Apocalypse Then; The Complete Story Behind the Invasion

The infamous Martian invasion which shook Planet Earth on October 30, 1938 may have seemed to come out of the blue to most of those who heard it, but in reality it was merely the latest (albeit most spectacular) thrust in a campaign by one remarkable, magnificent ham to become the greatest and most famous actor in the world. This is not to say that Orson Welles planned the panic that shook America that night only, rather, to emphasize that this fabulously significant slice of American History has itself, a fascinating history. And as it turns out, it also has a legacy. That fateful adaptation of H. G. Wells's 40 year old chestnut made everything that came after -- Citizen Kane, Magnificent Ambersons, Touch of Evil, Welles's entire brilliant career -- possible. Here then, is the complete story of the remarkable making of Orson's apocalypse -- the End of the World that was really the beginning of one.

Orson Welles was born in Kenosha, Wisconsin on May 6, 1915, the son of an inventor. It didn't take long to discover that the youngster was a prodigy and that his particular genius was for performing. His first professional job was the role of Peter Rabbit for a Chicago department store; his fee -- $25 a day, his age 10 years. Contrary to biographical convention we do not, at this point, segue to his distant first adult success. There is no break. Orson Welles hits the ground running. At thirteen he stages a school production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar; in typical form, he plays three major roles himself. Not long after this, the teenager goes to Ireland, ends up penniless in Dublin, lies about his age to a theater impresario and gets the lead in an expensive Gate Theatre production of Jew Suss. He is a success, and returns home in style. Once there, he takes time out to make his first motion picture -- a home-movie version of his favorite play, William Gillette's Too Much Johnson (unfortunately the 16mm film is now long lost). He parlays a chance meeting with Thornton Wilder into a meeting with Alexander Woolcott, and that into a tour with Katherine Cornell. By 1934, he is on Broadway in a classy mounting of Romeo and Juliet. He is now 19 years of age.

John Houseman, a young man who has abandoned a lucrative career in business to run away with the theatre, is so impressed by Welles in Romeo and Juliet that he offers the young actor a long term contract in what will eventually become known as The Mercury Theatre.

These two whiz kids form a partnership; their goal -- take the theatre world by storm. Houseman and Welles take over a WPA Negro unit in 1936 -- part of Roosevelt's New Deal that sought to create jobs with government money by funding arts cooperatives and providing grants to acting troupes, etc. Welles now, for the first time, has his dream opportunity; his very own theatre to tinker with. He makes inspired use of this unique circumstance and stages Macbeth with an all-black cast. The result is astonishing; the Scottish king is now an ambitious Haitian chieftain, the three witches on the moors have become voodoo priestesses. The play, which becomes known around New York as the "Voodoo Macbeth," is, of course, a hit and leads to other WPA shows, including Dr. Faustus and Marc Blitzstein's The Cradle Will Rock.

By 1937 all the elements that would become radio's most famous ensemble playhouse were in place. Welles and Houseman leased New York's old Comedy Theatre, renamed it the Mercury, and auspiciously opened it with their unique turn on Julius Caesar November 11, 1937. Shakespeare's original was again transmogrified, this time performed in modern dress, in streamlined modern settings. Welles appears as Brutus in a blue serge suit. The point could hardly have been missed in the 1930's; Shakespeare's 300-year old play was being used to examine the fascism of contemporary Italy. The Mercury Theatre -- and especially its star, Orson Welles -- took a first giant step into general public consciousness.

The Mercury Theatre was on its way. A small core of talent formed around Welles, a core that would also accompany him to Hollywood when his moment came; Joseph Cotten, Agnes Moorehead, Ray Collins, and George Coulouris. Welles directed and produced; Houseman handled the business end. Their first year was spectacularly successful. By the end of it, the theatre critics had dubbed 22-year-old Orson Welles a "genius" and a "wonder boy." Before long, radio came knocking. CBS, looking to gain a few points in the "legitimacy" and "respectability" columns, offered Welles access to the greatest "theatre" on earth -- "the Broadways of the entire United States" they called it. They gave him leave to provide nine 60 minute dramatizations of classics from literature, to air on Monday nights. The new program would be called The Mercury Theatre on the Air and Orson Welles would be star, narrator, writer, producer, and director.

