Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Orson Welles on the radio, c. 1938 (Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

At an age when some spend their time dodging grad-school applications, Orson Welles had already kicked the world’s collective ass in a legendary radio broadcast. Welles was only 23, a theater kid prodigy, when he began his artistic assault on a new medium, radio. His melodious voice and a gift for accents made the mysterious airwaves the perfect delivery system for his flair for the dramatic. His Mercury Theatre project (along with John Houseman) received its own Sunday-evening slot in the fall of 1938, and on October 30, Welles and company perfectly sent up H.G. Wells’ The War Of The Worlds as a straight-up newscast, terrifying listeners who thought that Martians were invading New Jersey, thanks to the show’s specific, spot-on detail. While many criticized Welles for the action, his series then received a sponsor (Campbell’s Soup), and radio creators recognized a genius who knew how to take full advantage of the medium. So while War Of The Worlds still stands as Welles’ most famous wireless adventure (truly, one that would be hard to top), the master still had many other classic radio moments, most of which are now thankfully preserved in online archives or on YouTube.

1. The Shadow, “The Society Of The Living Dead”

Most contemporary audiences associate The Shadow with the failed 1994 film, but years before Alec Baldwin underwhelmed audiences, Orson Welles was captivating them. The popular hero of pulp magazines and novels returned to the airwaves in 1937 after a two-year absence, and a 22-year-old Welles stepped into the hat and cloak of Lamont Cranston. In “The Society Of The Living Dead,” Welles conveyed both sides of The Shadow: the keen detective mind that could read the society pages and connect a counterfeit passport ring to a kidnapped industrialist, and the unseen figure who pursued the guilty parties even at risk of death traps. The Shadow was unafraid to be ruthless—witness his lack of pity for one crook dying of a bullet wound—and knew that his taunts from supposedly empty darkness carried more weight than any threats. “It is the laughter that has echoed through the mind of many a killer… during his last hours in the death house.” Welles made it entirely believable that The Shadow knew what evil lurked in the hearts of men, and knew how to fill their hearts with fear in equal measure. [Les Chappell]


2. The Mercury Theatre On The Air, “Dracula”

Orson Welles was the 23-year-old wunderkind of the American stage when he and producer John Houseman were approached by CBS Radio about creating a show based on their acclaimed New York City repertory company, The Mercury Theatre. The Mercury Theatre On The Air, which would achieve infamy for its adaptation of The War Of The Worlds, kicked off with a bang, broadcasting an atmospheric adaptation of Dracula as its debut episode. Unlike almost all film, TV, and radio versions of the story, “Dracula” is based on Bram Stoker’s novel, rather than its popular stage adaptation, and preserves the book’s creepy epistolary structure and multiple points of view. Welles plays both the blood-sucking count and Dr. Jack Seward, giving the former a low, sonorous voice that sounds downright satanic in comparison to Bela Lugosi’s aristocratic, innuendo-laden interpretation. An extreme technical challenge, the broadcast showed off Welles’ ambitions as a director and mass entertainer. Some long overdue praise should go to all-but-forgotten Mercury company player Martin Gabel, who was only a couple of years older than Welles when he played old man Van Helsing. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]


3. Suspense, “The Hitch-Hiker”

Many of Suspense’s plot devices would go on to become horror tropes, albeit ones executed with more violence and crassness. That especially applies to 1941’s “The Hitch-Hiker.” Written by Lucille Fletcher, its elevator pitch of a man dogged by the same mysterious hitchhiker during his travels has been borrowed by a short in Creepshow 2 and, perhaps most famously, 1986’s The Hitcher. But where those “The Hitch-Hiker” successors present the title character as a deranged or vengeful murderer (in the Creepshow 2 segment, the protagonist accidentally runs over the hitcher), “The Hitch-Hiker” has an unexpected twist that’s too good to spoil here. Equally important as Fletcher’s dreamlike script (not to mention Welles’ frantic performance as the driver) is the score by her then-husband, legendary composer Bernard Herrmann. Even in the radio play’s lighter moments, the music never loses its sense of drama and foreboding. [Dan Caffrey]


