Orson Welles' Sketchbook
Because I was once involved in a variety of interplanetary invasion, people often ask me what I think about flying saucers. Well, truthfully, I don't have any opinion at all. I was impressed in reading the other day that a football match in Italy was stopped dead by one of these apparitions. The two teams ceased play and stood staring up at the sky. And I think anything that can stop a football match in Italy must be a little stronger than an optical illusion…
As I say, I was rather closely involved with what purported to be an invasion from Mars. I don't know what was in those saucers, whether it was Martians or not, but we once sent some of them to America, via the radio, in something called The War of the Worlds. I thought you might be interested in hearing something about it.
The Martians themselves looked something like that (above). The War of the Worlds was a broadcast we did based on H.G. Wells' story of the invasion of the world by Martians, a broadcast we did on a regular series of ours of dramatizations of famous books, some of them classics, some of them the more popular sort. We did The War of the Worlds more or less as a change of pace, and I think because we were criticized a good bit by our sound effects people for dabbling in science fiction we made a special effort to make our show as realistic as possible, that is we reproduced all the radio effects, not only sound effects, but…well, we did on the show exactly what would have happened if the world had been invaded.
Had a little music playing, and then an announcer coming on and saying "Excuse me, we interrupt this program to bring you an announcement from Jersey City. Jersey City has just fallen. We take you back to our studio," a little organ music, and then another interruption and so on. We did all of that very carefully, and exactly reproduced, as I said, what would have happened, thinking to make the real thing more effective. But we had no idea (chuckles) how effective it would be, because about halfway through the show as we were continuing with the script in front of us, we saw that there were a great many policemen, and every moment more. Now later we found out that the police were as confused as were, because there wasn't anything they could arrest us for, but there they were, looking fierce, a lot of people talking to other people in dumb show, a very tense atmosphere was generated in the studio. And we thought, well, something's gone wrong, some few people have complained, and have swallowed what we're telling them about the Martians having come to the world, but we didn't know that it wasn't a few people, it was in fact nationwide! I had no idea that I'd suddenly become a sort of…national event.
And it was immediately after our show went off the air that Walter Winchell, who was on a rival network, had heard about how all the telephone lines had been jammed, and all the excitement going on, went on the air on his network, on his program of news, commentary, and said "Mr. And Mrs. America, there is no cause for alarm!! America has not fallen! I repeat, America has not fallen!!" And of course, that was really enough for that network, and by that time there wasn't a phone you could get to…really, anywhere in the States, the highways were jammed with cars going one way or another, those people who were in the cities were going to the hills, and those people who were in the hills were going to the cities. And if you think that this is an exaggeration, it was only a little while ago that I again ran into some workers, some welfare workers, Quakers, Red Cross people who had been up in the Black Hills of Dakota, some five or six weeks after this broadcast, persuading the people to leave the mountains and go back home, because the Martians really hadn't come.
Now, since this event, since, oh, during the years that have gone by since then, I've heard a number of stories about things that happened; some of them may seem hard to believe, but they're all verified, and you'll find them in a very scholarly book Princeton University got out on the subject of mass hysteria, and one of the stories I like best has to do with the Navy. It's wrong to say that I like it best, honestly, it does prey on my conscience. The United States Navy are a great part of it, was in New York harbor at this time. And the sailors, the boys were all on shore leave. And they were all recalled that night for active duty. I've often felt very sorry for them, having to give up their nice holidays, in order to defend America against the Martians. And I've often wondered what it was that the Navy ever found to tell the sailors the next morning.
Then there was a dinner party. Very select and elegant and exclusive dinner party, this is a really true story, I must ask you to believe that. In Long island, the night of this broadcast, which was Halloween eve. Lot of grand people sitting at dinner, and about halfway through dinner, the butler arrived, serving the next course, and said to the host, in an undertone, which carried around the table, "I beg pardon, sir, but, eh, New Jersey has just fallen." Passed the next plate.
Everyone was very contained and polite…nobody panicked. And they waited till the next course, and the butler came around again, and the host said, "Meadows," or whatever his name was, "Eh, what was that you said, Meadows, you said, uh …where'd you hear that?" Meadows said "On the radio, sir," And the host said "Exactly what happened?" And Meadows said "Well, I believe sir, that the greater part of the Atlantic seaboard has capitulated." Passed another plate. Of course, everybody assumed it must be the Communists or something; third round of whatever it was-by the time the baked Alaska came, host said "Meadows, um…have you ascertained who it is that's attacking us?" And Meadows said "I believe it's interplanetary, sir," And at this point, according to my informant, who is highly placed and should be believed, at this point they looked out the window, and there was a falling star. Now I can't vouch for that part of the story, but anyway that's what's told.
