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War of the Worlds - An Update on the Paul Stewart lacquer set

October 27th, 2013

Note:  The mp3 attached to this post is the same transfer I put up earlier in the summer; it is included here as a convenience.

At the end of July, I posted a lacquer 78 rpm lacquer set of the famous Mercury Theatre on the Air broadcast of "War of the Worlds" on my blog.  I transferred the discs and posted the audio file thinking it was likely a "dub" - the fact that the disc set might be an original surviving master copy was just something I just couldn't believe.

Since my original post, I've dived into researching the background on the set, surviving copies of the broadcast, and have concluded this set is, indeed, a "live" master, probably ordered up by Mercury actor and associate producer Paul Stewart.

In this post, I'll share some details on my research into the set, highlighting what we know and don't know about how the show was recorded and preserved over the years.

How the program was recorded

If you're a regular reader of the blog, you probably know that networks and stations would make 16" lacquers of broadcasts.  These couldn't be played on amateur equipment.  So, actors, producers and others associated with shows would get lacquers made of broadcasts on 78 rpm discs.  Each side would hold about five or six minutes of material - in the case of this "War of the Worlds" set, the full one-hour program takes up twelve sides of six discs.

In the case of "War of the Worlds", there's been considerable debate about how the program was recorded.  On this site, http://jeff560.tripod.com/wotw.html which archives posts from the Old Time Radio mailing list, we learn that:

  • For at least the early part of the run of the Mercury Theater series, CBS did not have in-house equipment for cutting discs.  They contracted with Raymond Scott's Universal Recording company for this work.  At least one Mercury set - "Dracula", the first episode of the series - has been seen on 16" discs with Universal labels.
  • There is debate about whether CBS had in-house facilities for recording at the time of "War of the Worlds".  Some sources indicate that they did not and others said they had equipment installed in September 1938 in time for the Munich Crisis.
  • The master discs for "War of the Worlds", based on commonly circulating copies and dubs made in later years, indicate that CBS cut (or had cut by an outside firm) a live 16" lacquer set during the broadcast.

During my research, I learned that Orson Welles had a professional studio, Harry Smith Recording, cut 12" 78 rpm discs of the Mercury broadcasts for his own collection.  From another source, I learned that Paul Stewart had rehearsals of "War of the Worlds" recorded.

The "Paul Stewart" lacquer set

I bought my lacquer set from an ebay seller at the end of July.  The listing had photos of the discs and the container they came to the seller in - I corresponded with him and discovered that they came from the estate of John Kevin McLaughlin who operated a shop specializing in rare books, celebrity autographs and science fiction memorabilia in Orange, California.  McLaughlin was a nationally known collector of science fiction memorabilia and comic books.

According to McLaughlin's widow, who was working with the seller to liquidate the estate, the discs originally came from the estate of a Hollywood reporter, Jimmy Starr.  Starr worked as a screenwriter and columnist in the 1940s and later worked in public relations for the Ramada Inn in the 1950s.

The disc set consisted of twelve sides on six discs recorded at 78 rpm.  Each disc contains a handwritten label with "War of the Worlds - Original Broadcast" and the part number.  The discs were enclosed in generic Audiodisc sleeves, some of which were for glass based lacquers, and probably date from World War II.

The discs are cut on Presto Green Seal Q lacquers, manufactured only between 1938 and mid-1941.

entire package was contained in a cardboard mailer from the "Book of the Month Club", probably dating from the 1960s, with the words "War of the Worlds - Original Broadcast" and "Paul Stewart" written on it in the same handwriting as the disc labels.  The generic white labels on the discs are probably not original - they're slightly larger than the labels typically used on these types of discs and are the size of standard lp labels made in the 50s and later.  I would guess that Jimmy Starr or more likely McLaughlin put the labels on the discs and placed them in the cardboard container.

Surviving known discs of "War of the Worlds"

Aside from the "Paul Stewart" lacquer set that I found, there are a handful of other known original lacquers of the program.  Only one other "live" original, produced for Orson Welles, is confirmed to exist.

