The Mercury Theatre on the Air

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The Mercury Theatre on the Air
Orson Welles 1937.jpg
Orson Welles in 1937 (Carl Van Vechten)
Other names First Person Singular
Genre Anthology drama
Running time 60 minutes
Country United States
Language(s) English
Home station CBS
Host(s) Orson Welles
Starring Orson Welles
William Alland
Edgar Barrier
Ray Collins
Joseph Cotten
George Coulouris
Arlene Francis
Alice Frost
Martin Gabel
Agnes Moorehead
Frank Readick
Elliott Reid
Everett Sloane
Paul Stewart
Karl Swenson
Virginia Welles
Eustace Wyatt
Creator(s) Orson Welles
Writer(s) Orson Welles
John Houseman
Director(s) Orson Welles
Producer(s) Orson Welles
Narrated by Orson Welles
Air dates July 11 to December 4, 1938 (1938-12-04)
No. of series 1
No. of episodes 22
Opening theme Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor by Tchaikovsky

The Mercury Theatre on the Air (first known as First Person Singular) is a radio series of live radio dramas created by Orson Welles. The weekly hour-long show presented classic literary works performed by Welles's celebrated Mercury Theatre repertory company, with music composed or arranged by Bernard Herrmann.[1]

The series began July 11, 1938, as a sustaining program on the CBS Radio network, airing Mondays at 9 p.m. ET. On September 11, 1938, the show moved to Sundays at 8 p.m.

After the front-page headlines generated by the The War of the Worlds (October 30, 1938) — one of the most famous broadcasts in the history of radio due to the mass panic it accidentally caused — Campbell's Soup signed on as sponsor. The Mercury Theatre on the Air made its last broadcast December 4, 1938, and The Campbell Playhouse began December 9, 1938.[2]:448–455

Production[edit]

The company rehearses Treasure Island, the second program in The Mercury Theatre on the Air series, presented July 18, 1938

After the theatrical successes of the Mercury Theatre, CBS Radio invited Orson Welles to create a summer show for 13 weeks. The series began July 11, 1938, initially titled First Person Singular, with the formula that Welles would play the lead in each show. Some months later the show was called The Mercury Theatre on the Air.[3]

Paul Holler, writing in Critique, described the program's origin:

"Radio, with its power to excite the imagination and actually involve the audience in the creative process, had huge potential as a medium for serious drama. It seemed inevitable that the day would come when this medium, which had made Orson Welles a household name across the country, would become a part of his serious theater ambitions. That day came in 1938.

"It was in that year that CBS, remembering Welles' work on Les Misérables the year before, approached him and Houseman about a series of radio dramas for its summer schedule. The idea was conceived as a series of narratives under the title First Person Singular. But the series would be best remembered by the name it assumed with its second production, The Mercury Theatre on the Air.

"As with Les Misérables the previous year, Welles was given complete creative control by CBS over the new series. The choices he made in developing the series were informed by what he had learned in previous years in other radio dramas. Chief among those choices was to create dramas specifically for the radio and not to simply adapt dramas in production at the Mercury Theatre for broadcast. In close collaboration with John Houseman and other writers, Welles wrote, directed and performed in the productions. The end result was a series of dramas based on literary, rather than dramatic, works. There were exceptions, most notably Our Town by Welles' early mentor Thornton Wilder. But it was clear to Welles and Houseman that the medium of radio suited the telling of a story far better than the dramatization of it. As a result, some of the most memorable Mercury Theatre on the Air productions were adaptations of great novels. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, A Tale of Two Cities, The Magnificent Ambersons, Heart of Darkness and other major literary works were offered to radio audiences during the Mercury Theatre on the Air's run."[4]

Episodes[edit]

