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The Mercury Theatre on the Air

The Mercury Theatre on the Air
Orson Welles (July 1938)
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
Creator(s) Orson Welles
  • John Houseman
  • Orson Welles
  • Paul Stewart (associate producer)[1]:343
Exec. producer(s) Davidson Taylor (for CBS)
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.[2]

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.[3]:448–455


  • Production 1
  • Episodes 2
  • Awards 3
  • See also 4
  • References 5
  • External links 6


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.[4]

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's 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."[5]

Orson Welles presented a special challenge to the CBS sound effects team, The New Yorker reported. "His programs called for all sorts of unheard-of effects, and he could be satisfied with nothing short of perfection." For the first episode, "Dracula", the sound team searched for the perfect sound of a stake being driven through the heart of the vampire. They first presented a savoy cabbage and a sharpened broomstick for Welles's approval. "Much too leafy," Welles concluded. "Drill a hole in the cabbage and fill it with water. We need blood." When that sound experiment also failed to satisfy Welles, he considered awhile — and asked for a watermelon. The New Yorker recalled the effect:

Welles stepped from the control booth, seized a hammer, and took a crack at the melon. Even the studio audience shuddered at the sound. That night, on a coast-to-coast network, he gave millions of listeners nightmares with what, even though it be produced with a melon and hammer, is indubitably the sound a stake would make piercing the heart of an undead body.[6]

As the Mercury's second theatre season began in 1938, Welles and Houseman were unable to write the Mercury Theatre on the Air broadcasts on their own. For "Hell on Ice" (October 8, 1938), the 14th episode of the series, they hired Howard E. Koch, whose experience in having a play performed by the Federal Theatre Project in Chicago led him to leave his law practice and move to New York to become a writer.[7]:390 The Mercury Theatre on the Air was a sustaining show underwritten by CBS, so in lieu of a more substantial salary Houseman gave Koch the rights to any script he worked on — including, to his literal good fortune, "The War of the Worlds". After five months Koch left the show for Hollywood; his last script was "The Glass Key" (March 10, 1939),[8]:175–176 by which time The Mercury Theatre on the Air was called The Campbell Playhouse.


# Date Program
1 July 11, 1938 "Dracula" by Bram Stoker
Cast: Jonathan Harker), Agnes Moorehead (Mina Harker), Martin Gabel (Dr. Van Helsing), Ray Collins (Russian Captain), Karl Swenson (Mate)[1]:343[9]
2 July 18, 1938 "Treasure Island" by Robert Louis Stevenson
Cast: Orson Welles (adult Jim Hawkins, William Alland, Stephen Fox, Richard Wilson[1]:344[9]
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),[9] Kenneth Delmar (Counselor for the Defense)[1]:344[10]:142
4 August 1, 1938 "The Thirty Nine Steps" by John Buchan
Orson Welles (Richard Hannay, Marmaduke Jopley)[1]:344[9]
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[1]:345
6 August 15, 1938 "Abraham Lincoln" by John Drinkwater
Cast: Orson Welles, Ray Collins, George Coulouris, Karl Swenson[1]:345
7 August 22, 1938 "The Affairs of Anatol" by Arthur Schnitzler
Cast: Orson Welles, Alice Frost, Arlene Francis, Helen Lewis, Ray Collins[1]:345
8 August 29, 1938 "The Count of Monte Cristo" by Alexandre Dumas
Cast: Orson Welles (Paul Stewart (Paul Dantés) Sidney Smith (Mondego), Richard Wilson (the Officer), Virginia Welles, as Anna Stafford (Mercédès), William Alland (Merchant)[1]:345[9]
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)[1]:345[9]
10 September 11, 1938 "Julius Caesar" by William Shakespeare
Cast: Orson Welles (Antony), Joseph Holland (Caesar)[1]:345[9]
11 September 18, 1938 "Jane Eyre" by Charlotte Brontë[1]:345
12 September 25, 1938 "Sherlock Holmes" by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, from the play by William Gillette
Cast: Orson Welles (Professor Moriarty)[1]:346[9]
13 October 2, 1938 "Oliver Twist" by Charles Dickens
Cast: Orson Welles (Fagin), others[1]:346
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)[1]:346[11]
15 October 16, 1938 "Seventeen" by Booth Tarkington
Cast: Orson Welles (William Sylvanus Baxter), Betty Garde (Mrs. Baxter), Ray Collins (Mr. Parcher), [9]:346[1]
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)[1]:346[9]
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 Smith, 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)[1]:346[11][12]
18 November 6, 1938 "Heart of Darkness" by Joseph Conrad
Cast: Orson Welles (Author, 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)[1]:347[9]
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[1]:347
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[1]:347
21 November 27, 1938 "Clarence" by Booth Tarkington
Cast: Orson Welles (Clarence), others[1]:348
22 December 4, 1938 "The Bridge of San Luis Rey" by Thornton Wilder[1]:348


The Mercury Theatre on the Air was inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame in 1988.[13]

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y Welles, Orson, and Peter Bogdanovich, edited by Jonathan Rosenbaum, This is Orson Welles. New York: HarperCollins Publishers 1992 ISBN 0-06-016616-9.
  2. ^ 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.
  3. ^ 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)
  4. ^ "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
  5. ^ Holler, Paul, "Orson Welles, The New Deal, and the Mercury Theatre on the Air".Critique, retrieved June 20, 2012
  6. ^ Fletcher, Lucille, "Squeaks, Slams, Echoes, and Shots". The New Yorker, April 13, 1940, pp. 85–86.
  7. ^ Houseman, John, Run Through: A Memoir. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1972, ISBN 0-671-21034-3
  8. ^ France, Richard, The Theatre of Orson Welles. Lewisburg, Pennsylvania: Bucknell University Press, 1977. ISBN 0-8387-1972-4
  9. ^ 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
  10. ^ a b Brady, Frank, Citizen Welles. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1989, ISBN 0-684-18982-8
  11. ^ a b
  12. ^
  13. ^ Mercury Theatre on the Air at the Radio Hall of Fame; retrieved June 16, 2012

External links

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