Nothing in showbiz ever goes as planned, especially when Orson Welles is involved. 2,833 words. Part One. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
New York City — October 25, 1938
Orson Welles’ baritone voice caused the half-empty gin bottles to vibrate against the mirrors in the St. Regis hotel bar where he was a regular. “Hey, Mike, a martini for Miss… What was your name, again, my lovely?“ he asked the beautiful redhead seated next to him.
“Dalrymple, silly,” she replied, pretending to slap his cheek.
“Miss Dalrymple Silly!” Orson repeated to the bartender. “And two olives, Mike… one for the lass and one for the scurvy rat nibbling on your shoelace.”
The reed-thin bartender in bow-tie and checkered vest looked offended. “We ain’t got no rats in here, bud. I know ‘cause I clean up every morning.” He plucked the menu out of Welles’ hand, “And no more double steak dinners and pistachio ice cream until you pay your bill.”
Welles smirked and returned his undivided attention to the swirl of ginger at his side. He stared at her fair features and emerald eyes. The redhead placed a finger on her chin. “I haven’t seen a Martian that I know of, hon… Although I have an uncle who is friends with some blind Venetians. I mean, he makes Venetian blinds.”
Welles titled his head back and roared with laughter. “Excellent! I knew you’d be fun! A gorgeous actress with wit. You don’t find too many of those prowling the theater district, my dear.” He lowered his voice. “Now, what do you imagine a Martian would look like?”
“Oh, I suppose green,” the young woman replied. “With six limbs and a big eye in the middle of its forehead.”
“How does it procreate?”
“Through one of the six limbs?”
Welles placed the palms of his hands together and slowly widened them apart as far as his arms could stretch. At that moment, a tall man with a dour expression and receding hairline and double-breasted suit and striped tie walked into the bar and approached Welles and the redhead.
“I thought I’d find you here,” the man said to Welles while giving the redhead a puzzled look. “Do you know what time it is, Orson?”
Welles slung his arm around the man and made the introductions. “Miss Dalrymple Silly, I’d like you to meet my friend and business colleague, the great British Jewish Romanian actor, director and fellow genius, Mr. John Houseman. Did I forget anything, John?”
“Pleased,” Houseman nodded. “The writers are getting impatient, Orson. I know you usually pay us no mind at this juncture. And then you put in your two cents worth when we need it most near the end. But the rehearsal is 36 hours away, the broadcast is Sunday night and there’s still much work to accomplish.”
Welles swiveled on the bar stool to face his producer. “But you know very well I’ve been immersed in the stage production of Danton’s Death.”
“Yes, I can see that,” Houseman said, shooting a glance at the redhead. “But it can wait. That doesn’t open until next week.” Houseman thrust a script into Welles’ hands. “Read this. It’s a draft from Koch and his assistant, Annie. Poor Koch is tearing his hair out because he thinks nobody’s going to believe that Martians are invading America.”
Welles sighed as the bartender placed a martini with two olives before the redhead. “Does this mean I won’t meet a Martian?” she pouted.
Orson patted her wrist and plucked an olive out of her glass and placed it on his tongue. “Soon, my dear, all of us will be meeting them.”
“My first name is Rose,” she said, perturbed.
He paused and then turned to her, wistfully whispering, “Not Dalrymple?”
“I said Rose, bud.”
Two days later, Welles entered a St. Regis hotel room to meet with Houseman, Howard E. Koch and his secretary and uncredited co-writer Anne Froelick along with Broadway actor Paul Stewart, the show’s rehearsal director and newly named associate producer. They were all waiting for Welles’ approval.
“Listen, I have to do more on Danton’s Death. So I’ll give you all a few minutes of my time now,” Welles explained. He took a seat as Stewart put the recording on the machine and they all listened to the rehearsal.
When it was over, Welles suddenly jumped to his feet and screamed, “Dull… Dull… DULL!” He began pacing the room relentlessly, then stopped to pick up a pipe in an ashtray along with a tobacco tin. He lit the cherry mixture and watched the dancing flame bow courteously each time he inhaled. He took a couple sips of scotch to soothe his nerves.
“So maybe we should scrap War Of The Worlds and do Lorna Doone instead,” Houseman said. “It’s a boring English romance but it’s all we have right now.”
The room fell silent. Then a strange smile emerged on Welles’ face. “Why the dour expressions, fellas? Might I remind you that we have four days left before the broadcast. Enough time for War Of The Worlds.”
“I just think that it’s not going to work,” Houseman insisted. “Then our ratings will be even more dismal than ever.”
“John, do you honestly think that an actor as wooden as Charlie McCarthy is worthy of higher ratings on Sunday nights than my Mercury players?” Welles asked.
“Charlie McCarthy has sponsors, Orson. We don’t.”
Welles twirled his finger in the air. “But we have H.G. Wells this week!”
“Don’t count on it,” Koch grunted.
