Would the American radio public believe Martians were attacking? Or Nazis? 2,086 words. Part Two. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Berlin, Germany — March 1938
“Ladies and gentlemen… Am I on?… Ladies and gentlemen, this is Peter J. Simons of the Beaumont Global Radio Network. I am looking down Unter den Linden, a major east-west thoroughfare in Berlin. As far as the eye can see, there are German Waffen-SS — a paramilitary force under the command of Heinrich Himmler —marching in a parade. I can hear the trump-trump-trump of their boots as they goose-step in unison holding aloft flags with the familiar Nazi swastika. Crowds line the grand boulevard — men, women and even little children — all thrusting out their arms in a rigid “Heil Hitler” salute. There seems to be some sort of commotion up ahead. Nazi thugs are surrounding a man on the ground and they are slamming his head into the curb. It’s terrible, terrible… I’m being given orders by a Nazi official to leave the area. But I’m an American journalist! And now more violence is breaking out. A woman who came to the man’s defense, her face is covered with blood after she was beaten senseless… Now I know why the Nazis invading the Sudetenland has Americans on edge that they could be invaded, too.”
London — September 30, 1938
Dignified before the gathering of supporters at the airport to greet his return, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain stepped off the plane to cheers and stood in front of the microphone to talk about his meeting with German Chancellor Adoph Hitler. “I believe it is peace for our time.”
A few days later, in the House of Commons, British MP Winston Churchill rose to deliver his response to the Munich Agreement. “Do not suppose that this is the end. This is only the beginning of the reckoning. This is only the first sip, the first foretaste of a bitter cup which will be proffered to us year by year unless by a supreme recovery of moral health and martial vigor, we arise again and take our stand for freedom as in the olden time.”
New York City — July 11, 1938
Orson Welles sat in the dimly-lit bar near the St. Regis Hotel holding an unlit cigar. The 23-year-old actor, director, writer, and producer was celebrating the premiere of the live radio dramas he created, each a weekly hour-long show presenting classic literary works performed by his celebrated Mercury Theatre repertory company.
Naturally, he wasn’t alone. A statuesque blonde, her cheeks freshly rouged, draped an arm around his slumping shoulders and stirred him.
“Tell me,” he asked her, “have you ever seen a Martian?”
Grover’s Mill, New Jersey — July 11, 1938
"Hurry up, Margaret. The program is about to start," Ed Remple said to his sullen wife, Margaret, as he sat beside their Zenith Stratosphere radio with its walnut closing doors and black nine-inch airplane dial. It was the couple’s biggest splurge next to the Chevrolet parked out in the garage. The set had cost $750 — about a third of their total savings, they figured — but the Remples didn’t go out much. Their kids were grown now and off living their own lives. So the church-going pair sat at home nights listening to the radio dramas and comedies. They enjoyed radio programs like Fibber McGee And Molly, Gang Busters, The Jell-O Program Starring Jack Benny. They also listened to news bulletins coming from Europe about the intensifying threat of another world war.
Tonight, they began listening to an anthology series out of New York City, The Mercury Theatre On The Air. The Remples sat enthralled by the first show, a production of Dracula based on the Bran Stoker book. Through the Zenith’s speaker come the baying of wolves, the sounds of footsteps, the breaking of glass. “Count Dracula was close to me, and I could see him over my shoulder, but there was no reflection of him in the mirror. It was blank—“
“I can’t stand any more of this!” a scared Margaret screamed, throwing up her hands and fleeing to the kitchen.
“Oh, come back!” Ed called out. “It’s just a radio program. You know very well there ain’t no such thing as Count Dracula!”
“I think I hear wolves howling out in the pasture, Ed.”
“Those aren’t wolves, Margaret. Those are your sisters. They’re enough to make the hairs on the back of anyone’s neck stand at attention!”
Ed grabbed his jacket and, covering the lower half of his face, crept up behind his wife in the kitchen. “I am Count Dracula!” he whispered in her ear. She let out another shriek. Ed doubled over in laughter.
But there was no laughing right after as the couple listened with grim expressions to the violent news coming out of Berlin. This was real.
“I’m worried, Ed,” Margaret said, wringing her wrinkled hands.
“You don’t think I’m not?” Ed replied, removing a pipe from the pocket of his cardigan sweater and reaching for the tin of Prince Albert. “Pretty soon, you mark my words, them Nazi bastards will be marching right up our road to our own front doorstep and then what’ll we do?”
New York City — October 24
Howard E. Koch was still groggy from all the work he had previously poured into the first draft for H.G. Wells’ War Of The Worlds show scheduled for the Halloween broadcast that Sunday night. But, try as he might, he couldn’t get a handle on the script just 36 hours before rehearsals were to begin. Seated next to him on the sofa were Anne Froelick, a secretary, part-time model and aspiring writer, and John Houseman, co-founder of The Mercury Theatre and its radio producer.
“Let’s see if we can get a handle on this thing,” said Houseman. “Where do you say we’re going to place this Martian invasion again?”
“In Grover’s Mill, New Jersey,” Koch replied.
“How did you happen to come upon that town exactly?”
“The way I see it, the Martian cylinders have to crash in the middle of the countryside. So I pulled out a road map and I closed my eyes and… Presto! I landed on some little village west of Trenton that nobody’s ever heard of. That’s why I think it works, John. See, it’s rural enough that only a few people initially get wind of the fact that the martians are there. Just like in Wells’ novel. Then, soon, all hell breaks loose.”
