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 Playbill.com 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.

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.