  • Ralph Murchow 16" set

This is a set of two 16" lacquers that belonged to Ralph Murchow, a prominent collector of vintage radios and radio equipment.  In 2001, the set was auctioned from his estate for $14,000.  The discs contained no paper labels, but did bear the distinctive markings of Presto Q blanks produced between 1938 and 1941.  They were contained in a frame with writing on the matte behind the discs indicating "War of the Worlds - Original Transcriptions".  To my knowledge, the discs were never removed from the frame to determine if they contained "War of the Worlds", the condition, or if they were a "live" original, a "dub" or a "dub of a dub" of the broadcast.

  • Lilly Library 12" 78 rpm dub set

Lilly Library at Indiana University is the repository of Orson Welles's personal papers and recordings.  I corresponded with Lilly about Mercury discs in their collection.  Lilly has a 12" 78 rpm lacquer set of "War of the Worlds" on glass-based discs, cut by Carnegie Hall Recording in New York.  Glass based discs were only manufactured during World War II, so this lacquer set is a dub made a few years after the broadcast.  A preservationist at Lilly verified that it sounds as if it were copied from a 16" set of discs.  

Most of the Mercury broadcasts were recorded for Orson Welles by Harry Smith Recording in New York.  The studio bundled the disc sets for three episodes of Mercury into an album before giving them to Welles and each album was marked with the names of the programs.  These are the discs now in Lilly Library's collections.  The album that was supposed to contain "War of the Worlds" instead contained lacquers for a later program in the series, "Magnificent Ambersons".  It appears that Welles's original Harry Smith recorded set was lost at some point and replaced by a dub made by Carnegie Hall Recording a few years after the broadcast.  Welles's original lacquer set of "War of the Worlds" is accounted for with a private collector.

  • Orson Welles Harry Smith 12" 78 set

I verified with Mike Biel that this set, likely a master done at the time of the broadcast, is in the hands of a private collector.  This is the lacquer set missing from the album at Lilly Library, matching the format and notations on the labels that they were made for Orson Welles.

  • Radio Recorders 1948 16" dub set

I talked with a private collector that used to own this set.  It has yellow Radio Recorders labels and typewritten notations indicating it was a "copy" made in 1948.  Radio Recorders was located in Hollywood and produced lacquers of radio programs for the networks and individuals.

The set appears to have been dubbed from a 78 rpm set different from my lacquers - it was possibly dubbed from the Welles Harry Smith set.

  • Library of Congress 16" set

The Library of Congress has a 16" set of "War of the Worlds".  It was dubbed to reel to reel tape in 1968.  The particulars of the set (whether it is a dub, the brand of lacquer used or labels on the set) are unknown.

  • The CBS 16" set

CBS may or may not have the original master 16" lacquers of "War of the Worlds" in their archives.  Mike Biel posted the following information to the Old Time Radio mailing list (see message on this url dated 9 Nov 2007):

"In a recent newspaper article about the CBS News Archive, there is a photograph of the archivist holding a yellow-labeled 16-inch disc that the caption says is the WOTH. I can tell you that this was not in the disc collection of CBS News when I saw the collection in the early 70s. Its the first thing I looked for. The entertainment division had a different archive that I have never been able to crack, and the discs might have been there. I and another digest member had been offered a set of WOTW discs at separate times, and both of us noted that the discs were dated as being a 1948 dub. I seem to recall a scan of yellow labels. Maybe that is what CBS now has. In the 1970s I was told by a man who had later become a supervising engineer at CBS that when he was new at CBS he had actually been the one to cut the discs of the program at CBS and had been ordered to smuggle the discs out of CBS. He told me that they were later lost, I think, when his kid brought them in to school for show-and-tell. A few years earlier I was shown a set of 12-inch lacquers in the possession of a very famous collector of a genre other than OTR. Did he get them at school?? But on the other hand, I was specifically told by another long-time CBS engineer who used to be a digester member that CBS New York never had any disc cutting equipment, just like CBS Hollywood never had any either. Yet my other source said he was there when a pair of disc cutters was installed at 485 Madison Ave.in September 1938 in time for the Munich Crisis."