Welles looked bemused. “I admit that a talking puppet is intriguing just on the face of it, Howard. But, good God, here we have a science fiction classic. Why, Wells has rockets crashing into the earth! He has cylinders embedding in the countryside! He has Martians with eyes like—“
“Wet leather,” Koch interjected.
“Yes! Wet leather! And all these tentacles!” Welles lifted his arm and wiggled his fingers in front of Koch’s face. “And people innocently believing that they can somehow bring peace offerings! And there is someone waving a white flag, as I recall in the book. What happens?”
Koch shrugged. “They get pulverized.”
“Right!” Welles raised his pipe to eye level and shook it in Koch’s face. “And then comes the moment that truly terrifies the masses!”
“The heat ray.” Koch nodded.
“The heat ray! And then everything is pulverized!”
“I just said that.”
Welles puffed on his pipe.
“Orson, we’ve updated the book,” reminded Housman. “This is 1938, and the style is too antiquated. And the ending is boring, as you’d say.”
“Then why don’t you think of something to fix that?” Welles suggested.
Houseman and Koch and Stewart exchanged glances.
“Our chief fear, Orson, is that the show could wind up sounding ridiculous. We don’t want to be the object of derision,” Houseman said.
“Right,” Koch agreed. “As it is, the book is wild enough. People standing beside a pit and all of a sudden they get zapped with a heat ray. And then everybody goes stumbling through the heather to get away.”
“No heather is the only problem, eh?” Welles chuckled.
“Will you get serious?” Koch demanded of the director.
“I am serious, Howard. Everything I do, I take seriously. And I assure you that I take my script for this book seriously.”
“Your script?” Koch was dumbstruck at Welles’ brazen attempt to take credit for writing the adaptation that Koch had been working on for days. In fact, Welles rarely had any creative input into any of the radio shows.
Houseman defused the tension. “Orson, you pulled it all together. You are the magician that balances the act and makes it work. We need you.”
Welles set the pipe down, sipped his drink, and reached his hand down into the cleavage of Miss Dalrymple Silly. “I’ll get back to you in due time. I now bid you good night.” And he and the redhead left the room.
The others got down to business and began brainstorming again over the script. By Friday afternoon, the work-in-progress was sent to CBS so that the censors could okay it. To Houseman’s relief, the only changes demanded were the names of certain buildings in New York City. By Saturday, Stewart was rehearsing sound effects, again without Welles being present, and working on simulating crowd noise, cannons firing, and even ships loaded with lucky survivors leaving the docks.
Late that night, Welles phoned the CBS Studios and managed to get hold of a soundman. “How did it go?” the director asked about the rehearsal.
“It just didn’t work,” the soundman replied. “It just fell flat.”
It was now Sunday, October 30, on the day of The Mercury Theatre On The Air broadcast. As the clock ticked down to 8 p.m. air time, Welles swept into the CBS Studios like a sirocco to find chaos everywhere. As always, he felt as if he was the only creative capable of pulling off the broadcast even if it meant having to do everything himself — writing, producing, directing. Right before they went on the air, he was like a dervish and put everything together confident it would all come out brilliantly. So the scene was typical of The Mercury Theatre broadcast. People were yelling, throwing scripts, cursing, kicking doors. Engulfing this tumultuous stew was the orchestra tuning up. Violinists plucking strings. A pianist playing relentless renditions of classical music.
“There you are!” actor Ray Collins said to Welles. “I have concerns.”
“It’s Farmer Wilmuth. I’m debating how he would react, how any of us would react, upon seeing Martians. Nobody has ever seen a Martian before?”
“And if you had, you might go mute with fear, Ray. And then where would our radio audience be?”
“No need to be sarcastic, Orson.”
“Ray, you’ve seen movies and read comic books featuring space creatures, haven’t you? And by now you’ve read The War Of The Worlds. But I doubt that Farmer Wilmuth has. That’s the point. These rural types have no reference to that. They believe anything we tell them.”
Welles politely parted company with Collins and headed over to Houseman. “John, we need to speak. How is the script?”
“It’s our last-ditch effort.” Houseman grabbed Orson’s arm. “Readick wants you to hear something.” Houseman found Frank Readick, the actor who would portray reporter Carl Phillips in the broadcast that night. The three men went into a sound booth and shut the door behind them.
“I was listening to a recording of the Hindenburg crash,” Readick started. “I went over it again and again. And I think I can duplicate the reporting.”
Readick turned on the recording and the voice of Herb Morrison filled the booth. “Well, here it comes, ladies and gentlemen; we’re out now, outside of the hangar. And what a great sight it is, a thrilling one, just a marvelous sight. It’s coming down out of the sky, pointed directly towards us and toward the mooring mast… The back motors of the ship are just holding it, just enough to keep it from – It burst into flames! Get out of the way! Get out of the way! Get this Charley! Get this Charley! It’s burning and it’s crashing! It’s crashing terrible!”
