That Old Feeling: Mercury, God of Radio

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Radio was the ideal showcase for Orson Welles' protean talents

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We know all this about his radio work because, unlike the theatrical productions that vanished on closing night, nearly all of his important radio shows are preserved and available. Some of the best "Mercury" epi-sodes can be ordered from Radio Spirits; so can Welles’ splendid 3-1/2hr. ver-sion of "Les Misérables," produced the summer before the Mercury went on the air. Many more shows — 18 of 22 "Mercury’s" and 29 of 56 episodes of its sponsored successor, "Campbell Playhouse" — can be heard with a RealPlayer attach-ment on your current entertainment furniture of choice. This is a plea and an order: click, download, close your eyes and surrender to astonishment. In many, most of the shows, you’ll find great pieces of radio.

By July of 1938, Welles was already a radio veteran, and a kind of star. His supple, authoritative baritone virtually destined him to some higher form of public speaking. "With a vocal instrument of abnormal resonance and flexibility," writes Houseman in his autobiography "Run-Through," which is largely a memoir of the Mercury days, "he was capable of expressing an almost unlimited range of moods and emotions." (When, I won-der, did young Orson’s voice change? And was that the moment when he knew he’d be an actor?) Welles on radio was Homer or Aesop at a campfire, weaving worlds with words. "Everybody likes a good story," he said when "Campbell Playhouse" began, "and I think radio is just about the best storyteller there is." Thomson sees an ideal match of this man and this medium: "[H]e loved to float away on his magic carpet of a voice into adventure, romance and flat-out nonsense. Radio was his party."

At this party, the A-list of guests comprised those actors who could confect drama out of their voices and a script they may have read only minutes before air time. Like star surgeons, they would scurry from one operation to another (Welles supposedly traveled from studio to studio in an ambulance, saving time and carfare). They’d arrive to the fanfare of their emi-nence, swiftly rehearse the script, do the show, then zip away to the next emer-gency. Welles was aces at this game. He needn’t spend months reimagining a play script, or weeks in rehearsal; he could do the shows in what passed for spare time in his life. And he could be anyone: Canadian quints or, his most famous characterization, The Shadow, asking, "Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?" and laughing with a maniacal sonorousness that winked at the listeners or frightened them. Welles loved radio; it loved him back, whatever the cost, whoever he was playing that week. As Thomson notes, "radio became the staple of Welles' income and an incentive to a manic versatility."

He also paraded his protean vocal talents on the drama-tized news show "The March of Time." (TIME magazine, which produced the program, put Welles on its cover the week of his 23rd birthday, predicting he would be no "flash in the Pantheon." The year before, Clare Boothe, soon to marry TIME’s boss Henry Luce, had put up crucial backing for the Mercury’s production of "Julius Caesar.") The story goes that he was hired when the series was airing a piece on the newly-born Dionne quintuplets — Welles played all five babies. He impersonated kings and plutocrats, all the newsmakers of the period. And one new newsmaker. As he recalled for Peter Bogdanovich in "This Is Orson Welles," a kind of oral memoir: "One day they did as a news item on ‘March of Time’ the opening of my production of the black ‘Macbeth,’ and I played myself in it. And that to me was the apotheosis of my career — that I was on ‘March of Time’ acting AND as a news item."

Having seen how radio worked, he struck a deal with the Mutual network for a dramatization of "Les Misérables" which he would adapt and narrate, as well as play Jean Valjean (to Martin Gabel’s Javert); it would be aired in half-hour segments on seven consecutive Friday nights. This show is a must-hear: a brilliant transmutation of the novel, through sound alone, into powerful and sensitive feeling. (It was also one of Welles’ favorite sto-ries; he would repeat it on "Campbell Playhouse," this time as Javert with Wal-ter Huston as Valjean, and in a parody with Fred Allen.)

Victor Hugo’s famous set pieces — the Bishop’s Chris-tian grace, the trial that sends Valjean back to prison, his haggling with the inn-keeper to win Cosette’s freedom, the final confrontation with Javert and his last words to his adopted daughter — all are realized with an enthralling depth and immediacy. "Purely as a professional achievement, this is breathtaking," writes Simon Callow, in "Orson Welles: The Road to Xanadu," a biography that contains the most detailed analysis I’ve found of the radio work. "Welles at twenty-two produced a show that could rival any by the most seasoned practitioner."

So how hard could it be, Welles must have thought, to produce, direct and star in the Mercury’s own radio show?

Remember that Welles was running the Mercury stage op-eration, starring in many of its productions and guesting on radio shows. "Les Misérables" came just a month after "The Cradle Will Rock." The "War of the Worlds" episode preceded the Broadway opening of the Mercury’s "Danton’s Death" by three nights. Before the sponsor agreed to move "Campbell Playhouse" from New York to Los Angeles, where Welles was preparing his first Hollywood film, he pulled a weekly transcontinental commute — logging, according to one account, an amazing 311,245 air miles and earning a frequent flyer award as TWA’s best customer of 1939.

For its first nine-week run, "The Mercury Theatre On the Air" was what was called a sustaining program. No commercial sponsors picked up the bill; William Paley’s CBS paid for the Mercury, to fill time and attract listeners. It was rare — unique, in fact, as listeners were informed each week — for "a complete theatrical producing company" to present original pro-gramming. But it wasn’t rare for CBS to run sustaining shows: in 1938, three-quarters of its air time was filled with them. The Mercury got $50,000 for the nine hours, from which it was to pay the cast and the staff, except for Herrmann and the musicians. But Welles wasn’t in it for the money; he’d already made money as The Shadow. No: he thought it would be fun to run a radio show.

Fun? I mean the word in its fullest sense. I mean to sug-gest excitement, exhaustion and exultation; flop-sweat and red tempers, endured or even provoked because the participants knew they were creating some-thing wonderful. "Shows were created week after week under conditions of soul — and health — destroying pressure," writes Houseman. "Two simultaneous dramas were infolded each week in the tense, stale air of CBS Studio One: the minor drama of the current show and the major drama of Orson’s titanic struggle to get it on." By Monday afternoon Houseman had written the adaptation and an introduc-tion about the author; Herrmann had composed a score; the actors had their scripts. Then Welles showed up for the dress rehearsal.

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