  • Other sources checked

Are there other original "master" or "dub" lacquers of "War of the Worlds" hidden away in libraries?

I did searches in finding aids for other key Mercury figures - John Houseman, Richard Wilson and Howard Koch - but found no original lacquers audio recordings of Mercury broadcasts.  

I also checked the National Archives and Records Administration - they have a tape copy of "War of the Worlds" from the John Hickman collection of radio programs, but no original lacquer discs. 

I emailed the Pioneer Pacific Broadcasters and the person I talked initially thought they had a set of "War of the Worlds" lacquers.  However, they only have a tape copy in their holdings - they had access to the Welles lacquers and copied them before they were permanently housed at Lilly Library in Indiana.

Comparisons with other surviving versions

After listening closely to the set and comparing it with known versions, I am convinced the "Paul Stewart" set is a "live" original made on the night of the broadcast.  Besides the clear and distinct sound quality, the discs have overlapping material on all but two sides and side breaks that differ from other copies.  

I auditioned copies of discs dubbed from the 16" CBS master and a dub made from another "live" set made for Orson Welles.  On the Welles 78 set, the breaks on my lacquer set occur anywhere from fifteen to forty-five seconds earlier.  

All of the 16" disc copies have the following side breaks, in comparison with the "Paul Stewart" lacquer set:

*Sides 1>2

Approximately 15 minutes into the program just after the interview with Farmer Wilmouth,  between the lines "… where this thing has fallen." and "I wish I could convey the atmosphere, the background of this fantastic scene ….".

On my lacquer set, the side break occurs about 1:10 later where Welle's professor is answering the question "Do you still think it's a meteor, professor?"

*Sides 2>3

Around the 30:00 mark where the announcer is reading radio bulletins.  One side ends "Just a moment please, ladies and gentlemen" and some off-mic chatter.  The next starts with the announcer saying "We've run special wires …".  The off-mic chatter is missing or incomplete in some copies.

On my lacquer set, the side ends with the off-mic chatter and the announcer saying "We've run special wires…" and introducing the remote at the field artillery battery.  The next is starts with the soldier saying "Range … thirty-two meters.".

*Sides 3>4

At approximately where the Welles's professor character is wandering and finds the chestnut tree.  Side three ends with Welles saying "Chestnuts are ripe.  I fill my pockets.  I must keep alive."  Side four begins "For two days I wandered in a vague northerly direction through a desolate world…." 

On the "Paul Stewart" set, the side breaks happen about thirty seconds later when the professor sees the bird - that side ends with "The joy of finding another living being" and the next with that overlapping bit of dialogue and the lines about finding dead cows.

Significance of the find

I'm quite sure that this lacquer set originated with Paul Stewart and that he gave it to reporter Jimmy Starr, perhaps as a gift or souvenir.  

If the set was ordered by Stewart for the Mercury Theatre files or his own personal collection, it would be logical that he was having Mercury broadcasts recorded on a regular basis.  All sources I consulted about the broadcast indicated that the Mercury players didn't see anything "special" about the "War of the Worlds" and even thought it wasn't one of their better efforts.  Why record just his episode and not others?

If Stewart had other Mercury broadcasts recorded, where are the discs?

With Stewart's extensive work in film and television after his stint with the Mercury broadcasts, he might not have seen the discs as important and discarded them or gave them away at some point.  There are none in libraries or archives, as far as I can determine.  Stewart and his wife had no children - the obituary for his wife, who died in 1996, noted that no close family members survived.  It could be that, if any discs still exist, they might still reside with some distant relatives.

With the status of the CBS master 16" lacquers of "War of the Worlds" uncertain, perhaps the Stewart lacquer set can someday be combined with surviving low generation dubs of the broadcast to digitally restore a definitive version of the broadcast.  Despite being on the National Recording Registry for almost two decades, there's never been an attempt at a digital restoration of the program direct from the original discs.

Here's hoping that "War of the Worlds" will find a new restored life in time for the 80th anniversary in a few years.