The Night the World Ended: Orson Welles and The War of the Worlds!
The evening of October 30th 1938 was a normal Sunday evening in Depression-era America. That evening, millions of American families had eaten dinner, and were gathered in the living rooms and parlors to enjoy their favorite radio programs. For most, at least according to the ratings, that program was The Chase and Sanborn Hour, starring ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummy, Charlie McCarthy, which aired on NBC. One of its competitors, on the CBS radio network, was The Mercury Theatre on the Air, directed by twenty-three year-old Orson Welles.
Welles, described by many as a “wunderkind,” first gained prominence while working for the Federal Theatre Project, one of Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal” programs to stimulate the economy during the Great Depression. In 1936, Welles staged a version of Macbeth, set on a fictional Caribbean island, with voodoo taking the place of witchcraft, and with an entirely African-American cast. Produced at the Lafayette Theatre in Harlem, it played for ten sold-out weeks before going on the road. Welles was not yet twenty-one when it premiered.
The success of what came to be known as Voodoo Macbeth, as well as what he perceived to be government censorship of his follow-up project, a political allegory entitled The Cradle will Rock, led Welles, in partnership with producer John Houseman (the same John Houseman who would thrill Horror fans forty-odd years later as the story teller at the beginning of John Carpenter’s The Fog, as well as the stuffy, officious head of the Chowder Society, Sears James, in John Irvin’s 1981 film Ghost Story), to form their own repertory company, the Mercury Theatre. Known for innovative, elaborate productions of familiar plays, the Mercury Company was a critical success from the start, with their first production being a contemporary retelling of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, evoking images of Fascist Italy.
This led the CBS radio network to offer Welles an opportunity to develop a sixty-minute weekly dramatic series to air Monday nights at 9pm, later moving to Sunday nights at 8pm. This would use the cast and crew of the Mercury Company to produce these dramas, and would be titled The Mercury Theatre on the Air, with the first broadcast taking place July 11th, 1938. The first episode was a production of Dracula, starring Welles as both Dracula and Dr. Seward, George Coulouris as Jonathan Harker, Agnes Moorehead as Mina Harker, Ray Collins as the Russian ship captain, and Karl Swenson as his first mate. If those names seem familiar, they should. Many became recognizable faces to movie audiences throughout the ‘40s and ‘50s and to television viewers in the ‘50s and ‘60s.
Despite critical acclaim, The Mercury Theatre on the Air never quite found its audience, and when it was moved to the Sunday 8pm time slot, placing it head-to-head against the nation’s top-rated radio program, NBC’s The Chase and Sanborn Hour, it was perhaps a tacit admission on the part of CBS executives that Welles’ show was nearing the end of its run.
As Welles and Houseman began planning their Halloween program, set to air the night of the 30th, the concept began to emerge for a dramatization of a Science-Fiction novel, presented as though it were taking place in real time. That format wasn’t new; it had first been used in 1926 by British theologian and BBC Radio presenter Ronald Knox, when he staged a dramatization entitled Broadcasting the Barricades, about a revolution sweeping through London, resulting in government ministers being hanged by the revolutionaries, Parliament and the Clock tower of Big Ben destroyed by mortars, as well as the Savoy Hotel, indeed much of the city, left in ruins. It took the form of news bulletins interrupting a live program of dance music from the Savoy Hotel, the same hotel that would be destroyed in the course of the broadcast. The effectiveness of the broadcast was enhanced by the political tensions of the period in Great Britain, along with heavy snows across Britain at the time of the broadcast, which cut off large areas of the countryside from any communications. Welles was not only aware of this broadcast twelve years earlier, but later stated that it served as his inspiration.
Once the format of the show had been decided upon, the choice of story to adapt was the next issue to consider. Both The Purple Cloud, by M. P. Shiel, and The Lost World, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, were discussed as possibilities, prior to the decision to purchase the broadcast rights to H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, published in 1898. On Monday, October 24th, Howard Koch, who had written several of the program’s scripts, was given three days to turn out the draft of the War of the Worlds radio play. By Tuesday evening, he was on the phone with Houseman telling him that it couldn’t be done. He was told there was no other option; he had to finish the script.
Despite Koch’s misgivings, there was a script ready for the initial readthrough on the Thursday prior to broadcast. As Welles was occupied with the task of putting the cast of his upcoming play Danton’s Death through rehearsals, an acetate recording of the reading was made for him to listen to later. Following the readthrough, Koch, Houseman and associate producer Paul Stewart reworked the script, inserting more news breaks and musical interludes.
That Sunday night, the broadcast opened with the announcement that the Mercury Theatre of the Air would be presenting Orson Welles’ adaptation of H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, followed by a prologue spoken by Welles, in which he states that,
“This world was being watched closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own. We know now that as human beings busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinized and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinize the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.”
