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

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08 Jan 2013

Orson Welles
Orson Welles

A question about the brief, bright light of Orson Welles and John Houseman's Mercury Theatre in New York City. Does the venue still stand?


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Question: I recently watched "Citizen Kane" and was surprised to see its credits include an introduction to players of the Mercury Theatre, saying that many of the actors — like Agnes Moorehead and Joseph Cotten — were making their movie debuts after working at the Mercury in New York. Can you tell me more about the Mercury? Was there an actual Broadway theatre called the Mercury? — W.E.P., Tarrytown, NY

In our lunchtime wanderings in the Broadway theatre district, we came across a plaque that is affixed to 1065 W. 41st Street, between Broadway and Sixth Avenue (which, a reader pointed out shortly after the posting of this column, is most likely actually part of the nearby building at 1065 Sixth Avenue — facades in Manhattan can be misleading to passive passersby). For those readers who have not seen it, it reads: "On this site in 1937, legendary American actor-writer-director-producer Orson Welles founded the Mercury Theatre with John Houseman. Here Welles directed groundbreaking productions of Julius Caesar, The Shoemaker's Holiday, Heartbreak House and Danton's Death. Welles and the Mercury would go on to make history with 'The War of the Worlds' broadcast and 'Citizen Kane.' Astonishingly, he would accomplish all this by his 26th birthday."

Orson Welles and John Houseman — Welles then in his early 20s and Houseman in his 30s — were first teamed by the Federal Theatre Project, which was run by Hallie Flanagan and employed thousands of theatre professionals during the Great Depression. They achieved a significant success with Welles' so-called "Voo-doo Macbeth," which was staged at the Lafayette Theatre in Harlem. At Maxine Elliott's Theatre on West 39th Street, the two men staged productions of Horse Eats Hat in 1936 and a 1937 Dr. Faustus, which was famous for its performance by Welles in the title role, its judicious cutting, and its inventive use of lighting. (The Elliott Theatre was demolished in 1960.)

In 1937, Welles and Houseman — having broken with the FTP over the Project's controversial canceling of Marc Blitzstein's musical The Cradle Will Rock — moved to a house that had been erected at 110 W. 41st Street as the Comedy Theatre. The men had little money, and Houseman chose the theatre because it was cheap, according to Simon Callow's "Orson Welles: The Road to Xanadu." The Comedy had been used only infrequently since censors closed down a play called Maya for immorality.


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