50 Years Ago, ‘Mercury Theatre’ Was the Talk of Radio

It may be difficult for today’s young TV addicts to comprehend, but there was a time when radio reigned supreme in the land, when entire families settled back in their easy chairs to savor everything from murder mysteries to sitcoms emanating from a little box with a speaker.

The jewel in the crown during that radio heyday was Orson Welles’ “Mercury Theatre of the Air.” Many of the figures involved in those productions of the ‘30s and ‘40s have died--including, most recently, John Houseman. But a few actors, actresses and production people live on to tell the tale of those halcyon days of radio.

Richard Wilson, 72, of Santa Monica, was an actor, production assistant and business partner with Welles in his radio and theater projects. Later, he moved into motion pictures, directing such films as “Invitation to a Gunfighter.”

Alice Frost, in her “late 70s,” was one of Welles’ favorite actresses and was cast by him in roles for his Mercury stage productions and in radio drama and comedy. Voted “Best-Dressed Radio Actress” of 1941, Frost continued a well-rounded acting career that included work in television and films.

Cliff Thorsness, 73, left Dean Witter in 1937 for a post as a pioneering sound man for KNX radio. When Welles’ Mercury company moved to Los Angeles for a few seasons in the late ‘30s, Thorsness was challenged to come up with new sound techniques for Welles’ ambitious shows. Thorsness finished his 42-year career with KNX radio and KNXT-TV as a sound engineer.

All three look back upon their years of radio with fondness and pride. But back then, they were too busy keeping up with the breakneck pace of live radio to appreciate the classic quality of work that Welles was encouraging them to produce. Typically, actors and crew received their scripts late in the week, did one technical run-through Saturday, a dress rehearsal Sunday, and the live performance that night.

To a new generation of entertainment addicts weaned on taped and filmed programs, the immediacy and urgency of live radio might be difficult to appreciate fully. Richard Wilson explained what it was like to work in a medium where an illuminated “On the Air” light meant no turning back.

“I can’t think of a single theatrical production that ever opened on its appointed day,” Wilson said. “But radio could not be postponed, because the clock exerted its own tyranny. And if you didn’t do it on that night, it was gone forever.”

“It was very stressful,” said Thorsness. “But we weren’t aware of it (then), I think, any more than the actors. You were on the air and giving a performance. And if you stopped to think about what you were doing or said, ‘My God, what if this phone doesn’t go or this gun doesn’t shoot?,’ you couldn’t do the show.”

Some of the best of the Mercury drama was released in October as a six-hour audio anthology called “Theatre of the Imagination.” All six hours, plus new introductions by some of the stars involved, will be aired on KCRW today from noon to 5 p.m. and from 6:30 to 8 p.m.

Co-producers Richard Wilson and Frank Beacham combed through more than 150 hours of broadcasts from Welles’ own collection of acetate discs to compile the final product.

The sound quality of the recordings has been enhanced by a special digital restoration process, which has reduced the hiss and crackle from the time-ravaged discs.

Captured on both cassette and laser disc, the anthology includes a rich variety of programs, including Welles’ own sonorous reading of “Song of Solomon” and a soliloquy from “Hamlet.”

Other highlights include: “Rebecca,” featuring Margaret Sullavan, Welles and an interview with the story’s author, Daphne du Maurier; Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” and John Galsworthy’s 1916 story “The Apple Tree,” with Geraldine Fitzgerald playing the untamed country girl with whom Welles’ sophisticated city gentleman falls in love.

The broadcasts are capped by a 40-minute documentary written by Beacham and narrated by Leonard Maltin of “Entertainment Tonight.”. It includes rare recordings of show rehearsals as well as anecdotes by many key figures of Welles’ radio days, such as Arlene Francis, William Alland and the late Houseman.

The taskmaster of time that bore down upon shows forced improvisation when unforeseen events occurred. “I fell when I was doing a program,” Alice Frost remembered. “But thank goodness they had a microphone near the floor to capture the footstep sounds. So I just lay there and talked into it.”

In the “Theatre of the Imagination” documentary, John Houseman tells a story about a broadcast in which Welles had scripted a story far too tightly and 22 minutes of air time were left to fill.

