Welles Broadcasts Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Orson Welles terrified thousands with his radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds, proving the power of the medium in the hands of a genius.

Summary of Event

On October 30, 1938, as newspaper headlines and radio news broadcasts carried threats of a coming world war, a Sunday-night radio drama sent thousands of Americans into panic, hysteria, and flight. The young Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre had already acquired a reputation in New York for unusual productions either under the aegis of the Federal Theatre Project or begun while Welles worked for the project. Welles staged a modern-dress Julius Caesar with characters in uniforms resembling those of German and Italian soldiers and a memorable production of Macbeth with an African American cast. When Congress canceled funding for the Federal Theatre Project’s Federal Theatre Project production of Marc Blitzstein’s political musical The Cradle Will Rock Cradle Will Rock, The (Blitzstein) and the unpaid theater owners locked the doors, directors Welles and John Houseman led the cast and audience to a hastily rented theater down the street, making headlines and creating the first production of their new Mercury Theatre Mercury Theatre in 1937. [kw]Welles Broadcasts The War of the Worlds (Oct. 30, 1938) [kw]Broadcasts The War of the Worlds, Welles (Oct. 30, 1938) [kw]War of the Worlds, Welles Broadcasts The (Oct. 30, 1938) War of the Worlds, The (radio drama) Radio programs;The War of the Worlds[War of the Worlds] [g]United States;Oct. 30, 1938: Welles Broadcasts The War of the Worlds[09860] [c]Radio and television;Oct. 30, 1938: Welles Broadcasts The War of the Worlds[09860] Welles, Orson Houseman, John Koch, Howard

In the fall of 1938, Mercury Theatre had a radio broadcast spot on the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) opposite ventriloquist Edgar Bergen’s popular program, featuring his dummy Charlie McCarthy, on the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) network. The Mercury Theatre company presented dramatic versions of classic stories, and Welles decided to present an update of H. G. Wells’s 1898 novel The War of the Worlds on the night before Halloween. As writer Howard Koch noted later, nothing much of the original story, set in England in the nineteenth century, could be used except the Martian invasion and the subsequent destruction wrought by the “alien beings.”

Koch had only days to write the script. Welles told him to use the format of a news broadcast. To understand how listeners could have been so gullible as to be fooled by the program, it is helpful to have some knowledge of the format of radio in the 1930’s. Radio airtime had to be filled with sounds. An easy way to fill “dead” time, particularly at night, was to broadcast live dance music from hotel ballrooms across the country. Listeners were conditioned to expect interruptions of these programs for news bulletins. In addition, commercial time slots were shorter and more flexible in their scheduling than later became the norm. Today, a viewer switching channels among major television networks during a commercial break simply finds more commercials. In 1938, a radio listener changing stations might have found another program in progress. The Mercury Theatre’s fairly small audience was augmented during the first commercial break on Edgar Bergen’s show as that show’s listeners tuned in and found themselves in the midst of what seemed to be a Martian invasion.

These station switchers and other late arrivals missed the program’s opening announcement: “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.” This was followed by the show’s musical theme and the introduction of the “director of the Mercury Theatre and star of these broadcasts, Orson Welles.” Welles’s lead-in to the script of “Invasion from Mars” was followed by a “weather report” and by what purported to be live dance orchestra music from downtown New York. The music was interrupted almost immediately by a bulletin announcing the “explosion of incandescent gas” on Mars, which was later connected to the takeoffs of the vehicles that would invade Earth.

The time left for the presentation of the entire invasion, after commercials and the introduction, was only forty-five minutes. This included events from the takeoffs from Mars to the spread of destruction across the United States and the ultimate destruction of the Martians, “slain, after all man’s defenses had failed, by the humblest thing that God in His wisdom put upon this earth,” to Orson Welles’s closing line, “If your doorbell rings and nobody’s there, that was no Martian . . . it’s Halloween.”

Of an estimated six million listeners, approximately one million believed that Martians had landed. Thousands did not wait to hear that the aliens had been destroyed by bacteria or that the broadcast was the “radio version of dressing up in a sheet and saying ’Boo!’” as Welles said at the end of the show. Some fled in their cars, some called friends and families to warn them, some rushed to churches, some guarded their property with guns, and some even headed for Grovers Mill, New Jersey, where “the Martians had landed,” to lend a hand in the defense.

