October 30, 1938, many people across the USA were innocently listening to their favorite radio program, The Mercury Theatre on the Air. Suddenly their program seemed to be interrupted by special bulletins. The USA was being invaded by murderous Martians! That 1938 broadcast of The War of the Worlds by Orson Welles is perhaps the most famous radio broadcast in history. Reportedly, some people believed it to be a real invasion and panicked. The resulting uproar catapulted Orson Welles and The Mercury Theatre on the Air to national notoriety. While many people remember The War of the Worlds radio show, many have forgotten that it was part of a radio series that adopted many famous literary works. And the first show of the series was adapted from Bram Stoker‘s famous Dracula.
The Mercury Theatre on the Air was originally titled First Person Singular. It was a weekly hour-long show of live radio dramas that adapted various literary works into the “immediacy of the first person singular” (as the radio announcer proclaimed). Orson Welles wrote, directed, produced, and starred in the shows. Orson and his friend John Houseman had founded their own repertory company in 1937. Orson split his time between his company and radio appearances, including starring as Lamont Cranston on the popular The Shadow radio series. In 1938, CBS Radio invited Orson to create a summer radio show and gave him complete control and First Person Singular aka The Mercury Theatre on the Air was born.
Orson Welles was an extremely talented “America actor, director, writer, and producer who worked in theatre, radio, and film”. He had a rough childhood and grew into a driven and demanding artist. That demanding nature was especially challenging to the sound effects team for Orson’s new radio show. Dracula was the opening show and Orson wanted the perfect sounds. One particularly tricky challenge was finding just the right sound to represent a stake being driven into a heart. The sound effects team first came up with a sharpened broomstick and stabbed it into a cabbage. Orson dismissed it as “Much too leafy”. They tried drilling a hole in the poor cabbage and filling it with water to make it sound more bloody. Orson still was not happy. Finally, Orson decided to create the sound himself. He asked for a watermelon, seized a hammer, and cracked the doomed melon right open. It was perfect. “Even the studio audience shuddered at the sound” It was the perfect sound of a stake being driven into a vampire’s heart.
Dracula premiered on July 11, 1938 at 9 pm. Orson played Dracula with “peculiarly sharp teeth” as Harker (played by George Coulouris) bemoaned. Rounding out the cast was Martin Gable as Van Helsing, Elizabeth Fuller as Lucy, and Agnes Moorehead (more famously known as Samantha’s witchy mother on the TV series Bewitched) as Mina. Orson made some significant changes to Bram Stoker’s novel to make it fit into an hour long show. Renfield is entirely missing and the ending is changed. But Orson, with his wonderful voice, makes a great menacing Dracula and the sound effects, of course, are fantastic. Listen to the show with the lights off and you are instantly transported into the scene. As Orson warns at the very end of the broadcast: “There are vampires. Such things do exist.”
For a chilling Halloween evening, listen to Orson Welles’s Dracula at the Internet Archive. The audio is nice and clear, the sound effects varied and spot on, and Orson IS Dracula. Then round out your frightful spook fest with the most notorious Halloween radio broadcast in history: The War of the Worlds. It really is a fantastically thrilling show.