CBS gave Welles its full backing and no expense was spared. To Welles's own sterling troupe of performers the network added radio veterans Alice Frost, Frank Readick, Karl Swenson, and impressionist & dialect specialist Kenny Delmar (most famous for his blustering Senator Claghorn -- "It's a Joke, son...a joke, that is.") Houseman assumed the role of story editor, Paul Stewart was associate producer, and Dan Seymour was the announcer.

The shows memorable theme song was an adaptation of Tchaichovsky's "Piano Concerto no.1 in B-flat minor" but the composer assigned to write original incidental music for the series was none other than the incomparable Bernard Herrmann. At this stage in his career Herrmann was just a promising young newcomer but most fans of the fantastic will undoubtedly recognize him for what he was to become; simply the greatest and most original creator of music for science fiction, horror, and fantasy films to ever have practiced the art. His achievements in this realm are legendary -- a list of titles alone is impressive; The Devil and Daniel Webster, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, Journey to the Center of the Earth, Psycho, Jason and the Argonauts, Fahrenheit 451, and television's Twilight Zone. But Herrmann got his start in radio, here with the Mercury Theatre. Welles considered the composer an integral part of his ensemble and carried Herrmann, too, away to Hollywood to help him invent Citizen Kane in 1941.

With this impressive assemblage of talent, The Mercury Theatre on the Air opened for business on the night of July 11, 1938. Their first production; Bram Stoker's Dracula.

"Dracula would make a marvelous movie," Welles once said, in a famous interview with Peter Bogdonovich. "In fact, nobody has ever made it; they've never paid any attention to the book, which is the most hair-raising marvelous book in the world. It's told by four people, and must be done with four narrations, as we did on the radio... All the movies are based on the play, not the book. Nobody has ever gone back to the book."

Well, Orson Welles did go back to the book (much more faithfully than did Welles-admirer Francis Coppola in his recent production) and The Mercury Theatre's Dracula is widely regarded -- by those who have troubled to experience it -- as the best version of the tale ever offered in any medium. Welles himself plays Count Dracula -- and, in a dual role, Dr. Seward. Martin Gabel was Dr. Van Helsing, George Coulouris was Jonathan Harker, Agnes Moorehead Mina Harker. Herrmann's music ranks with his best. One positively salivates at the thought that Orson Welles might actually have made a Dracula film -- as he seems to have considered doing at one time -- but, alas, it was not to be.

But in the weeks that followed, Welles's radio "summer stock" brought audiences a series of stunning theatrical excursions that remain a unique achievement in the field of broadcasting... all of them adapted from the perennial standards of "English Lit 101," but all of them unmistakably touched with that wonderful Wellesian magic. Imagine them: Treasure Island (Welles as Long John Silver), A Tale of Two Cities (Welles as Sidney Carton), The 39 Steps (Welles as Richard Hannay), Oliver Twist (Welles as Fagin), The Count of Monte Cristo (Welles in the title role), Abraham Lincoln (Welles as guess who). Three of Welles's own personal favorites got special treatment. His deep love for William Gillette's classic Conan Doyle adaptation shines in every second of the Mercury's Sherlock Holmes. Welles makes the ideal Phineas Fogg in a rollicking radio jaunt through Jules Verne's Around the World in 80 Days. And the "Master of the Mercury" wrote radio's The Man Who Was Thursday himself; it was based upon a novel by Welles's own favorite author -- G. K. Chesterton.