Meanwhile, at the CBS studio in New York, the actors were unaware of problems until the telephone rang as the closing theme played. Police officers entered and escorted the Mercury Theatre players out a back entrance. Although for several days it appeared that Welles, in particular, was in serious trouble, good sense prevailed at last. The show had been announced as an adaptation, and it was clear that no one connected with it had intended to create a panic or had dreamed that listeners would confuse it with reality. Dorothy Thompson, Thompson, Dorothy an important political newspaper columnist of the day, wrote a supportive column, helping to calm the overreaction.

Headlines in major newspapers on October 31 indicated the seriousness of the panic of the night before. The headline in the New York Daily News proclaimed “Fake Radio ’War’ Stirs Terror Through U.S.” The New York Times headed a front-page article “Radio Listeners in Panic, Taking War Drama as Fact.” The accompanying piece was four columns in length, with four more columns on page 4 giving examples of reactions from all the New York City boroughs and upstate New York. The story ended with a statement from CBS “pointing out that the fictional character of the broadcast had been announced four times and had been previously publicized.” Welles was quoted as expressing “profound regret” and commenting that he had “hesitated about presenting it . . . because ’it was our thought that perhaps people might be bored or annoyed at hearing a tale so improbable.’”

Significance

At the end of the radio broadcast season, Welles and some of his company went to Hollywood. Welles directed and starred in the now highly respected film Citizen Kane (1941). Citizen Kane (film) He followed that success by directing The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), Magnificent Ambersons, The (film) treasured by film buffs for its then-unusual camera angles. He was never to have such great success in Hollywood again, although he acted in a number of films and directed several more.

He directed The Stranger (1946), Stranger, The (film) costarring Loretta Young and Edward G. Robinson, in which he also played a Nazi hiding under a false identity in a small American town. The Lady from Shanghai (1948), Lady from Shanghai, The (film) which he directed and in which he costarred with Rita Hayworth, is remembered for its climactic scene in a maze of mirrors. He both acted in and directed Touch of Evil (1958), Touch of Evil (film) which is considered to be cinematically innovative for its opening scene, shot in one long take as the camera takes the audience through the streets of the town in which the film is set. Later directors borrowed this “long take” opening on many occasions.

Welles acted in a number of later films, his most memorable performance perhaps being in The Third Man (1949), in which his presence was always announced by the film’s distinctive theme song. Among the other films in which he had acting roles were Compulsion (1959), based on the Leopold and Loeb case; Moby Dick (1956), in which he played Father Mapple in a tour de force scene, preaching to the crew of the Pequod before they sailed; The Long, Hot Summer (1958); Is Paris Burning? (1966); A Man for All Seasons (1966); Casino Royale (1967); Catch-22 (1970); and Treasure Island (1972). The version of Macbeth (1948) that he directed and in which he played the title role was a perhaps undeserved failure. Self-exiled to Europe, where he worked for a number of years, he was “forgiven” by Hollywood in 1970, when he received an Academy Award for “supreme artistry and versatility in the creation of motion pictures.” He received a life achievement award from the American Film Institute in 1975. In the later part of his career, Welles appeared frequently on television, particularly on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, where he told interesting stories and performed magic tricks (he was a skilled magician), and in commercials for a winemaker in which he repeated the slogan “We will sell no wine before its time.”

Houseman, who had been codirector of Mercury Theatre, followed Welles to Hollywood and produced a number of films, including The Blue Dahlia (1946), Julius Caesar (1953), Executive Suite (1954), Lust for Life (1956), and This Property Is Condemned (1966). He acted in several films during this period, and for a number of years he taught acting at Juilliard in New York City, training many students who became immensely successful. It was his role as a law professor in the film The Paper Chase (1973), however, followed by the same role in a popular television dramatic series based on the film, that made his face and voice so familiar to the general public that he was cast in a series of television commercials for an investment firm.

