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Here's his closing comment on the first broadcast: "Just in case Count Dracula's left you a little apprehensive, one word of com-fort: when you go to bed tonight, don't worry. Put out the lights and go to sleep. [A wolf howl.] It's all right, you can rest peacefully, that's just a sound effect. There! Over there, in the shadow, see? It's nothing. Nothing at all. Nothing at all I think it's nothing. But always remember, [now as Van Helsing:] ladies and gentlemen, there are wolves. There are vampires. [as himself again:] Such things do exist."
Here, Welles was a doting uncle with a bedtime story, teaching a child what screams and giggles are possible when the lights are out educating his audience in the guile of narrative. "Something in Welles reveled in the chance to take unknown millions into his confidence," Thomson writes, "to be a zealous voice colonizing the darkness. [He] had con-ceived of a kind of radio drama that came into the ear, like a potion and a rumor." The Mercury's first radio effort expertly poured those whispers, those screams. Thrilling, persuasive and over the top, in that heightened aerie of popular culture where the magician explains the trick with the elephant, then suddenly disappears himself, "Dracula" was a splendid start, and a harbinger or hobgoblin of things to come the Mercury's first Halloween prank, in the dead of summer.
The Mercury Theatre was making radio history, but no one was listening. After three months the show had an audience about a tenth the size of Charlie McCarthy's a ratio approximately that of the XFL to the Super Bowl. Then the star and the show got lucky. Their "War of the Worlds," which Koch dramatized as a series of news reports from a New Jersey town invaded by Martians, stoked a panic that night and front pages of unbuyable publicity for days after. It is still the most famous of all radio broadcasts, and it brought its most prominent perpetrator into a hotter, blinding light. As Thomson writes: "Something in the air over America had descended on the ears of citizens to make Orson Welles notorious forever." For the few who don't know the story of the show and its aftermath, consult Koch's book "The Panic Broadcast: Portrait of an Event." I have just two comments. One is that the show persuaded listeners because it was American. This 17th Mercury broadcast was only the fifth program in which the players spoke in American accents, and the first script that transposed the setting from England to the U.S. The Babel of local voices New England, New Jersey, New York sold the incredible premise in a way no elegant or Cockney Brit-chat could manage.
The other point is that many people can be convinced of anything. Listeners, dial-surfing during a soft stretch in the ventriloquist show, tuned into CBS and, hearing fear in the Welles actors, bought it and caught it. True, it was a year when war seemed imminent in Europe, and when American felt vulnerable because it, alone among the big nations, had no civil defense system. But 40 mins. into the hour, Seymour announced that this was only a story, ladies and gentleman. The panic-prone weren't listening. Boredom made them turn off Charlie McCarthy; dread made them tune out the Mercury. A day later, Welles got a cable from his friend Alexander Woollcott: "This only goes to show, my beamish boy, that the intelligent people were all listening to a dummy, and all the dummies were listening to you."
The makers of Campbell Soups were listening. They had said no to sponsorship the first time Houseman and Welles came around; now they were eager to take a ride on the flying saucer, and on December 9th "The Mercury Theatre On the Air" morphed into "Campbell Playhouse." In the first minutes of the opening broadcast, announcer Edwin C. Hill described Welles in words so effusive they would have raised a blush on Jesus' cheek: "Exciting news indeed, for I am here to welcome the white hope of the American stage as the director and star of The Campbell Playhouse, who writes his own radio scripts and directs and makes them live and breathe with the warmth of his genius... And be-cause of all his gifts his genius at playwriting, his ambition, his dynamic directing, his amazing character acting he has been selected by Campbell's as the ideal man to conduct the 'Campbell Playhouse.'"
Welles did not demur at this steaming heap of praise. He had the magnificent egotist's need to be told, gee, you're wonderful, so he could say, aw shucks, I'm not. In the "Roger Ackroyd" episode (where, in a loopy prefiguring of film- noir guilt, he plays both the detective and the killer), he refers to himself, larkishly, of course, as "that beloved portrayer of dra-matic roles, that celebrated delineator of character, that unparalleled pur-veyor of protean portraiture..." Did Welles realize he was setting himself for a lifelong caricature?