With the advent of the new fall season, CBS renewed The Mercury Theatre as a regular show but moved it into radio's most deadly time slot -- Sunday nights at 8 PM. In 1938 one of the simple facts of life was that America's Sunday nights belonged to Charlie McCarthy. Edgar Bergen's Chase & Sanborn Hour -- radio's top-rated show -- was already an institution; pulling in a 34.7 percent share of the total audience every week. This created a nearly unfillable void on the competing networks and it is probable that CBS exiled Welles there precisely because they had little faith in the Mercury's mass appeal. Perhaps they reasoned that the high-brow crowd who thought themselves too sophisticated for Charlie McCarthy & Mortimer Snerd would welcome a "cultural" alternative, but at any rate after two months in the new time slot The Mercury Theatre on the Air had never been rated above 3.6 per cent and an early demise seemed highly likely. But if no one was listening, how then did literal millions -- on the fateful night of October 30 -- find themselves caught up in a Welles-inspired "War of the Worlds" panic?

Call it coincidence, call it serendipity, call it anything you like. We here at WONDER like to think that someone was trying to teach us a lesson...someone even more high and mighty than Orson Welles. Analyze it however you like, but the facts are inarguable. On October 30, 1938, a series of seemingly unrelated, disconnected events worked together, by chance or by design, to ensure that The Mercury Theatre's War of the Worlds would be the single most famous radio show ever broadcast and that the name of Orson Welles would be remembered for a long, long time.

Like most of the Mercury's projects, War of the Worlds was chosen for adaptation by Welles himself. The book was a personal favorite and as he contemplated an upcoming Mercury playdate on Halloween weekend, the idea of producing something spooky as a holiday treat must have seemed irresistible. After selling Houseman on the idea, the pair sent the book down to young Howard Koch, the promising journeyman playwright (later an Oscar-winning screenwriter with Casablanca) who, at this time, was the Mercury's regular "writer of first drafts." Koch has vivid memories of his Mercury Theatre experience: "Each week by rehearsal time I was responsible for sixty pages of script... Early morning until late at night my pencil sped and, as my energy dwindled, crawled over the yellow pages of my pad to be transcribed by the young college-girl-of-all-work who somehow learned to read my scrawl. Each batch of fifteen or twenty pages would be rushed over to Welles and Houseman for their criticisms and suggestions. Then came the revisions, and the revisions of the revisions ad infinitum until the deadline Sunday noon when Orson took over at rehearsals and worked his particular magic..." But War of the Worlds would be especially taxing to the young writer -- and especially memorable.

"A day came when a novella was handed me -- with instructions from Houseman to dramatize it in the form of news bulletins. Reading the story, which was laid in England and written in narrative style, I realized I could use practically nothing but the author's idea of a Martian invasion and his description of their appearance and their machines. In short, I was being asked to do an almost entirely original hour-length play in six days. I called Houseman, pleading to have the assignment changed to another subject. He talked to Orson and called back. The answer was a firm no, this was Orson's favorite project."

"The six days before the broadcast were one nightmare of scenes written and rewritten between frantic telephone calls and pages speeding back and forth to the studio and, all the while, that Sunday deadline staring me in the face. Once the Martians had landed, I deployed the opposing forces over an ever-widening area, made moves and countermoves between the invaders and the defenders; eventually I found myself enjoying the destruction I was wreaking like a drunken general. Finally, after demolishing the Columbia Broadcasting Building, perhaps a subconscious wish fulfillment, I ended the holocaust with one lonely ham radio voice on the air, "Isn't there anyone on the air? Isn't there anyone?" Howard Koch finished his radio play Invasion from Mars on Wednesday night, four days before the broadcast.

Over the next three days, Welles and Houseman rehearsed the broadcast; polishing, rewriting, intensifying, punching up the material. Throughout, Welles ruthlessly pushed for more and more modernization, more verisimilitude. One of his steadiest jobs during the 1930's had been as an actor on The March of Time, radio's famous "audio newsreel." Welles used every bit of this real life news experience to give War of the Worlds the ring of truth. He added real names and real places to the simulated newscasts. He wrote commentary in the style of journalist H. V. Kaltenborn, whose recent live reports on the Czechoslovakian crisis had galvanized the nation. He added a grave Presidential emergency address -- and unblinkingly identified the speaker as Franklin Roosevelt. At one point, he had an announcer give realistic route instructions for getting out of town. If anyone involved had any misgiving about such a bold blurring of the line between radio fantasy and radio responsibility they kept it to themselves.

