BW - EP131—001: Orson Welles Is The Shadow—Orson's Early Radio Career


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In the spring of 1935, nineteen year-old Orson Welles was living in New York, appearing on stage in Katharine Cornell’s stock company and workin on CBS’ American School of the Air and The March of Time. The next year, Welles was on the debut episode of CBS’s Columbia Workshop. The program’s creator Irving Reiss recognized Orson’s talent, while Welles studied the creative risks The Workshop took. He began to assemble his Mercury Theater troupe just as FDR launched the Federal Theater Project. John Houseman invited Welles to be part of an African-American theater unit in Harlem. Their first co-production was an adaptation of Shakespeare's Macbeth. Welles changed the setting to a mythical island. Voodoo took the place of Scottish witchcraft. The play opened on April 14th, 1936, at the Lafayette Theater in Harlem. It received incredible reviews. By that autumn, Welles was traveling between Chicago and New York, appearing on Mutual Broadcasting’s Wonder Show, and on The Columbia Workshop. On Sunday April 11th, 1937 The Workshop broadcast a verse-play written especially for radio by Archibald MacLeish. It was called The Fall of the City. It was an allegory on the rise of fascism. The broadcast took place at the massive Seventh regiment armory on 67th street and Park avenue in New York. Reiss used over one-hundred fifty extras, and entrusted Welles to be the narrator. To get proper sonic differentiation, they built radio’s first narration booth. The Fall of The City was selected by The New York Times as one of the outstanding broadcasts of 1937. Time magazine noted that it proved to listeners radio was science's gift to poetry and poetic drama. The Fall of the City made Orson Welles a star. Mutual Broadcasting was about to give him the opportunity of a lifetime.

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