May 6, 2013


Orson Welles was born on this day in 1915. A celebrated as a child prodigy by Life Magazine, Welles bluffed his way into early opportunities and let his uncanny talent carry him to stardom. Actor extraordinaire, writer, director, producer, and innovator, he quickly had his hands in many historic projects and worked with a long-term company of brilliant artists. Orson Welles is best known, of course, for his film Citizen Kaine (1941), which is still cited as the greatest American film ever made. Welles enjoyed great freedom and control on the project, a level of power that would elude him thereafter and cause years of frustration and financial insecurity. Any period of Orson Welles is fascinating and worth exploring. Spy Vibers will naturally enjoy his crime-related films, Lady From Shanghai (1947), Mr. Arkadin (1955), The Third Man (1949), Touch of Evil (1958), The Trial (1962), The Stranger (1946), and F is For Fake (1975). His Shakespeare is legendary. But fans Old Time Radio like me will always remember Orson Welles fondly as... The Shadow!

For me, Orson Welles' golden period is summed up by an old story that was often told about his radio career in the 1930s. There was a period when Welles had starring roles (and often leadership responsibilities) at major programs being produced at different radio stations. The common version of the tale is that he would rush from station to station in an ambulance so that he could get across town in time for each broadcast. He needed no rehearsals. He was just that good. I love the idea of Orson Welles wrapping something like War of the Worlds (October 1938), and then rushing through traffic, grabbing his script as he ran through the door, and stepping up to a microphone just in time to deliver his lines as pulp hero, The Shadow! 

Orson Welles was interviewed over many years by director Peter Bogdanovich. There were tapes available at one point, and the transcripts were published as This is Orson Welles. Welles was such a raconteur and brilliant mind that the book is truly exhilarating and inspiring. In the interviews, they discuss this famous story about his radio days:

OW: Soon I was doing so many [shows] that I didn't even rehearse. I'd come to a bad end in some tearjerker on the seventh floor of CBS and rush up to the ninth (they'd hold an elevator for me), where, just as the red light was going on, somebody'd hand me a script and whisper, "Chinese Mandarin, seventy-five years old," and off I'd go again. Some days I had to commute between the networks by ambulance...

PB: It was in those years that you did The Shadow.

OW: Lamont Cranston, that was me.

PB: You didn't write those things?

OW: My God, I didn't even know what was going to happen to me while I was in 'em. Not rehearsing- which was part of my deal with Blue Coal- the sponsor, made it so much more interesting. When I was thrown down the well or into some fiendish snake pit, I never knew how I'd get out. 

PB: You had nothing to do with that marvelous opening speech-

OW: "Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men...?" Well, I said it every week for years.

Orson Welles landed the role of The Shadow at the age of 22. He played the famous mystery hero from September 27th, 1937 to March, 1938. Other notable radio performances include Mercury Theater on the Air (1938-1940), Ceiling Unlimited (1942-1943), The Lives of Harry Lime (1951-1952/based on The Third Man), and The Black Museum (1952). You can learn all about The Shadow from Martin Grams here

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