The pressure of performance can be a scary thing. It can create immeasurable stress, but also near-flawless diamonds that are remembered forever. This is the Forgotten History of the Chaotic Broadcast.
The show was going to be a disaster. Everyone knew it, from the frazzled writer who had spent days reworking the dull script into something usable to the overworked star, who barely had time to rehearse his lines. They were on the air in just a few hours, and they were certain they were going to fail miserably.
Their show had been on the radio for just 17 weeks, and without much of a budget or a title sponsor, they knew that the CBS network was likely to cancel them. They had a loyal audience, but it was small. The listening public wanted drama, action, and suspense, not the tired adaptations of literary classics that they produced each week.
By late October, the star knew that his show’s days were numbered if he didn’t do something dramatically different. He found an old British novel to adapt, but instead of performing a straightforward play, he wanted to try a new style—something that would make the audience feel as though they were a part of the story.
He tasked a newly hired writer with bringing his vision to life, but he only had six days: The show aired live on Sunday night. The writer struggled immensely, primarily because he found the source material to be boring and silly. He called the producer and said he just couldn’t make the adaptation work. Would he be able to convince the star to pick a new novel to adapt.
The star, though, was busy on another project. He was an immensely successful theater actor and producer and rehearsals for his new stage show were taking up nearly all his time. He had already made peace with the fact that his struggling radio show would be canceled, and he instead put in long hours at his theater.
The producer couldn’t get ahold of his star but, realizing that it was too late to adapt another novel, lied to the writer and said the star was dead set on doing this story. Just keep working on it, he said. The writer worked through the night, abandoning his typewriter for a legal pad because writing by hand was quicker.
The following morning, he presented his first draft for the cast to rehearse. It was a nightmare. The first act was stiff and poorly paced, while the second act was little more than a series of dull monologues. The star’s only advice was to make the first act more exciting and realistic before hustling back to his theater.
With the broadcast just three days away, the writer worked around the clock, but to no avail. Everyone believed it would be a disaster. When a critic asked a member of the cast what that Sunday’s story would be, the actor replied, “Just between us, it’s lousy. It will probably bore you to death.”
On Sunday afternoon, just hours before broadcast time, the star arrived at the studio for final rehearsals. He was furious. The script didn’t work, the pacing was all off, it was, well, lousy. But he could finally give it his full attention. He rewrote much of the opening scenes to slow them down, allowing the action sequences that came later to have more of an impact.
He lengthened the first act so far that the show would not take its typical commercial break at 8:30. This was almost unheard of: Every show took its commercial break at the bottom of the hour. Only breaking news events did not. But the star didn’t care; this was the only way the broadcast would work. It would defy convention and audience expectations. It had to, or they would all likely be unemployed by Monday morning.
As the star frantically worked, the writer at long last fully understood his vision and helped him flesh out the new scenes he was adding. The cast, who had no choice but to learn new lines on the fly, read them with a frantic passion that had been lacking in earlier rehearsals. After the final one, finished just minutes before showtime, they were ready. They had something that they could all be proud of; something that might not be a disaster after all.
Five seconds to showtime. The studio announcer cleared his throat. Three, two, one.
“The Columbia Broadcasting System and its affiliated stations present Orson Welles and the Mercury Radio Theater on the air in ‘The War of the Worlds’ by H.G. Wells,” he said.
Before the first act had even concluded, it was clear that the show was a massive hit. It was exciting, suspenseful, and so terrifying that some listeners even thought it was real and called their local stations and the police convinced that Martians were actually invading New Jersey.
The following morning, Welles held a press conference to apologize for any unnecessary concern his ultra-realistic, news report-style storytelling had caused. Stories of widespread panic were grossly overstated, but Welles didn’t care. His broadcast of “The War of the Worlds” was far from a disaster: It saved his radio show, made him a national superstar, and is still regarded to this day as one of the greatest radio broadcasts of all time.