4. The Jack Benny Show, “Phil Harris Returns”

In the golden age of radio, Jack Benny’s unparalleled sophisticated comedy ruled the airwaves. At the peak of the show’s popularity in 1941, the host got sick, in the pre-rerun era. Who on Earth could step in and keep the show at the top of the radio ratings? The Jack Benny Show made the bold and seemingly unusual choice of having Orson Welles take over as host. As Welles had already begun to master the medium of radio, on this turn he not only shows a surprising gift for comedy, but pokes fun at his own “genius” reputation and his flair for inciting terror (on this episode, to rid Mel Blanc of his hiccups). Welles’ most prominent foil is bandleader Phil Harris; the future voice of The Jungle Book’s Baloo easily deflects Welles’ Manhattan loftiness with his untarnished Southern charm. [Gwen Ihnat]


5. The Orson Welles Almanac, “Guest Star Lucille Ball”

His success at filling in for Jack Benny convinced Welles that he could hold up his own show, and CBS Radio gave him the chance in 1944. A perfect format for his idiosyncratic interests, The Orson Welles Almanac allowed him to be comedic and dramatic in equal measure, and the March 8 show is a fine example. Guest star Lucille Ball enjoys a lively chemistry with Welles in a parody of Nick and Nora Charles mysteries, the couple bantering over the appearance of unexpected corpses in their bedroom. (“This fella’s got 18 knife wounds in him and there’s no holes in his shirt!” “Must’ve been an inside job.”) Then, reading from John Donne’s famous “No man is an island” work, the baritone switches on and Welles becomes every bit the trained Shakespearean actor. Events are flavored with musical performances by Ella Mae Morse and Lud Gluskin’s orchestra, and lightened up early on by some digs at the host, courtesy of his longtime collaborator Agnes Moorehead in the character of sharp-tongued secretary Mrs. Grimace. Welles puts his stamp on the familiar format, running the show as efficiently as he ever ran a film or play. [Les Chappell]


6. Suspense, “Philomel Cottage”

Welles showed up on the popular anthology program Suspense so much, he was almost a utility player, portraying heroes, villains, and everything in between. In this adaptation of an Agatha Christie short story, he plays a besotted newlywed, whose young bride begins to develop an obsessive curiosity about his past. Could he be the Bluebeard type she’s reading about in the papers? What could be a rote drama in lesser hands is elevated not only by Welles swaying from romantic to menace and back, but the sublime Geraldine Fitzgerald as the bride: The two pack almost-unconscionable levels of tension into their mere half hour. Of course there’s a twist ending: This is Agatha Christie, after all. [Gwen Ihnat]


7. The Campbell Playhouse, “Algiers”

The Mercury Theatre On The Air began without a commercial sponsor, but after the succès de scandale of “The War Of The Worlds” brought the show nationwide publicity, Campbell’s Soup signed on. The sponsorship turned out be a devil’s bargain; while Welles was becoming more and more ambitious, he often found himself in conflict with both John Houseman and Campbell’s, which wanted the show—re-christened The Campbell Playhouse—to continue producing adaptations of literary classics. Things came to a head with “Algiers.” Based on the 1937 French film Pépé Le Moko, “Algiers” was one of Welles’ most artistically ambitious and atmospheric radio productions, using layers of sound to evoke its bustling North African setting. When complaints came that the sonic background was drowning out the voices of the cast, Welles is said to have replied, “Who told you it was the background?” [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]