On Friday afternoon the CBS censor muted some of this frightening realism...but not much. The Hotel Biltmore was changed to the Park Plaza; the Army's real life "Langley Field" became "Langham Field." It was decided that President Roosevelt's speech would be given to the "Secretary of the Interior." Other than these minor adjustments the piece was approved without comment. After a Saturday afternoon rehearsal, The Mercury's War of the Worlds was ready to spring on the public.

At 8 PM on Sunday, October 30, The Chase & Sanborn Hour went on the air right on schedule -- Edgar Bergen's opening Charlie McCarthy routine was even funnier than usual. Very few people indeed heard The Mercury Theatre open their Sunday night offering on CBS with the following introduction: "The Columbia Broadcasting System and its affiliated stations present Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre on the Air in a radio play by Howard Koch suggested by the H. G. Wells novel The War of the Worlds..." The brand new "high-brow" series launched into its obscure new science- fiction play with its usual 3.6 percent audience; well on its way to becoming a small footnote in the history of a largely forgotten medium. That's when the gods went a little crazy.

Precisely 12 minutes into the broadcast Edgar Bergen, across the dial, introduced his first guest performer... a totally unknown singer. An estimated 3 to 6 million listeners reached for their dials and went, in today's vernacular, "channel surfing."

They froze when they heard frightening news bulletins about Mars.

When these were connected, a few minutes later, to reports of a weird meteor crashed just outside Trenton, New Jersey, few touched the dial again. They were soon swept up as the imaginary crisis built and built, progressing with such pace that it never occurred to most people to make an obvious check of what they were hearing -- by changing the station again. John Houseman later suggested the theory that the public was susceptible to this inadvertent hoaxing because of the month-long Munich war scare which had blanketed the airwaves all through September. Radio had "interrupted its regularly scheduled broadcasts" every time Hitler sneezed and the nation was jumpy.

Whatever the cause, the War of the Worlds panic had begun. Before it was finished a good portion of the nation was convinced that the end was truly nigh.

Many critics have wondered aloud how so many Americans could possibly have been such suckers. This smug attitude does those involved an injustice. Even granting that Americans of the 1930's were less sophisticated than their modern counterparts, a simple fact remains; it is almost certain that more people believe in life on other planets today than did in 1938. And at least some of the credit (blame?) must go to the play itself. It is brilliant.

The first high water mark of terror came about 8:20 -- when the Martians first use their heat ray on the curious crowd surrounding their landing site. Actor Frank Readick played one of the cleverest, dirtiest tricks in broadcasting history in his role as Carl Phillips, the man-on-the-scene reporter. In preparing for his part (in which he witnesses hundreds hit by the ray "turning into flame") Readick carefully studied the well known recording of the Hindenburg airship disaster which had occured in May of the previous year. No one who hears this recording can easily forget it; agonized reporter Herb Morrison struggles to continue his account of the calamity before breaking down into sobs of mourning for "...the humanity...oh, the humanity..." This became the model for Readick's performance in War of the Worlds; you can hear Morrison echoed in every syllable of "Carl Phillip's" final broadcast. When his line suddenly goes dead (and leaves little doubt that Phillips has, too) even the most modern of audiences still gets icy chills. It doesn't take much imagination to conceive the effect this segment must have had on anyone lucky enough to believe it was true.