“I like it,” Houseman said, enthused again. “What do you think, Annie?”
“Works for me,” she replied.
“But I still think it’s crazy,” Koch groused. “Nobody is going to believe that Martians are about to attack.”
Houseman chuckled. “What? Believe that little green men are invading New Jersey? Not a chance. This is the 20th Century. I’m glad we’re also invading New York City and bringing things up to date. Much better than the book’s Victorian England. Let’s work on this some more. And don’t get dispirited, Howard. It’ll work, you’ll see.”
Froelick sat down at the typewriter and flexed her fingers. “Ready when you two are.”
“Okay,” Koch said, pacing now, “I think we should start this like a regular radio broadcast. Everything serene as can be. Have it come from the Meridian Room in the Park Plaza in downtown New York. And there’s an orchestra playing.”
“Playing what?” Houseman asked.
“I was thinking something Spanish called ‘La Cumparsita’ and played by Ramon Raquello and his orchestra.”
“I like it. And then what?”
“And then we suddenly break in with a news flash.”
“That’s good,” Houseman said. “It has the feel of a real emergency.”
Koch continued pacing the room. “We issue a special bulletin. Maybe have a professor of some kind talking about the strange things he’s observing through the university’s telescope on the planet Mars.”
“Then we throw it back to the music, eh?”
“Right, John. More orchestra. Then we break in for another news bulletin. The music abruptly stops… and we’re off to the races.”
As the evening wore on, the script for H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds took on more shape. Froelick pointed at the page she had just typed. “I love this announcer’s narration, Howard. The part where he says, ‘The monster is now in control of the middle section of New Jersey and has effectively cut the state through its center—‘“
“And all the phone lines are down,” Koch said. “Maybe the trains aren’t running, too.”
“And the railroad tracks should be torn up,” she suggested.
“Good! Good! Now you’re thinking! And we need to have the highways clogged with frantic people—“
“Trying to flee!” Froelick exclaimed, then glanced over at Koch. “Um, should we have some government official reacting to all of this? After all, if Martians are landing in New Jersey, you’d think maybe the governor or somebody would take notice?”
“Governor, hell. This is a national emergency, Annie!”
“You mean, the President of the United States gets involved?”
“Well, how about the Secretary of the Interior?”
Froelick was typing furiously as Koch said, “Okay, we get the Secretary of the Interior to say something like, ‘Citizens of the nation. I shall not try to conceal the gravity of the situation that confronts the country—‘“
Houseman interjected. “Keep it going.”
The hours ticked by and the three made grueling progress. As dawn slowly crept over the nearby skyscrapers, Froelick wearily kept typing.
“How’s this?” Koch asked at one point. “A radio announcer describes a battle… Let’s say scout planes from Langham Field in Virginia are being attacked by three Martian machines visible above the treetops.”
Houseman tugged his right earlobe. “Which direction are they moving, Howard?”
“North… towards Somerville.”
The producer walked over to the window and drew open the drapes. “This is what we need. Sunlight. Now, what’s next, Howard?”
Koch showed him some pages he had written previously. Houseman read over the dialogue. “It may work,” the producer approved.
“The scouting planes act as—“ Koch snapped his fingers looking for the right word.
“Guides?” Houseman said.
“Good, John! Good!”
“However, maybe we should have the announcer interrupt the broadcast at this point and say he’s just been handed another bulletin.”
Koch nodded in agreement. “Annie, type that in.”
“But we can’t just have the announcer describing things,” Froelick pointed out. “Shouldn’t we take the listener right into the action?”
Koch frowned. “What if we go live to, say, some military officer in the field. And the officer is supplying a gunner with ranges for the gun to fire. You know, like ‘Range, thirty-two meters.”
Houseman looked puzzled. “Is that the range to hit a Martian invasion force?”
“How the hell do I know?” shrugged Koch.
Froelick chimed in. “We should have explosions. Remember, this is radio. Everything is sound.”
“Right,” Koch said. “Put this down, Annie. ‘Thirty-seven degrees… Fire!’” Koch thrust his fist in the air. “Boom!”
When those scenes were completed, the two writers and producer retreated to the couch and gulped down their umpteenth cups of java.
“Okay, now on to the battle to New York,” Koch said. “The place is a mad house.”
“More than usual?” remarked a bemused Houseman.
“There are Martian cylinders falling everywhere. People are singing a hymn. Maybe while down at the harbor. And they’re crowded onto overloaded boats. And the boats are pulling away from the docks!”
Froelick returned to the typewriter. Koch went over and peered over her shoulder. “And then we break,” he said, patting her arm.
Froelick stopped and looked up at him. ‘Huh?”
“A commercial break. You know, advertising pays the bills. How about something straightforward like, ‘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. The performance will continue after intermission. This is the Columbia Broadcasting System.”
“But won’t that give it all away?” Froelick asked.
“Hell, the listeners will be so busy imagining Martians blasting their way through Manhattan that no one will realize there’s a commercial.”
Froelick finished typing the pages and then collapsed, her head resting on the keys, as Houseman and Koch sat stone-faced on the sofa. Together, the two men looked over the still unfinished script.
“I don’t know, John,” Koch said grimly. “I still say nobody’s ever going to believe this. I mean, people will be expecting the show to be just the way H.G. Wells wrote it, won’t they? What does you-know-who think?”
“I’ll run it by Orson,” Houseman said. “Maybe he’s got some ideas.”