The Mercury Wonder Show
The Mercury Wonder Show for Service Men was a 1943 magic-and-variety stage show by the Mercury Theatre, produced by Orson Welles and Joseph Cotten as a morale-boosting entertainment for US soldiers in World War II. Directed by Welles, the show starred Welles ("Orson the Magnificent"), Cotten ("Jo-Jo the Great"), Agnes Moorehead ("Calliope Aggie") and Rita Hayworth, whose part was later filled by Marlene Dietrich. Jean Gabin also worked on the show backstage, as a propman. The show ran to 150 minutes.
In early 1943, the two concurrent radio series (Ceiling Unlimited, Hello Americans) that Orson Welles created for CBS to support the war effort had ended. Filming also had wrapped on Jane Eyre and that fee, in addition to the income from his regular guest-star roles in radio, made it possible for Welles to fulfill a lifelong dream. He approached the War Assistance League of Southern California and proposed a show that evolved into a big-top spectacle, part circus and part magic show. He offered his services as magician and director,:40 and invested some $40,000 of his own money in an extravaganza he called The Mercury Wonder Show for Service Men. Members of the U.S. armed forces were admitted free of charge, while the general public had to pay.:26 The show entertained more than 1,000 service members each night, and proceeds went to the War Assistance League, a charity for military service personnel.
The development of the show coincided with the resolution of Welles's oft-changing draft status in May 1943, when he was finally declared 4-F — unfit for military service — for a variety of medical reasons. "I felt guilty about the war," Welles told biographer Barbara Leaming. "I was guilt-ridden about my civilian status.":86 He had been publicly hounded about his patriotism since Citizen Kane, when the Hearst press began persistent inquiries about why Welles had not been drafted.:66–67
Welles's fascination with illusion dated back to childhood; Harry Houdini gave him his first lessons in magic. His 1941 debut at the California State Fair (assisted by Dolores del Río) was a hit and, as "The Ace", he continued practicing his performance skills at vaudeville theaters and army camps. By 1943 Welles had developed a two-hour magic show.:26
For The Mercury Wonder Show, Welles selected Rita Hayworth, one of the most popular women in motion pictures, as his chief assistant.:40:26 Other cast included co-producer Joseph Cotten and, in his stage debut as comedy assistant, Welles's chauffeur, George (Shorty) Chirello.:165 Welles hired Keye Luke — an accomplished visual artist as well as an actor — to design culturally authentic scenery and graphics, in contrast to the fake-Oriental visuals typically seen in Western magic shows.:167
The show was rehearsed for 17 weeks.:40 Welles leased the Playtime Theatre (later the Las Palmas Theatre), a 350-seat house in Hollywood. Welles initially planned a moderate-sized magic show, open only to service members, that would run six weeks at the theatre and then tour army camps.:164–165 Previews began in June.:87
As the show came together Welles began calling it "the biggest magic show on earth", and the cast and crew grew to 31 people.:164–165 Welles bought or commissioned $26,000 worth of props and put $14,000 into the tent, scenery, costumes and rental of circus equipment. He also rented an entire menagerie, from a canary to a lion. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer donated the venue, a lot near the Hollywood Canteen on Cahuenga Boulevard.:40
Last year Mr. Welles went to work for Lockheed — building airplanes by acting, producing and a directing a radio show. With this stint of vocal welding and literate riveting behind him he was ripe for a magic show of his own, to be full of sound and fury, corn and canaries. The night of Aug. 3 saw that show light up the Los Angeles dimout.
The Mercury Wonder Show ran August 3–September 9, 1943, in a 80-by-120-foot tent located at 9000 Cahuenga Boulevard, in the heart of Hollywood.:377:26 The brand-new, two-pole Big Top offered 1,100 bleacher seats — all of them free — to service members. In the center were 400 folding chairs for the public, with tickets priced at $1.65 to $5.50 for adults and 55 cents for children. For opening night only, the public seats were $5.50 and $11.:170 Charity-minded Hollywood celebrities could pay $30 (more than $400 today) for one of the 25 to 30 seats in the sucker section;:177 it cost $50 or $100 for one of the two super-sucker seats nailed down directly behind the massive tent poles.:171 Welles recalled subjecting this highest-paying public — "usually Sam Goldwyn or Jack Warner or somebody like that" — to humiliations that included having eggs broken over their heads. "And they had to pretend it was all good fun, because our boys in khaki were there, you know. We really gave it to them.":177
Looking back on the experience 30 years later, Welles said the show was primarily made "for fun", but that "it's one of our great works" and that the Mercury Theatre were "as proud of that as anything we ever did.":177
At intermission September 7, 1943, KMPC radio interviewed audience and cast members of The Mercury Wonder Show — including Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth, who were married earlier that day. Welles remarked that The Mercury Wonder Show had been performed for approximately 48,000 members of the U.S. armed forces.:378:129
A reduced version toured army bases around the USA. Several episodes of the 1944 CBS Radio show The Orson Welles Almanac that were performed live before audiences of servicemen were also called the Mercury Wonder Show.
Follow the Boys
A portion of the stage show — in which "Orson the Magnificent" performs tricks like sawing a woman in half — was filmed and included in the 1944 variety film Follow the Boys. The film segment was directed by Welles, uncredited.
A framed copy of the playbill for The Mercury Wonder Show was sold at auction October 31, 2002, for $1,610. In an auction April 26, 2014, the advertising herald was sold for $1,062.50; the item was among those found in boxes and trunks of Welles's personal possessions by his daughter Beatrice Welles.
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- "Welles Dishes Magic, Sawdust at Mercury Bow". Abbott, Sam, Billboard, August 14, 1943, page 4. Retrieved 2014-06-10.
- Welles, Orson, and Peter Bogdanovich, edited by Jonathan Rosenbaum, This is Orson Welles. New York: HarperCollins Publishers 1992 ISBN 0-06-016616-9.
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- "Bureau of Labor Statistics CPI Inflation Calculator". United States Department of Labor. Retrieved 2014-06-09.
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- "The Mercury Wonder Show for Service Men. Orson the Magnificent. (Lot 241)". Magic—The Manny Weltman Houdini Collection (Sale 1949), Swann Galleries. Retrieved 2014-06-09.
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- The Mercury Wonder Show at Wellesnet, The Orson Welles Web Resource, and the Wellesnet Facebook
- Publicity photos by John Engstead at the Motion Picture and Television Photo Archive
- Editorial photos by Peter Stackpole for Life
- Follow the Boys at the Internet Movie Database