Through his work with the Federal Theatre Project, the Mercury Theatre, and his film work, both as director and actor, Orson Welles left a permanent creative mark on American theatrical entertainment. Ironically, what may live longest with the general public is his “panic broadcast.” In the 1980’s, a television docudrama re-created the broadcast, interwoven with the fictional stories of characters who listened to it. Woody Allen included the broadcast in his film Radio Days (1987). In 1970, scriptwriter Howard Koch published a book about the experience, The Panic Broadcast: Portrait of an Event. Panic Broadcast, The (Koch)

Two years after the Mercury Theatre broadcast, Princeton professor Hadley Cantril, Cantril, Hadley funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, studied the reaction of selected interviewees who had been frightened by it. He published the results in a volume titled The Invasion from Mars (1940). Invasion from Mars, The (Cantril) Cantril noted that the political and economic environment of the times was an element that should not be discounted in any consideration of the broadcast’s effects. The radio program took place during the last years of the Great Depression. On the eve of World War II, Americans were accustomed to listening to news broadcast from Europe; they heard Adolf Hitler himself speaking to the German people and their answering cry of “Sieg Heil!” In the movie theaters, they saw newsreels showing German troops. They had vicariously experienced the Spanish Civil War, in which the Fascist forces had “tested the guns” for the invasions of Poland, Czechoslovakia, Holland, Belgium, and France. Americans thus had reason to be apprehensive. Their hearts jumped when they heard the words “We interrupt this program” as they listened to their radios.

A wit said at the time that the panic happened because “all the intelligent people were listening to Charlie McCarthy.” It was not that simple, however. The people who were taken in by the broadcast constituted a cross section of the American citizenry. Many of them missed the opening announcement and had swung into wild action before the repetition of the announcement at the commercial break. Many made some attempt to check on what was actually happening by calling neighbors or family members. If the callers got no answer, their fears were confirmed. If they could not get through to authorities because others were trying to make similar calls, the busy signal confirmed their fears. Some listeners did switch stations and realized the truth. Others who switched and heard nothing of the “invasion” reasoned that the other stations had simply not received word yet. Some of the more eschatological thought that the invasion was the justified end of the world. One man whom Cantril interviewed said that he had been pleased; he hoped his mother-in-law would be scared to death. Another interviewee said that when he was convinced of the reality of the invasion, he was struck by “how pretty all things on earth seemed.”

Cantril concluded that anxiety about impending war was a less important cause of the panic than the “highly disturbed economic conditions many Americans have experienced for the past decade, the consequent unemployment, the prolonged discrepancies between family incomes, the inability of both young and old to plan for the future,” all of which “engendered a widespread feeling of insecurity.” He also noted that Americans had become highly suggestible. War of the Worlds, The (radio drama) Radio programs;The War of the Worlds[War of the Worlds]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brady, Frank. Citizen Welles: A Biography of Orson Welles. New York: Scribner, 1989. Comprehensive biography devotes a large section to the broadcast of The War of the Worlds and its aftermath. Includes bibliographies and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cantril, Hadley. The Invasion from Mars: A Study in the Psychology of Panic. 1940. Reprint. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 2005. Provides an account of the public panic followed by the findings of Cantril’s funded study of some of the listeners and his conclusions. Includes the broadcast script.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Heyer, Paul. The Medium and the Magician: Orson Welles, the Radio Years, 1934-1952. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005. Study of Welles focuses on his years in radio and his influence on the art of radio drama.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Holmsten, Brian, and Alex Lubertozzi, eds. The Complete “War of the Worlds”: Mars’ Invasion of Earth from H. G. Wells to Orson Welles. Naperville, Ill.: Sourcebooks MediaFusion, 2001. Illustrated volume includes the complete text of H. G. Wells’s novel, Koch’s script for the infamous radio program, and discussion of reactions to the program as well as two CDs featuring the original Mercury Theatre broadcast, interviews with Welles and Houseman, and more.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Houseman, John. Run-Through. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1972. Entertaining career memoir includes discussion of Houseman’s work with Welles in the Federal Theatre Project and the Mercury Theatre, including the famous broadcast. Also recounts how the two actor-directors parted ways in Hollywood.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Koch, Howard. As Time Goes By: Memoirs of a Writer. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979. Includes an account of Koch’s involvement with Houseman, Welles, and the Mercury Theatre.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. The Panic Broadcast: Portrait of an Event. Boston: Little, Brown, 1970. The scriptwriter’s account discusses the origin of the script, the night of the broadcast, and the results of the broadcast. Includes the full script, photographs of the studio performance, reproductions of news accounts, and cartoons about the broadcast.

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