Thursday, February 12, 2004

First Person Singular

Before Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, Touch of Evil, and all those other cinematic masterpieces—Orson Welles found a home…on radio. Welles had already established a celebrated career on stage, of course, before becoming a mainstay over the airwaves—performing with the legendary Katharine Cornell in productions of Romeo and Juliet and Candida in 1934, then teaming up with producer John Houseman in 1935 to form a stormy, intense three-year partnership that, according to OTR historian John Dunning, “created some of the most startling and talked-about theater New York had seen in decades.”

As for radio, Welles had joined the cast of The March of Time as a regular beginning in 1934, and was finishing his first season (1937-38) in the starring role of Mutual’s The Shadow when CBS Radio offered both he and Houseman the opportunity to bring much-talked-about Mercury Theater 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 17 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 Theater On the Air.

The Mercury Theater was scheduled for a nine-week run over CBS, but the critical buzz and favorable press 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. I’ve always been fascinated by how common it was for many radio shows of the 1930s to be put on the air (the Columbia Workshop and many of Norman Corwin’s works are good examples) without the network 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, not having to deal with sponsors wondering if a script was going to offend listeners—and potential consumers—somewhere out in West Succotash. Programs that were sustained also encouraged experimentation, both in scripting and in sound effects—a Mercury Theater production of The Count of Monte Cristo (8/29/38) 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 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 later hired a young writer named Howard Koch to take over the scripting chores), and conductor Bernard Herrmann provided the excellent for Mercury Theater, 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 both director and star. In listening to old broadcasts of the show, you can’t help but be a little awed by many of the productions, and even the lesser shows have a little “oomph” to them. I would be remiss, however, if I didn’t point out that Welles’ repertory cast—Martin Gabel, Ray Collins, George Coulouris, Everett Sloane, Alice Frost, Agnes Moorehead, to name only but a few—deserve every bit of the credit for the fine acting that permeates each and every show.

This evening, I put on the October 23, 1938 broadcast of “Around the World in Eighty Days,” based on the classic novel by Jules Verne. It tells, of course, the tale of Englishman Phileas Fogg (Welles), who has accepted a wager (£20,000) to travel around the world in the titular time period. Accompanied by his valet, Passepartout (Edgar Barrier), he is pursued throughout his journey by a detective named Fix (Collins), who is convinced that Fogg is responsible for the recent robbery of the Bank of England. It’s a wonderful production, and I think the hour-long length helps it tremendously, allowing it to move along at a breezy clip—unlike the bloated, three-hour-plus film version of 1956. Included in the supporting are Eustace Wyatt, Frank Readick, Stefan Schnabel, Al Swenson, William Alland, and Arlene Francis (Mrs. Martin Gabel).

Although I didn’t think about it before selecting this show, it is interesting to note that the following week (October 30) would bring about what would become the most famous—and in many ways, notorious—of all The Mercury Theater On the Air productions, “The War of the Worlds.” (That should ring a bell, I’m sure.) This celebrated broadcast put Welles and company on the map, making Orson a household word and securing the series a sponsor in Campbell Soups—which is why the show was rechristened The Campbell Playhouse beginning December 9, 1938. The first-class status 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, and crowding out many of the Mercury supporting players. Campbell Playhouse continued as a weekly hour until March 31, 1940, scaling back to a half-hour in November of that year (and sans Welles, who had his hands full with Citizen Kane at that time) before ringing down the curtain June 13, 1941. The program experienced a brief revival in 1946 (June 7-September 13) as The Mercury Summer Theater, which reunited Welles with some of his former Mercury players like Barrier, Frost and Moorehead—and was sponsored by Pabst Beer. (And you thought Welles had sold out with Paul Masson wines.)

Orson Welles is considered by many to be a tragic figure—due immeasurably to the fact that since his first film was his finest, he had no other place to go afterward but down. But I’ve always been intrigued by this anecdote in Leonard Maltin’s The Great American Broadcast, related by Richard Wilson, on how radio really kept Orson's excesses in check:

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.

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