Mercury Theatre on the Air: Dracula

The Mercury Theatre on the Air: Dracula by Bram Stoker, originally broadcast July 11,1938

Orson WellesThe beginnings of The Mercury Theatre on the Air actually go back to the formation of The Mercury Theatre itself. Having successfully produced Marc Blitzstein’s  The Cradle Will Rock for the Federal Theatre Project in June of 1937, John Houseman and the 21-year-old “boy wonder” of the theatre, Orson Welles, decided to form their own theatrical production company. In August of that same year The Mercury Theatre was born, starting off with total monetary assets of $100. Their first production, Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, adapted by Mr. Welles (and set in fascist Italy), opened in New York on November 11 and created as much controversy as the young producers had hoped; The Mercury Theatre  was off and running. 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.

By this time Orson Welles was already a radio veteran, having made frequent appearances on The March of Time as early as 1935 and, in fact, at the time of The Mercury Theatre’s formation, was engaged in a seven-part dramatization of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, which was airing on Friday evenings between July and September of 1937 over the Mutual Broadcasting System. Although not officially The Mercury (the series had been airing for a few weeks before The Mercury even came into existence), several actors who were to become fixtures of The Mercury Theatre of the Air such as Martin Gabel, Alice Frost, Ray Collins, Virginia Welles (Mrs. Orson Welles), Agnes Moorehead and Everett Sloane, appeared in the program, which Mr. Welles produced, directed, scripted, and starred in.
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. The stories presented were also out of the ordinary. Bram Stoker’s Gothic horror tale, Dracula, opened the series, followed by, among others, Treasure Island, A Tale of Two Cities, The 39 Steps, Abraham Lincoln, and The Count of Monte Cristo. While ratings were not high, CBS executives knew they had a worthwhile prestige program on their roster, and Welles was invited to add the show to the regular CBS lineup beginning in September of 1938. By the time the second series of 13 Mercury Theatre shows ended on December 4, Orson Welles was as big a celebrity as radio had produced, all because of an updated version for the airwaves of H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds, adapted by Howard Koch (who was now scripting most of the shows) and John Houseman, but credited by the general public entirely to its director, producer, and star, Orson Welles. The music was composed or arranged by Bernard Herrmann. According to 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.

Cast: Orson Welles as Dr. John Seward and Count Dracula, Elizabeth Fuller as Lucy Westenra, George Coulouris as Jonathan Harker, Agnes Moorehead as Mina Harker, Martin Gabel as Dr. Van Helsing, Ray Collins as the Russian Captain and Karl Swenson as the Mate.

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