The second highlight was Kenny Delmar's speech as the "Secretary of the Interior." Delmar was an expert mimic and though he complied with the order not to use the President's name, he put on his very best FDR anyway. It didn't take long for word to spread that Roosevelt was on the air, giving the public emergency instructions. Those who first tuned in during this speech must have been doubly shaken... "Citizens of the nation: I shall not try to conceal the gravity of the situation that confronts the country, nor the concern of your government in protecting the lives and property of its people. However, I wish to impress upon you -- private citizens and public officials, all of you -- the urgent need of calm and resourceful action. ...Placing our faith in God we must continue the performance of our duties each and every one of us, so that we may confront this destructive adversary with a nation united, courageous, and consecrated to the preservation of human supremacy on this earth." Who could blame anyone for being fooled here? After all, they can't broadcast a phony Presidential speech can they? Surely that's illegal!

The story of the nationwide panic that followed is legendary. Not surprisingly, Orson Welles himself tells it best:

"Six minutes after we'd gone on the air, the switchboards in radio stations all across the country were lighting up like Christmas trees. Houses were emptying, churches were filling up; from Nashville to Minneapolis there was wailing in the street and rending of garments." Newspaper accounts of the night's events have a wild, apocalyptic quality that is both alarming and touching: emergency prayer meetings in churches of every persuasion all up and down the Eastern Seaboard; phone lines jammed with weeping, hysterical people begging for details of the "massacre"; men crowding Army recruiting offices offering to join up and fight the invaders. Our personal favorite: a man in Reno hears the broadcast and immediately starts east in hope of aiding the wife he was there to divorce.

The precise scale of the panic is difficult to estimate but in the aftermath Princeton University commissioned Professor Hadley Cantril to exhaustively research the event. After two years of study, Professor Cantril's findings were published by the Princeton University Press. The results were staggering. The study concluded that of the approximately 6,000,000 people who listened to the program, at least 1,200,000 took the broadcast literally. This figure does not include the possibly greater number who did not hear any of the broadcast but who were affected by word of mouth reports.

But inside the soundproof studio at CBS, The Mercury Theatre company continued merrily along -- New Jersey was completely subdued, Martian cylinders were falling like hailstones all over the world, the U. S. Army was humiliated and in shambles, Martian tripods were wading the Hudson to finish off New York City in one final swift stroke. Welles and Co. were completely unaware of the nationwide sensation they were creating. And then the police broke in.

Right after the "Secretary of the Interior" speech, the cast noticed that the vestibule just behind their soundproof glass was filling with policemen -- many of them brandishing their nightsticks. "Twenty minutes in, and we had a control room full of very bewildered cops," Welles remembered. "They didn't know who to arrest or for what, but they did lend a certain tone to the remainder of the broadcast." The show did go on -- The Mercury Players gamely stayed in character -- but everyone knew that something was rotten in Denmark.

Houseman was ominously summoned away, only to return a minute or two later with telephoned orders from the front office to break into the play immediately and announce that The War of the Worlds was imaginary. But by now, the scheduled 40 minute break was imminent anyway. New York had just fictionally suffocated under a noxious cloud of oily poisonous smoke; Ray Collins, as the last surviving broadcaster, had just died an agonizing death on-the-air; and finally Howard Koch's pathetic lone ham operator called out the end of Act One through the howling ether... "Isn't there anyone on the air? Isn't there anyone?"

At this point, forty minutes into the broadcast, the illusion of reality was broken for the first time since the opening curtain. Dan Seymour read the following announcement: "You are listening to a CBS presentation of Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre on the Air, in an original dramatization of The War of the Worlds, by H. G. Wells." Those still listening were doubtless relieved... but many thousands had already fled for the hills, joined the National Guard, or hit their knees in church.

Act Two of Mercury's War of the Worlds was hardly noticed by anyone -- even by the players who (as the recordings testify) stumbled distractedly through the remaining twenty minutes wondering, no doubt, if the lynch mobs would allow them to survive the evening. But, troupers one and all, they did manage to finish the play. The format reverts to straight drama and Welles, still as Prof. Richard Pierson, wanders the post-holocaust earth loftily ruminating about Man's Fall. Then, in H. G. Wells's famous denouement, the Martians are finally killed off by terrestrial bacteria to which they have no immunity -- "the littlest creatures which God, in his wisdom, had put upon the earth." The play shuddered, at last, to a halt at 9 PM.