The good and bad thing about "Campbell Playhouse" was that it was sponsored. Welles and Houseman could no longer choose properties on their own; Campbell's ad agency ran the show. That meant a guest star each week, usually an actress (Helen Hayes, Margaret Sullivan, Katharine Hepburn), for the stories were now mostly romances, and not old books but recent films. The stories were still handsomely adapted and performed; a rousing "Beau Geste" with Laurence Olivier, and an "Ambersons" that comes within striking distance of Welles' later film, are among the highlights. But the quality slid from high to high-ordinary. There+s less at stake. What was an adventure had become, for Welles and Houseman, a habit. And I'll bet faithful listeners missed the pleasure of spotting Collins and Coulouris and the rest of the sup-porting cast as they tried on new accents, like false mustaches, with each new story.
Hollywood heard the Welles show too. Warner Bros. hired Koch, who delivered scripts for "The Letter," "Sergeant York," "Casablanca" and "Mission to Moscow." (Welles had angrily denied the undeniable that Koch was the author of the Martian script but Jack Warner signed the writer anyway.) RKO wooed Welles with a deal that gave him unprecedented control of story choice and film content. After a few false starts, and with the help of Houseman and former "Playhouse" scripter Mankiewicz, Welles made his little newspaper story. Then a film of "Ambersons," which RKO cut by a third and released with a final scene not shot by Welles. The parable of the Boy Wonder would sour into a cautionary tale about outliving your reputation as a three-media genius.
In his introduction to the Mercury "Man Who Was Thursday," Welles referred to its rotund author, G.K. Chesterton, as "the fat man, the fabulously fat, the fantastic, the famous fat man." By 1944,Welles had to endure similar jokes on radio shows (all packaged in a six-cassette box, "The Genius of Orson Welles"), though he was far shy of the girth he would later attain. In an episode of "Suspense," he's playing an actor who's been badgered about his drinking. "And I say, 'What? Would you have me subsist entirely on food and reach the gargantuan proportions of an Orson Welles?' That ought to needle the Boy Wonder, eh, Ben?" On his own "Orson Welles' Almanac," he gets defensive when an effeminate tailor cries, "Ooh la la, you're one big fellow." Welles replies, "Of course I'm one big fellow. What'd you think I was, two little ones?" On the same show he suffers this ignoble exchange:
Crabby Woman: "Yes."
Welles (wanting to be called "Sir"): "Yes, what?"
Crabby Woman: "Yes, fatso."
For Welles, there was a more general, rankling humiliation than having to pay writers to mock you. It was the sound of a great man he had been a great young man, and a lucky one, and he might have built on his achievement if his luck had held squeezing himself into the meager role of Aver-age Orson. Perhaps he thought the public thought of him as an invader from Mars, a creature with a giant brain. He would prove he was big enough to do what an American is supposed to do: laugh at himself. So on the variety shows he hosted, he'd feign breaking up when mispronouncing "bobby sox" as "baby sox," and adlib, "For me it's booby sox." He would visit Jack Benny's show, and Fred Allen's, playing a parody of the official Welles: the pompous, presumptuous know-it-all and do-it-all.
Some of these skits are pretty funny, like Orson's and Fred's version of "Les Misérables." I read that skit when I was 10, in Allen's beguiling reminiscence "Treadmill to Oblivion"; it was my introduction to Orson Welles. There must have been many others, older than I, who knew Welles mainly by his guest appearances on comedy shows, just as there are millions younger than I who thought they knew him as the great gray whale selling wine on TV and serv-ing as the butt of Johnny Carson jokes. Fabulous Orson had shrunk into Fat Albert.
The availability of the Mercury broadcasts is an impor-tant antidote to this ignorant view and to the more informed take on Welles that he was crushed by the Hollywood system he was too headstrong or innocent to play along with. Don't look at what he was forced to become in the public eye. Listen, in rapture, at the sounds, stories, people and emotions that Welles was able to create, back when he and radio were young, with all that achievement, and all that promise.