Anyway, all kinds of people reacted in all kinds of ways; for example, John Barrymore, the very famous American actor, and this I know to be true, was listening to the broadcast, and although he was a friend of mine, ceased to identify me with the show and believed implicitly that America had fallen to the Martians. And hearing this on his radio, rushed out to his backyard where he kept ten Great Danes in a kennels, and released the dogs, giving them their freedom, crying to them, as they ran in all directions on the compass, "The world has fallen, fend for yourselves!"
And I still meet people, all over the place, everywhere in the world, who've had experiences, bitter or otherwise, as a result of our little…experiment (chuckles) in broadcasting. Just the other day I was coming here to England, on the ferry, and some people were in the next compartment on the boat, the boat train, said to me, (imitating man) "Eh heh, there you are, Orson, well, you sure scared us, we were on our honeymoon, my wife and I." I'm sorry to say they looked a very ancient couple, but there they were, "We were on our honeymoon, and had a little portable radio, we were out there by the lake, and heard what you said, we come right back home. Spoiled the honeymoon, but glad to see you, Orson," That kind of thing has followed me all over the world since then.
I'll never forget, as long as I live, I'll never forget, the first awful moments after the broadcast, when, as I say, the police were ringing us around, and the atmosphere was unbearably tense, and such vice presidents as were left on the network, motioned me quickly to the telephones, we were just off the air, and said, "You must answer some of the phones," and I picked up one, and I remember the first voice, which said "Hello," I said "Hello," one is used you know, after a broadcast, to talking to people, sometimes they want to tell you they didn't like the show, sometimes they say they did, want to thank you, and I went say, "Thank you very much Mr. Smith for enjoy- He says "Hello- hello?" I said, "Hello?" He said (distraught tone) "Uhhehhh, my wife is down in the church and all my children are out there praying I wish you'd…" And I said "What? Beg your pardon, sir-" He said "Is your name H.G. Wells?" And I said "No, no, this is Orson Welles," and he says "I don't care which relative you are, will you get my wife and children away from the church because they're-" and I said "Well it must be very nice to have them so religious, sir," And he said, "Well it isn't a question of being religious, I want somebody back in my--what are we gonna do?"
And a lot of people wanted to know what to do, as a matter of fact they were phoning us from all over the place. Some of them reporting that they'd seen Martians, landing, in their backyards, and asking for advice. There were others that claimed to have been attacked, personally, by Martians. The whole experience was extremely intense…and was for some, oh four or five years later, I was on the air, doing a show, very polite show, with a lot of people, choruses singing, and so on. Well that's a typical, solemn Sunday broadcast on commercial sound radio in America. At the time there was a full choir, and orchestra, and everything else, and for some reason, at this time this particular Sunday that I've illustrated, we were doing a patriotic broadcast, with excerpts from Walt Whitman, and I don't know what else, Norman Corwin and all the rest of it. Choirs humming melodically and so on, and I was in the midst of some hymn of praise to the American cornfields or something of the kind, when suddenly, a gentleman darted into the radio studio, held up his hand, and said "We interrupt this broadcast to bring you an announcement: Pearl Harbor has just been attacked." And of course this very serious and terrible news was never believed. Not for hours, by anybody in America, because they all said "Well there he goes again, really, rather bad taste, it was funny once, but not a second time."
I suppose we had it coming to us, because in fact we weren't as innocent as we meant to be, when we did the Martian broadcast. We were fed up with the way in which everything that came over this new magic box, the radio, was being swallowed. People, you know, do suspect what they read in the newspapers and what people tell them, but when the radio came, and I suppose now television, anything that came through that new machine was believed. So in a way our broadcast was an assault on the credibility of that machine; we wanted to people to understand that they shouldn't take any opinion pre-digested, and they shouldn't swallow everything that came through the tap, whether it was radio or not, but as I say, it was only a partial experiment, we had no idea the extent of the thing, and I certainly personally had no idea what it would mean to me. As in fact, my life, I'm now going back to the time of the actual broadcast, my life was threatened. There was somebody, as a matter of fact, who kept telephoning about every quarter of an hour, saying, "You will die on the opening night of your play," as a matter of fact the opening night of my play was the night after the broadcast; it was a play called Danton's Death, we did in my theater, and which incidentally was a horrible flop, and at the end of the play I had to stand in front the of the curtain and deliver a speech in the character of Saint-Juste, on the subject of something, I think it was the French Revolution. Anyway, I had to be alone, in front of the curtain, in a blazing white spotlight, and I promise you I've never been so terrified in my life. And I had to come out in front of this audience, waiting, for the sound of a pistol being cocked, some angry victim of our broadcast shooting at me. Deliver this speech, but what actually, (chuckles) but what actually happened was, as I stood in front of the curtain, there was a little spill from the spotlight and I could see the front row in the audience, there was man sitting in the front row, who looked up at me -- Did I say the play was a flop, people didn't like it, and they're probably right -- man who looked up at me as I opened my mouth to speak raised his hand, looked at his wristwatch, looked at me, and went (sighs loudly). Folded his arms. Well, I assure you, I would rather have been shot…at least that's the way I felt about it…