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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. (

Welles 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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