ASK PLAYBILL.COM: A Question About the Mercury Theatre, the House That Orson Built

By Robert Simonson
08 Jan 2013

The former site of the Mercury Theatre, on 41st Street.

They rechristened it the Mercury Theatre, the new home of their Mercury Players. A new neon sign was hung; money had come from an unlikely investor named George Hexter. Under that name, it presented a total of five shows, four of them Mercury productions. The most famous was Julius Caesar, which Welles envisioned as a commentary of fascism with a spartan design. The production, being politically charged and an early example of modern-dress Shakespeare, created a sensation and reopened at the National Theatre in 1938. At the same time, the Mercury Players also performed on the radio as "Mercury Theatre on the Air." It's most famous broadcast was, of course, the adaptation of H.G. Wells' "The War of the Worlds," so realistic that many listeners thought there had been a Martian landing.

The Mercury's core company included performers that went on to fame and long careers, including Joseph Cotten, Will Geer, Everett Sloane, Ray Collins, Agnes Moorhead and Norman Lloyd. Many would go on to appear in Welles' films when he moved on to Hollywood to make "Citizen Kane" and "The Magnificent Ambersons."

The building's name was changed to Artef, a Yiddish theatre, in 1940; it was demolished in 1942. Welles returned to Broadway rarely once he began his film career.

Though it had a short life, The Mercury Theatre's efforts retain a reputation for daring and ingenuity.

The plaque is of fairly new vintage. It was placed there as a publicity stunt on Nov. 24, 2009, to draw attention to the New York premiere of the film "Me and Orson Welles." In attendance were director Richard Linklater, cast members Zac Efron and Christian McKay, along with Orson Welles' daughter, Chris Welles Feder. The plaque hangs on the side of an office building.