Welles then referenced current events, and gave the date, October 30th, firmly establishing the mise-en-scène in the mind of the listeners. Then began a program of dance music, ostensibly coming from a hotel ballroom in New York City. After a few minutes of “Ramon Raquello and His Orchestra,” there was a breaking news intermission with reports of explosions on the surface of Mars. After a brief explanation of the odd occurrence by Princeton Observatory (carefully differentiated from Princeton University) Professor of Astronomy Richard Pierson (Orson Welles) they returned to the musical program for a minute or two. But there soon came another interruption, news of a strange, cylindrical object falling to Earth near Grover’s Mill, New Jersey.
Within the space of a few minutes, both reporter Carl Phillips (Frank Readick) and Professor Pierson have made it to Grover’s Mill, and Prof. Pierson has conducted his initial inspection of the object. All he can say definitively is that the object is composed of material extraterrestrial in origin. As he describes the object, a hatch in the cylinder begins to unscrew, opening to reveal an alien being with long tentacles. As Phillips describes the chaotic scene, police officers approach the ship, as it has been revealed to be, waving a white flag. The Martians, however, do not recognize the gesture for what it is, and fire on the delegation.
Instantly, panic ensues among the crowd that has gathered around the cylinder, as flames from the Martian weapon sweep across the assemblage. The sound of screams fill the radio speakers, and as Carl Phillips tells the listeners of the devastation being unleashed by the invaders from another world, the broadcast suddenly goes silent. After a moment, the studio announcer’s voice comes over the air, stating that there has been, “some difficulty with our field transmission,” then begins a piano interlude, the same musical piece that the network uses whenever they have a similar technical breakdown. No attempt is made to return to regular programming, and reports begin flooding the station with casualty figures and the movement of the Martian Tripods, which have emerged from the cylinder.
Forty minutes after it had begun, the war, for all intents and purposes, was over. The New Jersey State Militia had met the enemy, and had been incinerated, nearly to a man. A squadron of Army Air Corps bombers from Langham Field had attacked the tripods, with similar results. Only a suicidal plunge by the lead bomber into one of the tripods had inflicted the Martian’s lone loss. The remaining Martian war machines continued their march on New York City, and their approach is reported by a commentator on a Manhattan rooftop—up until the moment that the poison gas from the Martian walkers silences him. After a few seconds of dead air, the voice of a ham radio operator could be heard, plaintively asking if there was anyone there. There was no reply.
That’s when the network announcer came on to remind listeners that they were tuned in to the Mercury Theatre on the Air, on the Columbia Broadcasting System. When the program resumed, it was a far more conventional format, with Prof. Pierson wondering across a bleak, devastated landscape. He eventually makes his way into Manhattan, only to discover that the invaders have all died, killed by pathogens against which they had no immunity. The broadcast ended with a brief disclaimer from Welles, informing the listeners that the broadcast was merely their Halloween trick-or-treat; the equivalent, in his words, “of dressing up in a sheet, jumping out of a bush and saying, ‘Boo!’”
How many people heard that broadcast is unknown. How many listened to the end, or joined the program after the announcer’s introduction is likewise a mystery. The effect the program had on those who tuned in, however, is hard to deny—though authors and scholars have been trying to do just that for the past eighty years. Contemporary accounts, however, are clear: many who heard the broadcast, fooled, intentionally or not, into thinking it was a real news account, believed the end of the world was nigh.
In his 1980 memoir Run-Through: 1902-1941, John Houseman discusses in detail both the production of The War of the Worlds, and its aftermath. He recounts police reports of entire neighborhoods attempting to flee before the invading Martians, of crowds gathering at houses of worship to await the end (much as was represented in the 1953 movie), and police switchboards being swamped with calls asking about the “end of the world.” In one extreme instance, a Pittsburgh man came home in the middle of the broadcast, only to find his wife preparing to swallow poison. She reportedly told him it was a better way to die than what lay in store for them once the Martians arrived.
The short-term ramifications of the broadcast threatened to bring ruin down on the heads of Welles, Houseman, Koch, CBS, and anyone else remotely connected to the program. Lawsuits were filed, criminal charges were contemplated, even the Federal Communication Commission got involved. In all but one civil suit, the Mercury theatre company, shielded by an ironclad contract with CBS that relieved them of all liability, refused to settle.
In that one case, a man complained that he had used $3.25 to try to get as far away as possible, only to find out after traveling some sixty miles that it was just a radio play. He wanted someone to send him the shoes that he had been saving for, and which he could no longer afford. The company did just that—black shoes, size 9B.
Orson Welles’ The War of the Worlds demonstrated the power that the media possessed, even in its infancy. A mere eighteen months earlier, audiences had listened as the routine arrival of an airship at Lakehurst, New Jersey became an unprecedented catastrophe, broadcast live to millions. It is no coincidence that Frank Readick studied the recording of that broadcast in order to accurately portray the reporter’s shock and horror at the spectacle unfolding before him. That realism, that attention to detail, went a long way towards convincing a radio audience that what they were listening to, however illogical it might seem, was in fact occurring in the wilds of New Jersey. The power of the new media was such that it could convince the listener that, in the space of forty minutes, the meteors fell, contact was made, armies gathered, battles were fought, and a war was lost.
And an innocent American public became a little less innocent.
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Creature Feature © D. Dyszel 2021
Dick Dyszel - Voice Actor