The Campbell Playhouse

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Campbell Playhouse Promo

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.

Daphne du Maurier wrote Rebecca

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

Campbell_Playhouse_38_12_09_Rebecca

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

391015_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).

Orson Welles left the series in 1940

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!

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Theater Royal

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Sir Laurence Olivier

New to the Adventure, Drama and Western Channel from the ROK Classic Radio Old Time Radio Network, Theater Royal!

The undertaking was tenuous, since the schedules of its projected stars were still in flux at the time the series aired its first broadcast from London. As the series ultimately developed it broke down into three distinct sub-runs: Season One hosted by Sir Laurence Olivier, Season Two hosted by Sir Ralph Richardson and a six-program ‘Command Performance’ series of rebroadcasts.

Season One — Sir Laurence Olivier Hosts

As it turned out, Sir Laurence was able to host only twenty-six of the scheduled thirty-nine programs before having to return with his bride to Great Britain. Sir Laurence’s great friend and thespian, Sir Ralph Richardson generously agreed to complete the remaining commitment, hosting and performing in many of the thirteen more programs, in various starring and supporting roles.

A network-sustained production, NBC spared no expense ensuring that both Sir Laurence and Sir Ralph had the finest support they could require to mount their 39-drama anthology.

NBC inaugurated the series in extraordinary fashion with Orson Welles starring in Alexander Pushkin’s ‘Queen of Spades’ with Laurence Olivier introducing the series from London’s Haymarket Theatre.

Haymarket Theater London

Sir Laurence continued to introduce the first six weeks of program selections until Week #7, when Sir Laurence himself was finally able to appear in one of his own series’ productions–in this instance, The Purse.

Sir Laurence continued to occasionally appear in his own hosted Theatre Royal programs until Episode #26, The Snow Goose, which Sir Laurence announced as “the last in this series. . . .” Though giving every impression that this was indeed the end of the series, NBC quickly and seamlessly recovered the series by the following week.

Season Two — Sir Ralph Richardson Hosts

Sir Ralph Richardson inaugurated Season Two with his own performance of Colonel Peregrine in The Colonel’s Lady.

Sir Ralph Richardson

Sir Ralph appeared in most of the Theatre Royal, Season Two broadcasts he hosted. The transition from Sir Laurence’s hosted Season One to Sir Ralph’s Season Two was fairly seamless for the most part. Though clearly not what NBC had originally envisioned for the series, the long-standing professional and personal relationship between Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud served the series well.

The combination of the above mentioned personal and professional relationships made for a wonderful breadth and depth of the dramatic offerings from Theatre Royal for all thirty-nine original productions from both Seasons One and Two.

The Six Theatre Royal ‘Command Performances’

Upon the departure of both of the hosts of Theatre Royal, the producers arrived at the notion of airing six ‘Command Performances’ to complete the scheduled series of broadcasts. The ‘Command Performances’ were:

  • Queen of Spades with Orson Welles
  • The Overcoat with Michael Redgrave
  • The Happy Hypocrite with Sir John Gielgud
  • The Sire de Maletroit’s Door with Robert Donat and Renee Asherson
  • The Judgement with Trevor Howard
  • The Country of the Blind with Sir Laurence Oliver

The six ‘Command Performance’ episodes were separate and distinct from the two hosted runs of Theatre Royal. The way to determine if you have one–or all– of the six Command Performance recordings is from the introduction, which states: “This is the First [Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth, or Last] in this important series of Command Performances . . .”.

Summary

The Last Command Performance broadcast marked the end of the Theatre Royal series. The combination of the above mentioned personal and professional relationships made for a wonderful breadth and depth of the dramatic offerings from Theatre Royal for all thirty-nine original productions from both Seasons One and Two.

This was an historic anthology by any measure. The famous ‘four knights’ of the English Stage–Sir Ralph Richardson, Sir Laurence Olivier, Sir John Gielgud and Sir Alec Guiness–were four of the most influential actors on the world stage, let alone the English stage. These four amazing actors were also four of America’s most loved actors. The opportunity to hear thirty-nine broadcasts, specifically devoted to these four great actors and their friends and associates was a remarkable opportunity–moreso since it arrived so late in The Golden Age of Radio.

Listen to Dr Jekyl & Mr. Hyde from Theater Royal, first broadcast on the 30th January 1954: Click Here To Listen

Happy Listening 🙂

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The Black Museum Radio Series

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Opening in 1875, the Crime Museum at Scotland Yard is the oldest museum in the world purely for recording crime. The name “Black Museum” was coined in 1877 by a reporter from “The Observer”, a London newspaper, although the museum is still referred to as the Crime Museum. It is this museum that inspired The Black Museum radio series, produced in London by Harry Alan Towers.

From Jay Hickerson’s “The Ultimate History of Network Radio Programming and Guide To All Circulating Shows”, the earliest US broadcast date was January 1, 1952. Thirty nine shows, from the full syndication of fifty two shows, aired over Mutual stations from January 1, 1952 through June 24, 1952 and September 30, 1952 through December 30, 1952.

This may be the earliest broadcast of the series worldwide. It was later broadcast over Radio Luxembourg starting May 7, 1953. Radio Luxembourg broadcast sponsored programs at night to England (the BBC was state-owned and had no commercials). The shows were sponsored by Dreft and Mirro (cleaning products).

The series continued to be offered in syndication and was heard on AFRTS broadcasts and in the US on NPR stations through the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s. Some shows were broadcast by the BBC in England in 1994.

This murder mystery series was based on true life cases from Scotland Yard’s files. Each episode was based on an item or items of evidence in the museum.

Orson Welles hosted and narrated the shows. Mr. Welles opened each show slightly differently but followed a standard format. For example, the show, “The Bathtub”, open as follows:

“This is Orson Welles speaking from London.” (Big Ben starts himing in the background). “The Black Museum, repository of death… Here, in this grim stone structure on the Thames which houses Scotland Yard, is a warehouse of homocide, where everyday objects, a piece of wire, a chemist’s flask, a silver shilling, all are touched by murder.” (dramatic music)

Following the opening, Mr. Welles would introduce the museum’s item or items of evidence that was central to the case, leading into the dramatization. He also provided narration during the show and ended each show with his characteristic closing from the days of his Mercury Theater of the Air, remaining “obediently yours”.

Harry Alan Towers produced the series from scripts written by Ira Marion. Music was composed and conducted by Sidney Torch.

The museum was not open to the general public. It’s purpose was then, and still is, for police training, although it did receive a considerable number of famous people, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It is currently used as a lecture theater for the police and like bodies in various subjects of Criminology. But, thanks to Mr. Towers and Mr. Welles, we can still get a glimpse of what secrets are housed in The Black Museum.

Listen to The Black Museum of ROK Classic Radio OTR!

(From the Old Time Radio Researcher’s Group)

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