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Orson Welles—Heard, Not Seen

Orson Welles—Heard, Not Seen

Many people are familiar with Orson Welles’ notorious radio adaptation of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, which aired on Halloween eve, 1938, and caused a nationwide panic. It made the “boy wonder” of Broadway a household name, and led to offers from Hollywood that culminated in the production of his masterpiece, Citizen Kane, in 1941. He brought along many of his radio colleagues, from actors like Joseph Cotten, Agnes Moorehead, Ray Collins, and Everett Sloane to composer Bernard Herrmann. Having been steeped in an aural medium, he approached the use of sound in film as few others ever did, before or since.

Aside from old-time-radio diehards, I don’t know how many film buffs are aware that Welles remained active on the air all through the 1940s, even as his film career skyrocketed and crashed. During the same period in which he made The Magnificent Ambersons, The Stranger, andThe Lady from Shanghai, he continued to adapt classic dramas, participate in groundbreaking broadcasts, express his opinions in a series of editorial programs, fill in for Jack Benny and even host his own fascinatingly awful comedy series. All of this is chronicled in an excellent audio documentary called Airborne by R.H. Greene, which debuted in October on KPCC, the public radio station that serves greater Los Angeles. The hour-long special was broadcast on John Rabe’s public-affairs show “Off-Ramp,” and because of that it has a permanent home online, where you can listen to it anytime. (

A young, bearded Welles works on a script alongside a swimming pool upon arriving in Hollywood in 1940Welles remains a never-ending source of fascination for me and countless other admirers and scholars. I was fortunate enough to narrate an audio documentary in 1988 called Theatre of the Imagination, and interview one of its key participants, Welles’ Mercury producing partner John Houseman. That program drew on a number of first-hand recollections, and has great value for just that reason. It’s downloadable HERE, along with most of Welles’ Mercury productions: Ray Greene’s Airborne is more detailed and comprehensive…a “must” for any Welles fan or radio buff.


A young, bearded Welles works on a script alongside a swimming pool upon arriving in Hollywood in 1940

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Peter M

Lots of film stars appeared on radio in the 30s-50s. Jimmy Stewart had his own western titled "The Six Shooter." Ronald Colman had a comedy called "The Halls of Ivy." Alan Ladd ("Box 13") and Dick Powell ("Richard Diamond") each starred in detective dramas. Then there was the Lux Radio Theater which took movies and made one-hour radio versions, using as many of the original film stars as they could get. This was hosted for several years by Cecil B. DeMille. And the Marx Brothers had a series called "Flywheel, Shyster and Flywheel" which is currently running in re-creations on BBC Radio 4 Extra.


On a somewhat related note, Alfred Hitchcock made a few unsuccessful attempts at radio. I recently heard an audition recording for a series called "Once Upon A Midnight." It's a suspense thriller, but Hitchcock makes snide remarks and sarcastically witty observations throughout the narration. It's really a gem!

You can download it here. Scroll down to program #477:

Hank Zangara

I wish the TV movie "The Night That Panicked America" would be issued on DVD.


I'm glad you mentioned filling in for Jack Benny. Welles took over the Benny show for four consecutive weeks while Jack was lying gravely ill in Chicago, where he had been on a bond drive, I believe (it was 1943). The interaction between Welles and Phil Harris is so funny, you almost don't miss Jack. It is also a rare opportunity to hear Welles do pure comedy and poke fun at his own legend.

Tom Nolan

Here's a link to a piece I wrote last year arguing that "Citizen Kane" shows significant influence of Welles's radio work:
I was thrilled to be able to include some insights from the 101-year-old Norman Corwin, who spoke to me by telephone not long before he died. – tom nolan

Mark Heimback-Nielsen

He also reprised his "The Third Man" role as Harry Lime on radio in "The Adventures Of Harry Lime".


Orson Welles the Narrator and Wine spokesman for "Paul Masson", we shall not sell any wine , before its' time..and the Narrator for "Magnum,P.I." Robin Masters. a somewhat abbreviated performance. He really did get around.

Ali Stevenson

"Probably the best lager in the world." Remember Welles' Carlsberg ads? We never saw him but the voice was unmistakable.

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