That Old Feeling: Mercury, God of Radio

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Radio was the ideal showcase for Orson Welles' protean talents

We know what passes for summer entertainment these days: big, stupid movies and demeaning "reality" shows. On a lucky night you might get Connie Chung grilling Gary Condit — a fellow of such haplessness and Waspish weasality that, in the inevitable movie version, heíll have to be played by Wil-liam H. Macy.

One sighs and wonders: was it much different 63 sum-mers ago? Well, the movies were better; and TV hadnít invaded the living room, so thereís a mercy. Back then, radio was the entertainment furniture of choice. American families gathered Ďround the mahogany console and attended to some recent movie condensed to an hour ("Lux Radio Theatre") or to the plainly ab-surdist proposition of an unseen ventriloquist (Edgar Bergen with his puppet Char-lie McCarthy).

And then, on July 11, 1938, like Martians taking over New Jersey, Orson Welles invaded radio.

Less than two weeks before, Welles and his producing partner John Houseman had been told they were hired to put on "The Mercury Theatre on the Air" (also known as "First Person Singular") as a nine-week summer re-placement in the Lux slot, Monday nights from 9 to 10 on CBS. So they scurried for a property, chose Bram Stokerís epistolary novel "Dracula" and, in an all — night cut — and — paste session at Reubenís Deli, assembled the adaptation. The pressure isnít evident in the show, but the furious energy is. From the first minutes, which turned Jonathan Harkerís trip to Castle Dracula into a symphony of thun-der, horsesí hooves and whinnies, shouting villagers, shrieking carriage springs and the baying of wolves — set to a breathless mixture of narration and dialogue, and prefigured by the urgent underscoring of Bernard Herrmannís origi-nal music — listeners must have realized with a thrill that they were in for a splendid summer of weekly drama. Just another conquest for Welles the Boy Wonder.

Itís hard to think of someone so young who made such in impact so quickly, with such distinction, and in so many media as Awesome Welles (the nickname that was applied to him as much in honor as in derision). Large, fleshy and handsome, with unslakable ambition and infectious dynamism, he gained instant legend; between Einstein and Ray Charles, Welles was the fellow to whom the word "genius" was most easily applied. He had Mesmerís charm; his voice could hypnotize, his gaze entrance. "When I talk to him, I feel like a plant thatís been watered" (Marlene Dietrich). "Itís like meeting God without dying" (Dorothy Parker). He landed in the American consciousness like Gulliver among the Lilliputians, his prodigious youth the stuff of theatrical legend: playing at Dublinís Gate and Abbey Theatres at 16, starring on Broadway at 19, forming his own theater at 21. And then he outstripped that early promise with an achievement glorious and voluptuous.

Stage, radio and film: all were canapťs for the voracious man-child. Consider these three triumphs. In 1937, at 22, Welles and his Mer-cury Theatre had vitalized the New York stage with a "voodoo" " Macbeth," a "fascist" "Julius Caesar" and the agit-prop musical "The Cradle With Rock" — the last a sensation when the sponsoring WPA denied it a venue and Welles marched his company and the first-nighters to another theater, where the actors per-formed the show from the audience. In 1938, he elevated radio drama by bringing the Mercury Theatre to the air and, on October 30th, offered a Mischief Night ad-aptation of "The War of the Worlds" — a sensation when thousands of listen-ers took fright, and flight, from the story of a Martian colonization of America. And in 1941, five days before Wellesí 26th birthday, RKO released "Citizen Kane," a sensation that publisher William Randolph Hearst tried to stop because he believed it was a libel on his life. The film, a financial flop when released, is now commonly called the greatest ever made.

All three events have inspired feature films: the 1999 Tim Robbins film "The Cradle Will Rock," the 1975 ABC TV movie "The Night That Panicked America" and the 1999 HBO docudrama "RKO 281." From his first flush as a prodigy to his long maturity, when he ballooned or diminished into the butt of fat jokes, Welles spurred countless anecdotes, gossip, myths, not all of his own making. His life and films have been the subject of more than 100 books. But none of them is primarily about Wellesí radio career.

Thatís a shame, because itís a huge (some 200 hours over 20 years) and impressive body of work, and itís the overwhelming extant evidence of the Wellesian preoccupations and attitudes that gave birth to "Kane" and its kin. Nearly every actor who appeared in "Kane" — Joseph Cotten, Everett Sloane, Ray Collins, George Coulouris, Agnes Moorehead,William Alland, Paul Stewart — had worked with Welles on radio. Herman J. Mankiewicz, the screenwriter of "Kane," had penned several "Campbell Playhouse" episodes, including "The Murder of Roger Ackroyd" and "Huckleberry Finn." Houseman, who midwifed the "Kane" script, effectively produced the radio shows while Welles made mischief on Broadway or in Hollywood. Herrmann, the "Kane" composer, went way back with Orson. Much of the densely layered "Kane" sound track is an echo of effects and vo-cal tricks from "Mercury" and "Campbell." The first words to be seen in Wellesí first feature film are "A Radio Picture"; and, as David Thomson notes in "Rose-bud," his lusciously cogent biography of Welles, the movie "is, among so many other things, a great piece of radio."

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