“I ran down to the library at CBS and got books that I knew Orson and I liked,” he said. “It was the end of our season. I would hand Orson one of these books and he would read (a passage) brilliantly, and say, ‘That is the kind of entertainment we’re going to give you next season. Next!’ and then I’d hand him another book. It was a wonderful show, and the network was enchanted.”

Working with Welles was an unforgettable experience for Wilson, Frost and Thorsness. They spoke about him with fondness and respect, saying that he was demanding but kind, and that he made their work very enjoyable.

“He was such a charming, wonderful man to the people he worked with,” said Thorsness, who helped Welles on a series of dramatic broadcasts done in the old KNX studio on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, which now houses the Spaghetti Factory restaurant.

“He always worked on an orchestra riser, because he was in command of his show, and he would conduct the actors, the sound and the music like a symphony orchestra,” Thorsness said. “When you listen to one of his shows, you are picturing what he was picturing. He wasn’t the only fine director in radio, but I would say he was the greatest, to be able to conduct and put the sounds together to make a picture.”

Thorsness considered himself an actor as he presided over thousands of sound-effects records and imaginative props to enliven Welles’ dramatic visions through sound. He explained how alarmingly genuine certain aural effects could seem when he, for instance, thwacked a cabbage in half with a machete and bounced it in a basket a few times to emulate a beheading.

“Just to ring a bell and pick up a phone and do footsteps and doors--anyone can do that. But to do that with an actor or actress and under the pressure of live radio. . . . If the sounds created a picture and people enjoyed the whole show, then we felt we had done our work well,” Thorsness said.

With no visuals to convey concepts, voice and sound were everything in radio. Though Alice Frost began her career in stage work, she feels that radio helped hone her acting ability.

“Radio was a wonderful teacher,” said Frost, who hammed it up in different dialects even as a child. “It was a wonderful way to learn to act, because you had to picture exactly where you were. If you were in the rain, you got it in your voice. It’s easy in radio even to sound like a young girl,” she said, injecting a lilt and a higher tone in her voice to demonstrate. “For another role I tried to make a character sound ‘little,’ so that people would be afraid for her when she got in a bad place.”

Frost played Fantine in an hour-long radio “Les Miserables” in New York that provided a bit of a surprise at the end for Welles and the audience. Someone had come up with the brilliant idea of rigging a microphone in the dripping, echoey men’s lavatory in the aging building to give the Parisian sewer scenes a sound of authenticity. Alas, a hard-pressed male made his way into the bathroom, and his flush was heard on national radio.

“Orson’s (facial) expression was just wonderful,” Wilson remembered gleefully.

These days, Frost, like Wilson and Thorsness, is an avid follower of television and films, though she’s distressed by plot lines that call for actors to “do the same thing all the time: They just jump into the bed and that’s it.” She’s a faithful listener of contemporary radio, though she prefers KABC-AM’s Ray Briem to rock ‘n’ roll. “It all sounds the same to me,” she said about that style of music.

Thorsness, who worked on CBS radio’s “Mystery Theatre” in the ‘70s, likes to think that dramatic radio would find an audience if only more of it could be heard on the airwaves.

“Most young people today have been brought up on television. But I talk to young people who will catch radio drama when some of the stations play it. The interest is there, but it’s very difficult to compete in the market,” Thorsness said.

Richard Wilson has not forgotten the legacy that Welles’ radio productions left him. “It taught me a reverence for music and sound. It taught me the powers of the imagination, so that I could try to transfer some of that into another medium,” he said.

The actor-director expressed admiration for the Los Angeles Classic Theatre Works’ attempts to revive dramatic radio. But he has doubts about the attention span of today’s audience.

“Modern society isn’t geared to sitting and listening to two hours of radio,” he said, much less the 14 1/2-hour block in which Classic Theatre broadcast “Babbitt” (though the performance has since aired in 30-minute segments).

“I do think that in melodrama, people today are more easily bored and want to get on with it. They want things to move,” Wilson said. “That’s why we have so many car chases in movies.”

Still, he has faith that some day, classic and contemporary radio drama just might start receiving new appreciation.

“Many of us who like to work in radio feel that there’s a growing audience among people who are interested in the full story, the full unfolding. I think there is satisfaction in listening to the details of the drama,” Wilson said.

“To think that after many years of great drama and storytelling, one of the main grossers is ‘Nightmare on Elm Street Part 4. . . .’ ” he finished, the sound of disappointment in his voice.