The Campbell Playhouse (1938–40) was a CBS radio drama series directed by and starring Orson Welles. Produced by John Houseman, it was a sponsored continuation of the Mercury Theatre on the Air. The series offered 60-minute adaptations of classic plays and novels, plus some adaptations of popular motion pictures. As a direct result of the front-page headlines Orson Welles generated with his 1938 Halloween production War of the Worlds, Campbell’s Soup signed on as his sponsor.
The Mercury Theatre of the Air made its last broadcast December 4, 1938, and The Campbell Playhouse began December 9, 1938. The series made its debut with Welles’ adaptation of Rebecca, with guest stars Margaret Sullavan and Mildred Natwick. Bernard Herrmann composed and conducted the imaginative score, and later used much of it for the film Jane Eyre.
The radio drama was the first adaptation of the 1938 novel by Daphne Du Maurier; the author was interviewed live from London at the conclusion of the broadcast. The same creative staff stayed on, but the show had a different flavor under sponsorship. This was partially due to a guest star policy which relegated the Mercury Players to supporting roles. There was a growing schism between Welles, still reaping the rewards of his Halloween night notoriety, and Houseman, who became more like an employee than a partner.
Campbell Playhouse, 9th December 1938 – Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
The primary writer, as during the end of the unsponsored run, was Howard Koch. Productions included The Citadel (with Geraldine Fitzgerald), A Christmas Carol (broadcast once with Lionel Barrymore as Scrooge, and once with Orson Welles himself in the role), a non-musical version of Show Boat (with Margaret Sullavan as Magnolia, Orson Welles played Cap’n Andy, Helen Morgan as Julie, and author Edna Ferber herself as Parthy).
Campbell Playhouse, 15th October 1939 – Escape
A Farewell to Arms (with Katharine Hepburn), Mutiny on the Bounty, Arrowsmith (with Helen Hayes), Les Misérables (with Walter Huston), Our Town, Ah, Wilderness, Dodsworth, Lost Horizon (with Ronald Colman), Dinner at Eight (with Hedda Hopper and Lucille Ball), Liliom (with Orson Welles in the title role and Helen Hayes as Julie), and Huckleberry Finn (with Jackie Cooper).
When Welles left the series in 1940, Houseman stayed to write scripts for the final season, which was initially produced by Diana Bourbon, one of the few women directors in network radio. Houseman wrote a script every other week, alternating with veteran radio writer Wyllis Cooper (he and Campbell announcer Ernest Chappell would go on to create Quiet, Please) . Later in the season, scripts by others were used, including one each by Norman Corwin and Ellery Queen. Reduced to a half hour, the series’ focus shifted away from heavy play and novel adaptations to lighter, more popular fare, still with casts drawn from the ranks of film actors. Listenership increased—ratings were actually higher than the Welles-hosted seasons—but the series was expensive and the sponsor canceled it in June 1941.
Look out for episodes of the Campbell Playhouse on the Drama & Western Channel from the ROK Classic Radio Old Time Radio Network!