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THIS IS the 75th anniversary of The Mercury Theater on the Air October 30, 1938, broadcast of H.G. Well’s War of the Worlds. A tale oft told, Orson Welles’ radio version was so well done that many were convinced Martians had landed at Grover’s Mill, New Jersey.
Here, in celebrating the occasion, I share some Wellesiana that might not have been repeated ad nauseam. (See www.wp.me/p2ETap-1kV for another.]
For instance, there’s an excellent argument that Welles’ War of the Worlds would have been a yawn were it not for singer Nelson Eddy.
NBC’s Chase & Sanborn Hour with ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his wooden pal Charlie McCarthy owned Sunday radio evenings, 8 p.m. Opposite it on CBS, the arty Mercury Theater on the Air ordinarily snagged less than four percent of radio listeners.
Until Nelson Eddy started heroing his way through “Song of the Vagabonds,” and people started searching around their radio dials. To experience what prompted the dial spinning, check out http://goo.gl/B1o432.
Utterly by chance, the station searching coincided with a comforting musical interlude, part of the War of the Worlds buildup—and past the initial mention of it all being fiction.
Through no intent on Welles’ part, many listeners were taken in by the subsequent fake news of a Martian invasion. Reported The New York Times the next day, “At least a score of adults required treatment for shock and hysteria.”
SiriusXM satellite channel 82, Radio Classics, is broadcasting War of the Worlds several times over the next few days. It’s also available from online sources including www.radiospirits.com.
Max Allan Collins’ The War of the Worlds Murder is a crackling good mystery fiction based on fact. It’s the day of the fateful broadcast. But why is Welles accused of murdering his mistress? And what does Walter Gibson, originator of The Shadow, know? All in good fun—and properly respectful of the era and people.
Another bit of Wellesiana in my collection is a Mercury Summer Theater production of Life with Adam, a wonderful satire of none other than Welles himself. Canadians Hugh Kemp, playwright, and Fletcher Markle, actor/director, captured Welles’ larger than life personality just right—and then poked playful pins into the image.
Another of my Welles favorites is The Affairs of Anatol, a Mercury Theater of the Air adaptation of the Arthur Schnitzler play. It’s fin de siècle Vienna; Anatol and his pal Max are part of its frothy high society. Those who enjoy the comedic style of Oscar Wilde will love The Affairs of Anatol (www.amazon.com is one of several sources).
Effervescent in a completely different way, the play Orson’s Shadow by Austin Pendleton is also highly recommended. It’s based on actual encounters of Welles, Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh (Olivier’s wife at the time) and theater critic Kenneth Tynan.
The prologue to the L.A. Theatre Works production of Orson’s Shadow promises the glittering madness of two titanic egos—and the play delivers.
Last, Orson Welles: A Biography, by Barbara Leaming, is as near as it gets to an autobiographical view of this complex man.
It’s a two-edged sword that Leaming had full and active cooperation of Welles in writing this 562-page tome. Nevertheless, it’s entertaining that both edges are reasonably well honed. And I’d value Welles’ own prevarications over those of some other biographer. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2013