# Date Program
1 July 11, 1938 Dracula by Bram Stoker
Cast: Orson Welles (Dr. John Seward, Count Dracula), Elizabeth Fuller (Lucy Westenra). George Coulouris (Jonathan Harker), Agnes Moorehead (Mina Harker), Martin Gabel (Dr. Van Helsing), Ray Collins (Russian Captain), Karl Swenson (Mate)[5]
2 July 18, 1938 Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
Cast: Orson Welles (adult Jim Hawkins, Long John Silver[6]), Arthur Anderson (Jim Hawkins), George Coulouris (Captain Smollett), Ray Collins (Ben Gunn), Agnes Moorehead (Mrs. Hawkins), Eustace Wyatt (Squire Trelawney), Alfred Shirley (Blind Pew); with William Alland, Stephen Fox, Richard Wilson[5]
3 July 25, 1938 A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
Cast: Orson Welles (Dr. Alexandre Manette, Sydney Carton), Mary Taylor (Lucie Manette), Eustace Wyatt (Clerk), Edgar Barrier (Charles Darnay), Martin Gabel (Mr. Jarvis Lorry), Frank Readick (Ernest Defarge), Betty Garde (Madame Defarge), Erskine Sanford (the President), Ray Collins (Prosecutor),[5] Kenneth Delmar (Counselor for the Defense)[7]
4 August 1, 1938 The Thirty Nine Steps by John Buchan
Orson Welles (Richard Hannay, Marmaduke Jopley)[5]
5 August 8, 1938 Three short stories: "My Little Boy" by Carl Ewald, "The Open Window" by Saki and "I'm a Fool" by Sherwood Anderson
Cast: Orson Welles, Edgar Barrier, Ray Collins, others[8]
6 August 15, 1938 Abraham Lincoln by John Drinkwater
Cast: Orson Welles, Ray Collins, George Coulouris, Karl Swenson[8]
7 August 22, 1938 The Affairs of Anatol by Arthur Schnitzler
Cast: Orson Welles, Alice Frost, Arlene Francis, Helen Lewis, Ray Collins[8]
8 August 29, 1938 The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
Cast: Orson Welles (Edmond Dantès), Ray Collins (Abbé Faria), George Coulouris (Monsieur Morrel), Edgar Barrier (de Villefort), Eustace Wyatt (Caderousse), Paul Stewart (Paul Dantés) Sidney Smith (Mondego), Richard Wilson (the Officer), Virginia Welles, as Anna Stafford (Mercédès), William Alland (Merchant)[5]
9 September 5, 1938 The Man Who Was Thursday by G. K. Chesterton
Cast: Orson Welles (Gabriel Syme), Eustace Wyatt (President Sunday), Ray Collins (the Professor), George Coulouis (Mr. Lucian Gregory), Edgar Barrier (the Marquis), Paul Stewart (Gogol), Joseph Cotten (Dr. Bull), Erskine Sanford (Secretary), Alan Devitt (Witherspoon), Virginia Welles, as Anna Stafford (Rosamond)[5]
10 September 11, 1938 Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare
Cast: Orson Welles (Brutus), H. V. Kaltenborn (Commentator), Martin Gabel (Cassius), George Coulouris (Antony), Joseph Holland (Caesar)[5]
11 September 18, 1938 Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë[8]
12 September 25, 1938 Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, from the play by William Gillette
Cast: Orson Welles (Sherlock Holmes), Ray Collins (Dr. Watson), Mary Taylor (Alice Faulkner), Brenda Forbes (Madge Larrabee), Edgar Barrier (James Larrabee), Morgan Farley (Inspector Forman), Richard Wilson (Jim Craigin), Eustace Wyatt (Professor Moriarty)[5]
13 October 2, 1938 Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
Cast: Orson Welles (Fagin), others[8]
14 October 9, 1938 Hell on Ice by Edward Ellsberg
Cast: Orson Welles, Al Swenson, Bud Collyer, Dan Seymour (announcer), Frank Readick, Howard Smith, Joseph Cotten, Ray Collins, Thelma Schnee, William Alland, Bernard Herrmann (composer, conductor), Davidson Taylor (production supervisor)[8]:346[9]
15 October 16, 1938 Seventeen by Booth Tarkington
Cast: Orson Welles (William Sylvanus Baxter), Betty Garde (Mrs. Baxter), Ray Collins (Mr. Parcher), Mary Wickes (Mrs. Parcher), Joseph Cotten (Genesis), Ruth Ford (Lola Pratt, the Baby Talk Girl), Marilyn Erskine (Jane), Elliott Reid (Cousin George), Pattee Chapmen (Rannie), Morgan Farley (Joe Bullitt)[5]
16 October 23, 1938 Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne
Cast: Orson Welles (Phineas Fogg), Ray Collins (Mr. Fix), Edgar Barrier (Passepartout), Eustace Wyatt (Ralph), Frank Readick (Stuart), Arlene Francis (Princess Aouda), Stefan Schnabel (Parsee), Al Swenson (the Captain), William Alland (the Officer)[5]
17 October 30, 1938 The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells
Cast: Orson Welles (producer, director, host, performer: Professor Richard Pierson), Dan Seymour (announcer), Paul Stewart (associate producer, adaptor, performer: Studio announcer, Third Studio Announcer), Frank Readick (Reporter Carl Phillips, Radio operator 2X2L), Kenny Delmar (Policeman at farm, Captain Lansing, Secretary of the Interior, Bayonne radio operator), Ray Collins (Farmer Wilmuth, Harry McDonald the radio VP, Rooftop radio announcer), Carl Frank (Second studio announcer, Fascist stranger), Richard Wilson (Brig. General Montgomery, Officer 22nd Field Artillery, Langham Field), William Alland (Meridian room announcer, Field artillery gunner), Stefan Schnabel (Field artillery observer), William Herz (Newark radio operator, Radio operator 8X3R), Howard Smith (Bomber Lt. Voght), Bernard Herrmann (composer, conductor), John Houseman (producer, adaptor, script editor), Howard Koch (adaptor), Davidson Taylor (production supervisor), Ora Nichols (sound effects), Ray Kremer (sound effects), Jim Rogan (sound effects), John Dietz (sound engineer)[9][10]
18 November 6, 1938 Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
Cast: Orson Welles (Author, Ernest Kurtz), Ray Collins (Marlow), Alfred Shirley (Accountant), George Coulouris (Assistant Manager), Edgar Barrier (Second Manager), William Alland (Agent), Virginia Welles, as Anna Stafford (Kurtz's Intended Bride), Frank Readick (Tchiatosov)
Life with Father by Clarence Day
Cast: Orson Welles (Father), Mildred Natwick (Mother), Mary Wickes (Employment Office Manager), Alice Frost (Margaret), Arthur Anderson(young Clarence Day)[5]
19 November 13, 1938 A Passenger to Bali by Ellis St. Joseph
Cast: Orson Welles (Reverend Dr. Ralph Wilkes), Everett Sloane, Stefan Schnabel, Guy Spaull[8]
20 November 20, 1938 The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens
Cast: Orson Welles (Sergeant Buzzfuzz, Mr. Jingle), Ray Collins (Samuel Pickwick), Alfred Shirley (Augustus Snodgrass), Frank Readick, Elliott Reid, Edgar Barrier, Eustace Wyatt, Brenda Forbes, others[8]
21 November 27, 1938 Clarence by Booth Tarkington
Cast: Orson Welles (Clarence), others[8]
22 December 4, 1938 The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder[8]

