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Overview | Significance | Background | Plot | Cast | Resources | Episodes

Overview

The Mercury Theatre on the Air was an OTR dramatic series, often cited as the finest radio drama anthology of the 1930s. The year 1938 was particularly productive under the direction of Orson Welles. Of special note is the broadcast of The War of the Worlds on 30 October 1938.

Significance

Stories specifically chosen for their suitability for the radio medium
Innovative use of sound effects and music
Orson Welles adapted, produced, directed, and starred in many episodes

Background

The Mercury Theatre on the Air, the finest radio drama anthology series of the 1930s, began with The Mercury Theatre production company founded August 1937 in New York by John Houseman and twenty-one-year-old Orson Welles. The first production, Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar," adapted by Welles, opened in November and immediately attracted controversy and attention with its setting in fascist Italy.

Welles was a radio veteran, having made many appearances on The March of Time since 1935, worked with The Columbia Workshop on their production of "The Fall of the City" in 1937, and was then currently working on a seven-part dramatization of Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, airing on the Mutual Broadcasting System (MBS). In 1941, 1942, and again in 1946, Welles starred in The Hitchhiker," a radio drama written for him by Lucille Fletcher. Later, Welles starred in The Adventures of Harry Lime (1951-1952) and hosted and narrated The Black Museum (1952-1954) radio series, both produced and recorded in London, England. Welles also appeared in "The Final Problem," an episode of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes with Sir John Gielgud as Holmes and Sir Ralph Richardson as Dr. Watson. Welles voiced Professor Moriarty. The series aired Sundays, 2 January-5 June 1955, on BBC.

In summer 1938, however, Welles was finishing his season-long appearance as The Shadow. The Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), offered him and The Mercury Theatre the opportunity to broadcast performances from New York. The name The Mercury Theatre on the Air was chosen to differentiate the two production companies. The first radio broadcast was 11 July 1938 and the new series quickly became one of the most compelling radio programs of the time, known for its adaptations of literary works well suited for the radio medium, and its innovative use of sound effects and music.

Stories offered were out of the ordinary. The series began with an adaptation of Dracula, and was followed by adaptations of Treasure Island, A Tale of Two Cities, The Thirty-Nine Steps, and The Count of Monte Cristo, among others. Each was adapted by producer John Houseman, writer Howard Koch, and producer, director, and star Orson Welles.

The adaptation of the 1898 H.G. Wells novel, The War of the Worlds, broadcast on 30 October 1938, changed everything. Suddenly, The Mercury Theatre on the Air and Orson Welles were internationally famous. Based on this success, Campbell Soup agreed to sponsor the program. The name was changed to Campbell Playhouse and continued as a top-grade radio drama series until 13 September 1946. The shows tended to lean toward contemporary literature or best-seller motion pictures. Today, The War of the Worlds is considered the most (in)famous radio broadcast of all time.

During its second season, The Campbell Playhouse moved to Hollywood, to accomodate Welles and other members of the production company who had moved there to make a movie with RKO. To pursue movies full time, Welles left The Campbell Playhouse 31 March 1940, after fifty-four performances.

Plot

Plots varied with episodes, but were generally adaptations of literary works thought to be well suited for the radio medium.

Cast

Cast varied with episodes and frequently included well known authors and actors like Martin Gabel, Alice Frost, Ray Collins, Virginia Welles (Mrs. Orson Welles), Agnes Moorehead, Everett Sloane, Margaret Sullivan, Katherine Hepburn, Burgess Meredith, Helen Hayes, Madeleine Carroll, Laurence Olivier, Gertrude Lawrence, Joan Bennett, Lionel Barrymore, and other prominent actors and actresses. Music was conducted by Bernard Herrman, husband to Lucille Fletcher, famous for writing "Sorry, Wrong Number" and other radio dramas.

Resources

Mercury Theatre logs at Jerry Haendiges Vintage Radio Logs website
Episodes of The Mercury Theatre on the Air at the Internet Archive website
Episodes at the Old Time Radio Researchers Group Library website
The Mercury Theatre on the Air website
The Definitive Mercury Theatre at the Digital Deli website
The Campbell Playhouse logs at Jerry Haendiges Vintage Radio Logs website
Episodes of The Campbell Playhouse at the Internet Archive website
Episodes of The Campbell Playhouse at the Old Time Radio Researchers Group Library website
The Campbell Playhouse at the Digital Deli website

Episodes

Totals

Total episodes as The Mercury Theatre of the Air: 22
Surviving episodes: 18
Total episodes as The Campbell Playhouse: 88(?)
Surviving episodes: 48(?)

Timeline

11 July 1938-4 December 1938
Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), as The Mercury Theatre of the Air
9 December 1938-13 September 1946
CBS, as The Campbell Playhouse

Exemplary Episodes
  • Episode 1

    Dracula
    Episode 1, 11 July 1938
    An adaptation of the 1897 novel by Bram Stoker.

  • Episode 4

    The Thirty-Nine Steps
    Episode 4, 1 August 1938
    An adaptation of the 1915 novel by John Buchan.

  • Episode 8

    The Count of Monte Cristo
    Episode 8, 29 August 1938
    An adaptation of the 1844 novel by Alexandre Dumas.

  • Episode 17

    The War of the Worlds
    Episode 17, 30 October 1938
    An adaptation of the 1898 novel by H.G. Wells. Consider the most (in)famous radio broadcast of all time. Learn more.