War of the Welles

When I was young still and open of mind, my parents set me loose in the University of Kentucky bookstore with the understanding that I was allowed to choose for myself from the racks of tapes and books some manner of entertainment. I perused the offerings with a diligent focus that can be mustered only by a seven-year-old with a serious decision to make. Not a book, I decided, even though there were several promising ones. But I wanted something in which I could indulge on the long car ride home, and I was prone to car sickness when I tried to read int he car. So a cassette…but which one? I flipped through the racks, past recordings of old radio dramas. The Shadow? Maybe. Lights Out Theater? Even better. And then I found it. With nary a doubt in my mind as to the correctness of my decision, I took from the rack and presented triumphantly to my mother my choice of prize: a recording of Orson Welles’ legendary broadcast of The War of the Worlds on Halloween eve, 1938.

Although I’d not heard the broadcast, even at that young age I’d heard of it. Any kid with a decent collection of monster and sci-fi books knew the legend of Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds; and I daresay my collection of monster and sci-fi books was, for a child of seven, rather more than decent. Even before I could read, I willingly frightened myself with the pictures in books about Frankenstein, Dracula, Wolfman, and the Mummy. While others my age whiled away their time watching Electric Company and Sesame Street, I went outside and played in the woods, then came home to stay up late. It was an era of permissive parenting, and my parents, while attentive and supportive, were especially permissive. I would watch Frankenstein and the Universal monsters on WHAS’ “Memories of Monsters.” If it was rainy out on a Saturday, I would watch “Matinee at the Bijou” on WKET instead of cartoons, thrilling to the exploits of Commando Cody, Flash Gordon, and Tarzan. I knew Pepe Le Moko better than I knew Mr. Rodgers (albeit via the film Algiers, rather than the French original). And if I was in the car, I would request public radio, not because I was keen on light jazz and classical music, but because they would rerun old radio dramas, as well as new ones like Star Wars. Yes, Star Wars had a serialized radio dramatization.

I had a set of paperback books I got from Troll Book Order one month at school that had relatively plain black covers, each with a picture of a different famous monster on it denoting the topic of the book. Vampires, werewolves, and mummies each had a volume, as did science fiction and space monsters. It was within their pages that I first learned about the monsters I hadn’t seen yet on late night television: the ghoulish Count Orlok from Nosferatu, the disturbing somnambulist of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (those books also taught me the word “somnambulist,” of which I was particularly proud in second grade), the nightmarish version of Frankenstein’s monster from Hammer’s Curse of Frankenstein, the weird helmeted aliens of The Mysterians, and the story of the night Orson Welles sent radio listening Americans into a state of mass hysteria.

The Eve of the War

My parents let me listen to my new cassette on the way home. I sat in the back seat of the car, enraptured. When we got home, I dashed to my room, slid the cassette into the little Realistic brand tape recorder I’d received as a gift one Yule and listened to the entire broadcast again, this time with the lights out and the darkness of night leaving nothing in existence except me and the tinny sound of Orson Welles and his crew of actors contesting with a Martian invasion, weathering the destruction of Grovers Mill, New Jersey (a location decided upon by the most scientific of methods: Orson Welles, when writing the script, threw a dart at a map to determined where the first Martians would land), and constantly interrupting the music of Ramon Raquello and His Orchestra, live from the Meridian Room at the Park Plaza Hotel in Manhattan.

The country was, in the autumn of 1938, primed for a panic. In August of that year, the German military, technically forbidden under the agreements that ended the first World War, mobilized. On October 15, they invaded Czechoslovakia. Despite efforts to appease Hitler, it seemed the German appetite for conquest and, more acutely, the desire to revenge itself against the harsh punishments levied against it after the Great War, was going to send Europe into a second horrible conflict. Although war had not been declared in 1938, and although the United States was determined to stay out of it even if it was, there was considerable tension rippling through a nation only just beginning to emerge from the ravages of the Great Depression. Amid this air of paranoia and exhaustion, a little known dramatist named Orson Welles stepped behind the microphone for another broadcast of a radio drama, CBS’ The Mercury Theatre on the Air.

When conceiving of the radio play, Welles decided to stage the first 2/3 of it as a series of news broadcasts reporting first the spotting of strange eruptions on Mars, then later the arrival of a mysterious cylinder and the subsequent obliteration of humankind by the invading Martians that emerge in their hideous tripods. At the time, breaking news radio broadcasts of this nature were still a relatively new feature of the American landscape. Although he would claim later to have been taken aback by the hysteria the broadcast caused, it seems far more likely that the impish Welles, in styling his broadcast in this manner, knew exactly what he was doing and exactly what sort of reaction that could result. One need only look at the precise timing of the play’s breaks, coordinated to the second with the timing of another, more popular broadcast.

When the play aired, there was the customary introduction by the announcer: “The Columbia Broadcasting System and its affiliated stations present Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre on the Air in The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells.” Of the people who listened to any portion of the Mercury Theatre on the Air, many did so only after first tuning into NBC Red Network’s Chase and Sanborn Hour, which had its first musical break at fifteen minutes. Many listeners would then switch over to CBS. What they heard was expertly timed by Welles. At twelve minutes into his broadcast, reports of strange occurrences from Grovers Mill took over. The show’s announcer did not return again until the broadcast was halfway over, after the play’s version of a radio broadcast had gone from CBS to military channels to the ominous, forlorn muttering of radio’s sole surviving broadcaster: “2X2L calling CQ…2X2L calling CQ…2X2L calling CQ…New York. Isn’t there anyone on the air? Isn’t there…anyone on the air? Isn’t there anyone…”

The Coming of the Martians

On good Halloween years when I was in elementary school, my class would gather around a fire (well, a fire made of construction paper) and either our teacher would regale us with ghost stories, or we’d be permitted to bring in records and tapes of spooky sounds, celebrities reading macabre tales, and other audio accoutrements of the season. I always brought in two of my most cherished tapes: a recording of someone reading Henry James’ spine-tingler The Turn of the Screw, and of course, Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds (my other beloved possession, the Jeff Wayne Musical Version of War of the Worlds was judged too long to listen to). I had determined early on that listening to the broadcast was going to be an annual tradition with me. And it has indeed remained so.

