The War of the Worlds

welles37The War of the Worlds is an episode of the American radio drama anthology series The Mercury Theatre on the Air. It was performed as a Halloween episode of the series on October 30, 1938, and aired over the Columbia Broadcasting System radio network. Directed and narrated by actor and future filmmaker Orson Welles, the episode was an adaptation of H. G. Wells’s novel The War of the Worlds.

The first two thirds of the 62-minute broadcast were presented as a series of simulated news bulletins, which suggested to many listeners that an actual alien invasion by Martians was currently in progress. Compounding the issue was the fact that the Mercury Theatre on the Air was a sustaining show (it ran without commercial breaks), adding to the program’s realism. Add to this the fact that many listeners tuned in late to the broadcast since they had been listening to Charlie McCarthy on another channel and missed the early disclaimers in the show. Although there were sensationalist accounts in the press about a supposed panic in response to the broadcast, the precise extent of listener response has been debated.

In the days following the adaptation, however, there was widespread outrage and panic by certain listeners, who had believed the events described in the program were real. The program’s news-bulletin format was described as cruelly deceptive by some newspapers and public figures, leading to an outcry against the perpetrators of the broadcast. Despite these complaints—or perhaps in part because of them—the episode secured Welles’ fame as a dramatist.


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.


Show #2 The Shadow and Candy Matson

The Shadow and Candy MatsonThe Shadow: The Death Triangle was published in the October 15, 1933 issue of The Shadow Magazine. This is a tale of a land deed hidden away and the only man who knows its location has been murdered. The Shadow must find the paper and must reveal the three men responsible. The three men who form a death triangle. It’s a pretty good rule of thumb that any Shadow pulp novel from the 1930’s is a good one, and this story is no exception. It’s a bang up tale of secrecy, intrigue and murder. There is a major logic hole in the plot, but since when does that matter? Overall, this is classic Shadow all the way. Original Air Date December 12, 1937. Starring a 22 yr old Orson Welles. Agnes Moorehead (Margo Lane) was later termed, “The 1st Lady of Suspense” because of her many appearances on the Radio show of the same name and starred in what may be my favorite radio broadcast of all time: Suspense: Sorry, Wrong Number on May 18, 1943.

Candy Matson: The Cable Car Case Original Air Date July 7, 1949
Candy was bright, tough, fearless and should have worn a sign cautioning “Dangerous Curves Ahead.” She used her pistol infrequently, but was not intimidated by bad guys, regardless of circumstances. Threats, assaults, and even bullets would usually produce a caustic, but clever, response from this blonde sleuth. She and Lt. Mallard (the two occasionally dated) were frequently working the same case, but she usually solved it first. Each job took Candy from her apartment on Telegraph Hill into some actual location in San Francisco. The writers, overseen by the show’s creator Monty Masters, worked plenty of real Bay Area locations into every plot. It was created by Mr. Masters  who originally wrote it as a starring vehicle for himself until his Mother in law convinced him to use a woman as the lead. He found his star in his wife, Natalie Parks. Candy Matson was the most popular show on the West Coast during its run but never had a consistent sponsor so NBC moved it around from time slot to time slot and the show never gained the national success it deserved. This was the 2nd show from the 1st season to be broadcast and is only one of 14 that are known to exist (one is the pilot). There is another recording available but it is actually a recreated broadcast.

Next Time: Bold Venture and Box 13