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Orson Welles, Famous In Film, Also Brought Radio To Life


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Ladies and gentlemen, the director of the Mercury Theatre and star of these broadcasts, Orson Welles.


If he was alive today, the great Orson Welles would have been 100 years old this week. The actor, writer and producer broke new ground in theater and film. But for the next few minutes, we're going to focus in on a part of Welles' career that's not talked about quite as much but is no less significant, and that is his work in radio. For more on this, we are joined by the author and critic Colin Fleming from WBUR in Boston. Hi, Colin. Welcome back to the show.


MARTIN: So let's just be fully transparent here because we are radio folks, thus we are naturally drawn to stories about how great radio is - or was, in this case. But, setting our mutual bias aside, Orson Welles really did break new ground in this medium, right? Tell us about his career with the Mercury Radio Theatre.

FLEMING: Yeah. We tend to think of Welles as daring do with stuff like "Citizen Kane" from 1941. But he had already done quite a bit with the Mercury Theatre in the summer of 1938. They had crazy things that people didn't do on radio at the time, like overlapping dialogue. Now, the knock against them was that they were a little highbrow. They were said to be for the classes, meaning, like, the professors, rather than the masses. Now, a lot of the radio at the time was very broad - bad comedies, bad Westerns, whereas the Mercury - they weren't about that. And if you listen to something like their version of "Sherlock Holmes," I like here how the sort of scudding sounds of the syllables all come together as if to, say, luxuriate in this voice one of the great American instruments.


ORSON WELLES: (As Holmes) How do I know anything? How do I know you've been getting yourself very wet lately, that you're an extremely careless servant girl, and you've moved your dressing table to the other side of the room?

(As Watson) Holmes, if you had lived a few centuries ago, they'd have burned you alive.

MARTIN: I have no idea what he's saying there, but I want to luxuriate in that voice.

FLEMING: That's low five. It's 1938, so what are you going to do?


MARTIN: OK. So that's Orson Welles as Sherlock Holmes. He also put his own spin on another very iconic character. He played Dracula?

FLEMING: Yeah. In July of '38. And Dracula at the time, for the post-Depression audiences, people associate it with the Bela Lugosi 1931 film, which was very creaky, stagey. People don't read now, people like to say. People didn't read back then either.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

FLEMING: So Welles went right back to the novel. And it was like the type of thing if you're listening to it, you'd be like, wait, you're allowed to say that on the radio? That's really weird.


WELLES: (As Dracula) Bloody my mark is on her throat, flesh of my flesh, blood of my blood.

MARTIN: My mark is on her throat? Blood of my blood?

FLEMING: Welles was a pretty disgusting, earthy guy, so he loved this. So he'd be up there all hopped up on whiskey and coffee and pineapple juice, and he would conduct like he was Wilhelm Furtwangler. And it was seen as, like, really macabre by people. But Welles and his crew went one better with the famed Halloween "War Of The Worlds" broadcast.

MARTIN: Very famous, some people said this was like this giant hoax because some people believed that the world was actually ending, right?

FLEMING: Yes, the keyword being some. But if you looked out your window, you wouldn't have seen people, like, running hither and yon with gas masks and making for them there hills. It was frightening enough, but part of that was because Welles knew at the beginning of the program to make things go very slow, like it was an actual news broadcast. So you kind of got lulled to sleep.


WELLES: (As Phillips) How do you account for these gas eruptions occurring on the surface of the planet at regular intervals?

(As Pierson) Mr. Phillips, I cannot account for it.

(As Phillips) By the way, Professor, for the benefit of our listeners, how far is Mars from the earth?

(As Pierson) Approximately 40 million miles.

(As Phillips) Well, that seems a safe enough distance.

FLEMING: So you buy into the pacing of that. And then Welles just starts ramping everything up until you have this amazing moment where - like, what's the worst thing that could happen for us right now on radio? It's like dead air, right?


FLEMING: So Welles decides he's going to have 6 seconds of dead air as this reporter fellow that we just heard gets torched by these Martians.


WELLES: (As Phillips) Now the whole field's caught fire - the woods, the barns, the gas tanks of the automobiles. It's spreading everywhere. It's coming this way. It's about 20 yards to my right...


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (As Announcer) Ladies and gentlemen, due to circumstances beyond our control, we are unable to continue the broadcast from Grover's Mill. Evidently...

MARTIN: I mean, that's pretty good. That's, like, textbook suspense.

FLEMING: Yeah. And there was enough confusion going on that by the end of the broadcast, some cops had come in. And Welles was looking on. He actually flubbed a line, and he started to realize that, like, maybe my career is over.

MARTIN: Oh, really?

FLEMING: Yeah. And they whisked him out of there. He was in a hotel. He was panicked. It was one of the first times in what happened for decades where he was just beleaguered. And people were trying to take him down. He had to give a press conference. But Welles was one of those rare artists who loved the mat. When he was put on the mat, he seemed to rally and come back stronger than ever, which is what he did. And he went on to do, of course, "Kane."

MARTIN: Colin Fleming, whose book, "The Anglerfish Comedy Troupe: Stories From The Abyss," comes out in August. Hey, Colin, thanks so much.

FLEMING: All right. Thank you, Rachel.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (As Announcer) Tonight, the Columbia broadcasting system and its affiliated stations coast to coast has brought you the "War Of The Worlds" by H. G. Welles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.