Orson Welles, expecting to be arrested immediately, removed his headset, steeled himself for the worst, and then went out to face the music. First, the police manhandled everyone for a while before finally being called off...just as Welles guessed, no one could imagine what to charge them with. Then, a hasty press conference was set up. A newsreel of this conference exists -- Welles & Houseman are mercilessly grilled for about an hour. They are told that scores of people have been trampled to death, run over, swallowed poison. None of these tales turn out to be true, but no one knows this at the time. Welles looks gaunt, haggard, frightened. He hears that lawsuits are being filed -- $12 million worth. Not surprisingly, he pleads complete innocence. The War of the Worlds was, at worst, a prank gone wrong. How could anyone have expected that a whole nation could believe such a ridiculous story?

As a matter of fact, Welles was at least a little guilty. In later years (after the fuss had subsided), he would admit that the panic had not been a complete surprise -- only the size and intensity of it had been. In fact, some sort of reaction had been "merrily anticipated by all of us." "You see," he confessed, "up to that point radio was believed in America. That was a voice from heaven, you see. And I wanted to destroy that as dramatically as possible." It really had been a practical joke -- done to make a point. "...The Mercury Theatre's own radio version of dressing up in a sheet and jumping out of a bush saying boo!"

Howard Koch was also in jeopardy in the wake of "invasion":

"For twenty-four hours after the broadcast the fates of all of us who had participated hung in the balance. The public couldn't make up its collective mind whether we were heroes or villains. While there were numerous injuries, miraculously no one actually died in the mad scramble to escape the Martians although one woman was reported in the act of taking poison but stopped in time by her husband. Then Dorothy Thompson in her influential column gave the opinion that we had done the country a service by showing how vulnerable we were to a panic reaction in event of war. From that time on the tide turned in our favor and, for better or for worse, the course of all our lives was changed.

The Mercury Theatre, whose brilliant production had brought about this explosive result, was soon to disband."

The War of the Worlds did not destroy Orson Welles's career. It gave it a huge boost. Literally overnight, his name became a household word. Surely anybody who could make millions of people believe that wriggling Martians from outer space were conquering the world must be a genius, right?

In addition to newfound recognition, the avalanche of publicity brought The Mercury Theatre on the Air something else it had not had before...a sponsor -- the Campbell Soup Company. The name of the show was changed to The Campbell Playhouse with the beginning of its second season. "Thanks to the Martians," said Welles, "...we were suddenly a great big commercial program, right up there with Benny, Burns & Allen, and the Lux Radio Theatre with C. B. DeMille. The next step was Hollywood."

The Mercury Theatre's second season was its last. At the end of 1940, Hollywood made the "Boy Wonder" an offer he couldn't refuse -- make us a film, any film. You pick the story, you write the script, you produce, you direct, you make it the way you want to. No one in film history has ever been able to refuse this offer; Orson Welles, age 25 years, went to RKO studios and made Citizen Kane. The rest, as they say, is history.

There is a fascinating and little known footnote to this story of the greatest thing that never happened. A little over three years later, on the morning of Sunday, December 7, 1941, Orson Welles was on the radio again; a patriotic broadcast this time. He was handed a shocking, almost unbelievable news bulletin. His hands trembling, he haltingly read it to his listening audience... and most of them said "Aw, c'mon!" After all, remember the boy who cried wolf! Orson Welles felt, perhaps for the first time in his life, completely helpless.

"I was on the full network, reading from Walt Whitman about how beautiful America was, when they said Pearl Harbor's attacked -- now doesn't that sound like me trying to do that again?"

Where to Find Out More

This site has the web archives of Wonder from #13 to #16. Later issues are at http://www.wondersource.com.

Rod Bennett, Editor
Jim Henry, Webmaster