Either at parties or alone at night, on October 30th, I would without fail find an hour to sit in the dark and listen to Orson Welles’ historic broadcast. When I got older and could drive, I still had the cassette, copied over on a back-up as the original was starting to show signs of wear. I would enlist the company of a willing friend or group of friends. And if that failed, I would happily go alone, find somewhere remote and sort of sinister to park — down by the Ohio River, on a secluded hill in Cherokee Park, pulled off to the side of the lonely country road lane that was Covered Bridge Road — recline my seat, and listen to War of the Worlds. I continued this tradition through college, parked in places like Paynes Prairie outside of Gainesville, Florida, or just in my apartment.

In 1938, when the broadcast returned to the air after the brief station identification, the format switched from a fake newscast to a monologue (with one brief dialogue scene) executed by Orson Welles as one of the few remaining survivors of the invasion, evading Martian tripods as he wanders the desolate, abandoned streets of New York City. Anyone who was fooled by the first 2/3 of the broadcast must have been clued in by now, but then, most of the people fooled by the first portion of the play were already in a panic, fleeing what they thought to be a true invasion by Martian war machines (or possibly German bombers) and pestering local police, radio stations, and fire brigades with hysterical reports of Martians, heat rays, poisonous black smoke, and other fantastical instruments of destruction.

Only, it didn’t happen. Not just the Martian invasion, of course. But the entire state of national panic. Well, not exactly the way it’s been told, anyway.

The World after the War

The madness that Orson’s little prank caused has been much reported and passed on as truth through the ages. And while it’s true that some people, tuning in late to the show, were conned into thinking America was under attack by Martians, the reports of nation-wide mass hysteria — or even hysteria localized to the New York-New Jersey area — were vastly blown out of proportion by newspapers. If you thought the internet invented sensationalism and hyperbolic headlines and manufactured outrages, you’re pretty late to the show. A minor furor erupted outside of the broadcast studio, resulting Welles and his cast sneaking out through the back entrance. But Welles, then only 23 by the way, was already a canny and clever showman. When word of these panics got to him, he latched onto them and played the situation to his advantage, issuing a stunned apology that many have called “his finest hour as an actor.” The newspapers, in turns, were more than happy to drum up their sales figures by inflating the reports of the terrifying effect the broadcast had on America.

Not that America was without panic as a result. There were indeed a number of listeners who were duped by the broadcast (remember, in 1938 we did not know as much about Mars as we do today). They in turn alerted others, including the police who, receiving an increasing number of calls of this nature, had little recourse but to think that maybe something screwy was indeed going on. By the end of the show, it was the press more than the people who were in a frenzy, descending upon the CBS tower in droves, each minute resulting in the affair growing more widespread, deadlier, more insane. Subsequently, many people interviewed after the fact were caught up less in a panic caused by the actual broadcast, and more by the panic that followed after it was reported as having caused mass hysteria. By the time the papers were done with things, it sounded like all of America had been screaming in a terror and setting things on fire. But when the cast and crew of The Mercury Theatre on the Air was finally allowed by reporters and police to leave the building, they found life in New York proceeding as it always had, completely without bonfires and terrified mobs running through the streets away from the Martian tripods they thought they saw – or that the Daily News insisted they thought they saw.

A few people caught up in the scare filed lawsuits against Welles and CBS. All but one was dismissed. The sole payout to come from any of these lawsuits was settled out of court, upon the insistence of Welles himself, and was for the price of a pair of men’s shoes, which the plaintiff had purchased purely for the purpose of running away from Martians. Despite the fallout — for even if much of the panic was manufactured by the press, the government was still going to react to it — Welles’ reputation as a master dramatist was cemented. Three years later, in 1941, he would make his first feature film: Citizen Kane. The previously low-profile, unsponsored Mercury Theatre on the Air suddenly found itself with an advertiser. And America as a whole learned a valuable lesson about mass hysteria, media manipulation, and over-reaction. Thanks to Orson Welles, today we never fall for false news stories, sensational bait headlines, or manufactured outrage and panics.

One can forget, amid the furor that surrounded the broadcast and its place in pop culture history, how good Welles’ version of Wells’ novel is. More than the original, Orson’s version would, in many ways, serve as the template for the cinematic adaptation George Pal produced decades later. Since I began the tradition, I have not missed a single Halloween of listening to War of the Worlds. I will always find myself on October 30 at 8pm sitting comfortably, a Negroni in hand (“The bitters are excellent for your liver,” remarked Welles himself when he wrote about the cocktail in 1947 for the Coshocton Tribune, “the gin is bad for you. They balance each other”), ready to weather the coming Martian invasion while listening to Ramon Raquello and His Orchestra play endlessly interrupted bits and pieces of “Stardust.”

“So goodbye everybody, and remember the terrible lesson you learned tonight. That grinning, glowing, globular invader of your living room is an inhabitant of the pumpkin patch, and if your doorbell rings and nobody’s there, that was no Martian; it’s Halloween.”