8. Suspense, “Donovan’s Brain”

One of the first pieces of brain-in-a-jar fiction, Curt Siodmak’s sci-fi novel Donovan’s Brain has been adapted several times and referenced in everything from It to Gremlins 2: The New Batch. But the definitive tribute will always be the 1944 radio version of the story, in which Orson Welles voices both the extracted brain of a dead patient and the mad doctor it starts to meld with. As the doc’s diary entries become more and more erratic, Welles’ stately timbre takes on a gleeful yet tormented perversion—you can picture the physician sweating and stuttering in his office as the brain drives him to commit increasingly twisted deeds, all to financially benefit the dead Donovan’s estate. As per usual with Welles’ radio dramas, his performance elevates “Donovan’s Brain” from pulp to prestige; in 1982, the LP release won a Grammy for Best Spoken Word Album. [Dan Caffrey]


9. Suspense, “The Marvelous Barastro”

Now he’s just showing off, in a Ben Hecht teleplay: Welles again plays two parts, an old and a young magician, in a tragic love triangle essentially with himself. His elder, heavily accented Barastro falls for and marries the beautiful and blind Anna, only to have his happiness interrupted by the intrusion of the young, dashing Rico Sansone (also Welles). Rico then impersonates Barastro in an attempt to win over Anna for himself, with Welles casting different versions of the two imitating each other. These high-wire vocal gymnastics could only be pulled off by an unparalleled voice artist like Welles. Although the plot was so appealing that many others, like Peter Lorre, also attempted it, Welles’ version is without equal. [Gwen Ihnat]


10. This Is My Best, “The Plot To Overthrow Christmas”

There’s a distinct Grinchiness to Orson Welles’ 1945 take on Norman Corwin’s yuletide tale, so much that you can’t help but wonder if Dr. Seuss went on to rip off America’s master radio poet for his own seasonal yarn. In addition to having similar titles, both “The Plot To Overthrow Christmas” and “How The Grinch Stole Christmas!” are told in rhymed verse and center on a curmudgeonly baddie who sets out to ruin the titular holiday. In the former, the villain (played by Welles) isn’t a furry green creature, but the deceased Roman emperor Nero, sent by Mephisto to assassinate Santa Claus (Ray Collins). As dark as that sounds, Saint Nick warms the tyrant’s heart with a wistful explanation of the most wonderful time of the year. A noted admirer and peer of Corwin, Welles delivers a performance that radiates a genuine love for the material, chewing the scenery as he moves from dastardly plotting to dewy-eyed sentimentality. Indeed, Nero’s closing violin concerto of “The First Noel” is just as touching as Whoville’s “Welcome Christmas”—perhaps even more so. [Dan Caffrey]


11. The Black Museum, “The Black Gladstone Bag”

You wouldn’t guess it from the show’s title, but The Black Museum had more in common with Law & Order than anything else: ripped-from-the-headlines true-crime cases, told mostly from the perspective of the Scotland Yard lawmen who were trying to catch the murderous. As he had already established himself as well-versed in the evil that lurks in the hearts of men, Welles was the perfect narrator to this mystery program, broadcast from Radio Luxembourg in 1951. Every week he would explore Scotland Yard’s “museum of murder,” and how various objects helped bring the guilty to justice; in this case, a simple overnight bag becomes the all-important clue to catch an evil lothario. [Gwen Ihnat]


12. The Adventures Of Harry Lime, “Ticket To Tangier”

As Welles’ rogue is killed in the final moments of film classic The Third Man, a prequel radio series was created in 1951 to explore Harry Lime’s adventures before Vienna, which usually involved exotic locales and mysterious women (and of course, zither music). Welles was obviously enjoying the chance to explore one of his most famous characters a bit further, as Lime was an unscrupulous cad who somehow scraped together a globe-trotting existence through a bizarre variety of tricks and schemes. The charm inherent in Lime’s (Welles’) voice makes him straight-up irresistible; in this episode he seductively wins over an air hostess in under five minutes, inadvertently ensnaring himself in a heroin ring. Somehow, Lime once again gets away unscathed, with a satchel of money in tow. [Gwen Ihnat]


Share This Story

Get our newsletter