Welles remained silent about how gripping that newsman’s live commentary had been, and turned on his heels and left the sound booth.
Then the director gathered the cast , grabbed a script and, with a pencil in hand, began giving orders that would make the live radio drama sound like a Martian invasion in Grover’s Mill, N.J., as ground zero. “At the beginning, what I’m going to do is set the scene as dramatically as I can and begin with some overarching remarks about how, in the early years of the 20th Century, the wourld was being watched by intelligences greater than our own… Okay, in this scene, remember the crowd needs to shout with awe right here… Now, go down a ways, and at this point where Phillips says he’ll be right back, we’re going to fade into the piano… Got it? Now, in the part where the officer and gunner are firing, I want coughs after these lines because there’s black smoke coming near and they have to put on gas masks. Understand?”
Welles continued barking commands as the clock ticked down to air time. It was crazy. It was nerve-wracking. It was brilliant.
At 8 p.m. in the CBS Studios, the strains of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor began and Orson Welles launched his narration.
Grover’s Mill, New Jersey – October 30, 8 p.m.
“Margaret, why don’t we turn off this Charlie McCarthy show?” Ed Remple said to his wife. “I’ve heard enough of this music already.”
His wife reached out and turned the radio dial and then stopped. “Listen to this, Ed. There seems to be something going on. News.”
“Ladies and gentlemen… Am I on?… Ladies and gentlemen, here I am, back of a stone wall that adjoins Mr. Wilmuth’s garden. From here I get a sweep of the whole scene. I’ll give you every detail as long as I can talk. As long as I can see. More state police have arrived. They’re drawing up a cordon in front….”
“Turn it up,” Ed said. “What’s that they’re saying?”
“It’s a reporter, Ed. He’s saying that police have arrived and they’re studying some object.”
“…More state police have arrived. They’re drawing up a cordon in front of the pit, about thirty of them. No need to push the crowd back now. They’re willing to keep their distance. The captain is conferring with someone. We can’t quite see who. Oh yes, I believe it’s Professor Pierson. Yes, it is. Now they’ve parted. The Professor moves around one side, studying the object, while the captain and two policemen advance with something in their hands. I can see it now. It’s a white handkerchief tied to a pole… a flag of truce. If those creatures even know what that means, what anything means! Wait…”
“Margaret, did he just say ‘creatures?’”
“Wonder what he’s talking about?”
“Don’t have a clue. Sounds like someone is surrendering.”
“Turn it up. I’m having trouble hearing.”
“A humped shape is rising out of the pit. I can make out a small beam of light against a mirror…What’s that? There’s a jet of flame springing from the mirror…”
“Ed, there’s some kind of invasion!”
“Damn it, woman, keep quiet and let me hear the radio!”
“I’m going to call the neighbors and see if they know anything about this. Good Lord, was that an explosion I just heard?”
“I think it was! Something coming from the radio just blew up!”
“They’re saying there’s a fire in the pastures and it’s spreading to barns and woods and automobile gas tanks! Ed, what’s going on? I’m scared!”
Her husband ran to the front window. “Don’t see nothing. You stay right there. I’m going out and take a look-see.”
“Ed, you might be killed!”
He walked out on his front porch, but the farmland and road seemed tranquil. He couldn’t hear any explosions and didn’t see smoke rising from any fires. He scratched his forehead. “What in tarnation—“
“Ed, come in here!”
He rushed back into the living room and returned in front of the radio.
“Mars?” Ed leaned toward the radio. “Did that fella just say Mars?”
“Oh, this is frightening. This is end of the world,” Margaret trembled.
“The Martians is coming!” Ed jumped to his feet and grabbed a shotgun off the gun rack. He loaded the weapon and placed a handful more shells in his pocket. “I’m going to find what in blazes is going on here in Grover’s Mill. And if I run into the Martians, they’re in for a scrap!”
Margaret ran over and wrestled Ed for the shotgun.
“Get back, woman! The town needs me!”
The shotgun boomed, and the grandfather clock split in two and began bonging repeatedly.
And with that, Ed ran out the front door and disappeared into the stillness of the autumn night leaving his terrified wife to lock the doors, secure the windows and continue monitoring the bizarre goings-on being described by frantic voices over the public airwaves.
New York City — October 30, 9 p.m. shortly after the broadcast
Police flooded the CBS Studios building and forced all The Mercury Theatre players into an upstairs room and locked the door behind them. “It’s for your own good. It’s for your own safety,” a sergeant told them. In another part of the studio, CBS employees began destroying scripts of the broadcast. At a news conference, Welles struck an angelic pose for the press photographers.
Czechoslovakia – March 15, 1939
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is Peter J. Simons of the Beaumont Global Radio Network. Today, I’m standing here on a highway in Czechoslovakia and I’m watching German troops moving into Bohemia and Moravia. So far, they are meeting little or no resistance. As far as the eye can see, there is a line of Panzer tanks rumbling down the road. The German invasion shows no signs of letting up—“