Awards[edit]

The Mercury Theatre on the Air was inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame in 1988.[11]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ According to the document created by Herrmann (and now in the Bernard Herrmann Papers at the University of California-Santa Barbra) listing all his compositions, the only Mercury show for which he composed new music was Dracula.
  2. ^ Dunning, John, On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 1998 ISBN 978-0-19-507678-3 hardcover; revised edition of Tune In Yesterday (1976)
  3. ^ "An Interview with John Houseman," Orson Welles on the Air: The Radio Years. New York: The Museum of Broadcasting, catalogue for exhibition October 28–December 3, 1988, page 12
  4. ^ Holler, Paul, "Orson Welles, The New Deal, and the Mercury Theatre on the Air".Critique, retrieved June 20, 2012
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Orson Welles on the Air: The Radio Years. New York: The Museum of Broadcasting, catalogue for exhibition October 28–December 3, 1988, pp. 50–52
  6. ^ Brady, Frank, Citizen Welles. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1989, ISBN 0-684-18982-8, page 141
  7. ^ Brady, Frank, Citizen Welles, page 142
  8. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Welles, Orson, and Peter Bogdanovich, This is Orson Welles. New York: HarperCollins Publishers 1992 ISBN 0-06-016616-9. Welles career chronology by editor Jonathan Rosenbaum, pp. 345–399
  9. ^ a b "The Mercury Theatre". RadioGOLDINdex. Retrieved 2014-04-19. 
  10. ^ "Celebrating the 70th Anniversary of Orson Welles’s panic radio broadcast The War of the Worlds". Wellesnet, October 26, 2008. Retrieved 2014-04-19. 
  11. ^ Mercury Theatre on the Air at the Radio Hall of Fame; retrieved June 16, 2012

External links[edit]