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50 Years Ago, 'Mercury Theatre' Was the Talk of Radio

December 26, 1988|LORI E. PIKE

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.

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