles and his troupe present a dramatization of Charles Dickens’ classic novel set against the background of revolutionary 18th-century France. With Orson Welles, Martin Gabel, Ray Collins, Edgar Barrier, Frank Readick, Eustace Wyatt, Kenny Delmar, Betty Garde, Erskine Sanford, Mary Taylor, and announcer Dan Seymour.
Monday, July 25, 1938 – 60:00 – CBS, sustaining
Three Short Stories
In a change of pace, the Mercury Theatre dramatizes three short stories: "I’m a Fool" by Sherwood Anderson, Saki's "The Open Window", and Carl Ewald's "My Little Boy". With Orson Welles, Edgar Barrier, Ray Collins, William Alland, Brenda Forbes, Anna Stafford, Betty Garde, Kingsley Colton, Estelle Levy, and announcer Dan Seymour.
Monday, August 8, 1938 – 60:00 – CBS, sustaining
John Drinkwater’s play "Abraham Lincoln," combined with excerpts from Lincoln’s speeches, inspires this stirring dramatic presentation on the wartime life of the sixteenth President of the United States. With Orson Welles, Ray Collins, George Coulouris, Karl Swenson, Agnes Moorehead, Edwin Jerome, Joseph Holland, Carl Frank, William Alland, and announcer Dan Seymour.
Monday, August 15, 1938 – 60:00 – CBS, sustaining
The Affairs of Anatol
Arthur Schnitzler’s classic novel about a delightful roué and his life in pre-WWI Vienna. With Orson Welles, Alice Frost, Helen Lewis, Arlene Francis, Ray Collins, William Alland, and announcer Dan Seymour.
Monday, August 22, 1938 – 60:00 – CBS, sustaining
The Count of Monte Cristo
Alexandre Dumas’ classic tale of young Edmund Dantes, who is imprisoned on the false testimony of his "friends" and later emerges as the wealthy Count of Monte Cristo. The program opens with a brief war bulletin about Germany and Czechoslovakia. With Orson Welles, Ray Collins, Eustace Wyatt, George Coulouris, Edgar Barrier, Paul Stewart, Sidney Smith, Richard Wilson, William Alland, Anna Stafford, and announcer Dan Seymour.
Monday, August 29, 1938 – 60:00 – CBS, sustaining
The Man Who Was Thursday
G.K. Chesterton is the author of this incredible metaphysical thriller about anarchists, given a full fire-and-brimstone dramatization by the Mercury players. With Orson Welles, Eustace Wyatt, Edgar Barrier, Joseph Cotten, George Coulouris, Ray Collins, Paul Stewart, Erskine Sanford, Anna Stafford, Alan Devitt, and announcer Dan Seymour.
Monday, September 5, 1938 – 60:00 – CBS, sustaining
The Immortal Sherlock Holmes
Welles himself adapted this radio dramatization of the play "Sherlock Holmes" by William Gillette, based on the famous detective created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. With Orson Welles, Ray Collins, Edgar Barrier, Eustace Wyatt, Mary Taylor, Brenda Forbes, Morgan Farley, Richard Wilson, Alfred Shirley, William Alland, Arthur Anderson, and announcer Frank Gallop.
Sunday, September 25, 1938 – 60:00 – CBS, sustaining
Around the World in 80 Days
Orson Welles scripted this adaptation of Jules Verne’s classic novel centering on the exploits of Phileas Fogg, a perennially punctual individual who’s undertaken a most unusual wager. With Orson Welles, Al Swenson, Arlene Francis, Edgar Barrier, Eustace Wyatt, Frank Readick, Ray Collins, Stefan Schnabel, William Alland, and announcer Dan Seymour.
Sunday, October 23, 1938 – 60:00 – CBS, sustaining
The Pickwick Papers
An entertaining adaptation of Charles Dickens’ novel chronicling the Pickwick Club and the numerous legal entanglements of Mr. Pickwick. With Orson Welles, Ray Collins, Frank Readick, Alfred Shirley, William Podmore, William Pringle, Elliott Reid, Mary Wickes, Eustace Wyatt, Brenda Forbes, MacGregor Gibbs, Edgar Barrier, and announcer Dan Seymour.
Sunday, November 20, 1938 – 60:00 – CBS, sustaining