The Mercury Wonder Show
As part of the home front war effort, Orson Welles gathered some of his Mercury Theater friends (including Joseph Cotten and Agnes Moorehead) and other actors and actresses for a carnival-like affair dubbed The Mercury Wonder Show. Combining magic, carnival, and humor, the show was put on for servicemen beginning in August 1943. Originally stationed on Cahuenga Boulevard in Los Angeles, Welles also took a stripped down version of the show to military facilities around the nation.
In This is Orson Welles, you can view the marvelous poster for the acts that went on in the show, and Welles comments in the book that it was among his favorite things he had done in his career. Rita Hayworth, who had met Welles not long before the show, appeared on opening night, before Columbia head Harry Cohn had her quit, feeling she shouldn't be appearing anywhere for free and that the whole thing would hurt her image. Marlene Dietrich replaced Hayworth, and you can see some of the Welles-Dietrich material in the film Follow the Boys. Welles saws Dietrich in half in the film, with an amusing coda done for the film. It's a lousy film, but the only place you can see a piece of the Wonder Show. You can hear elements of the Wonder Show in radio programs Welles made in 1944 as part of his Almanac series.
As noted in Frank Brady's Citizen Welles, Welles put up $40,000 of his own money to put the show on. The show would certainly serve as entertainment for the troops, but would help Welles' public image as well. Painted since his debut in the public eye as a genius and all-around talent (not to mention a Communist), the Wonder Show would allow Welles to poke a good deal of fun at himself and do something genuinely fun and worthwhile in the bargain.
Some of the jokes and skit material still survive, and a few brief items are presented here. The first bit was featured in the June 28, 1944 episode of the Orson Welles Almanac, in which Welles and Lynn Bari performed it. Presumably, the script was written before it was used with Bari. The repartee is typical of most of the jokes: cracks about the servicemen being ravenous wolves around women, pokes at the officers, good natured self-deprecation by Welles, and so on. Here's the first skit:
Orson, when I came in, I noticed that you were doing some very interesting experiments in mind reading.
Yes, I was, -------. And if you don't mind, I'd like you to assist me.
Do you want me to go down into the audience?
Not unless you're packing a couple of waist gunners. No, -------, all you have to do is stand right here on the stage and place your hand on my forehead. That's it. Now I'm getting a thought…Boy, what a thought! This is embarrassing. The gentleman's initials are O.W…Wait a minute, that's my mind I'm reading. To get back to you. I was about to read your mind. Now, you'll have to help me.
All right. You want me to go down into the audience?
She's an eager little beaver, isn't she? No, -------, I just want you to stand here and concentrate…Are you concentrating?
Oh, I'm getting it, now. -------, you little rascal!…I never knew you felt this way. You're thinking: "Orson, take me in your arms, hold me close, whisper sweet words of love into my ear, and shower my upturned face with kisses." How's that? Am I receiving your thought waves correctly?
Oh, brother, are you off the beam!
Well, somebody was sending out that thought. Maybe we'd better try a different experiment…I'd like the assistance of some member of the audience…a typical straight thinking, clean living G.I. soldier…You, sir, thank you very much…step right up…what is your name please.
What were you before you joined the army?
All right, private -------. I want you to shake hands with Miss -------. (THEY SHAKE HANDS) With this experiment…all right soldier,you can drop her hand now. You'll get a souvenir after the show. With this experiment…if you weren't on sentry duty today, solider…it's too late now. With this experiment I shall attempt to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt the possibilities of thought transference…
In another sketch, Welles and his Irish "Granny" chat about various things, most of which end of in jabs at Welles. Here's an excerpt, and Welles' lines are capitalized (he is shouting) as Granny is meant to be partially deaf:
W: I WAS LEFT ON SOMEBODY'S DOORSTEP? HOW OLD WAS I THEN?
W: IT MUST HAVE BEEN A MIGHTY BIG BASKET.
G: It still is.
W: GRANNY, ARE YOU INSINUATING THAT I'M OVERWEIGHT?
G: No, me boy, my fine butterball, it isn't fat you are. You can all see he's got a military figure.
W: I have a military figure?
G: Exceptin' for one thing.
W: What's that?
G: You fall out where you ought to fall in!
W: Granny, how can you say that? Why, everyone knows my studio is grooming me as their number one leading man and lover.
G: You mean they gave up on Sidney Greenstreet?
Some random jokes, which were altered and re-used as the situation required:
We always make it a practice to arrive a little early at these camps so can spend a few hours getting acquainted with the men. This afternoon I was having a cup of coffee and a PFC came over and asked for my autograph. I said "Sure, where do you want me to sign." He said "Right here on this piece of toast." I said, "You mean you want me to sign my name on a piece of toast?" He said, "Yeah, after what we're getting on that toast, your name'll be a pleasure."
But you really meet some interesting fellows around the service club. One fellow I spoke with had a chest full of ribbons. I asked him what the blue one was and he said, "Campaign ribbon - I got that on the beach at Casablanca." I said, "What's the green one?" He said, "Campaign ribbon - I got that one on the beach at Messina." Then I said,"What's the red one?" He said "Lipstick - I got that on the beach at BLANK." Then I got talking to a couple of MP's…for the benefit of our listeners, an MP is a military policeman who really likes to see a soldier have a good time…in fact there's only one thing an MP likes better and that's preventing a soldier from having a good time. But the MP's really do a great job no matter where they are…in one camp I entertained at, we had Gypsy Rose Lee on the show…and would you believe it - in the middle of her act - two MP's jumped on the stage and tried to arrest Gypsy for being out of uniform…that's what I call devotion to duty…