The Orson Welles materials

Lacquer disc recordings of performances, rehearsals, and Mercury Theatre productions

Orson Welles is regarded as one of the most significant figures of the 20th century. Known most for his 1938 radio broadcast of H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds and film Citizen Kane, Welles acted and directed on stage, radio, film, and television, made numerous recordings, and authored plays, film scripts, and a newspaper column. He was even a political activist.

The depth and breadth of Welles’ work make him an ideal subject for students and scholars in a broad variety of disciplines, both at IU and beyond. The Lilly Library at Indiana University is home to the Orson Welles materials–thousands of one-of-a-kind audio and film recordings, images, and correspondence that comprise numerous collections.

The Lilly’s Welles holdings feature 600 lacquer discs of Mercury Theatre radio performances and rehearsals of series such as Ceiling Unlimited, Hello Americans, This Is My Best, and various incarnations of the Orson Welles Almanac. The library continues to add new materials to its collections. Recent acquisitions include a third copy of one of Welles’s earliest publications, Everybody’s Shakespeare: Three Plays (1938), as well as a series of love letters and whimsical self-portraits from Welles to his wife Rita Hayworth.

Visit Orson Welles on the Air, 1938–1946

Welles' lacquer disc recording

In this excerpt from Orson Welles Commentaries, Welles responds to a letter from a young Seattle woman who feels that older people are discouraging her from making the world a better place.

Orson Welles

Lacquer disc preservation

Lacquer discs are very high priorities for preservation at IU. Most feature an aluminum or glass base, with audio transcribed in the grooves of a black nitrocellulose lacquer coating. This coating is chemically unstable, making discs prone to unpredictable and sudden catastrophic failure due to surface delamination.

IU’s William and Gayle Cook Music Library and the Archives of Traditional Music (ATM) hold 2,200 and 4,663 lacquer discs, respectively. The University Archives has 741. The many significant collections held by IU include:

  • Jacobs School of Music recitals and performances (1938–1960)
  • ATM collection 54-022-F. Songs from a large community of Oglala Sioux, Lakota, and Dakota people who have had prominent clashes with the U.S. government
  • ATM Collection 67-149-F documents a wide range of Afro-Trinidadian musical life and narratives at a time before the U.S. military presence in Trinidad as part of World War II dramatically altered Trinidadian music and culture
  • School of the Sky radio programs (1940s) held by University Archives