The Night Orson Welles Thought He Wrecked His Career

Orson Welles fights Martians in scene from the Orson Welles: Warrior of the Worlds graphic novel
Scene from the 2020 graphic novel Orson Welles: Warrior of the Worlds

While Orson Welles was broadcasting the Mercury Theater production of The War of the Worlds, he didn't have the slightest notion that he was frightening hundreds of people into conniption fits. It was only when he emerged from the studio, to find the building surrounded by police cars, blue-coats swarming through the corridors and brandishing their nightsticks, and irate CBS officials on the verge of apoplexy, that he realized the enormity of his Halloween broadcast.

Then he thought, along with many of his listeners, that the end of the world had come. The only difference was that it seemed to be the end of his own little private world of phenomenal success at the age of 23.

The morning after the broadcast, after a night which -- if you looked at his unshaven, worried face -- had obviously been sleepless, he turned up at CBS to make abject apologies to reporters, cameramen, and newsreel photographers. He was still sure he'd ruined himself. "If I'd planned to wreck my career," he told everyone who looked sympathetic, and some who didn't, "I couldn't have gone about it better."

But the wreck of his career turned out instead to be a nice fat contract for himself and the Mercury Theater troupe -- a contract with Campbell's Soups at a reported salary of $7,500 a week. If he'd planned to put himself right into the big money, he couldn't have succeeded more gloriously.

That's one unforeseen result of the most talked-of broadcast of this or many years. But there were other results just as unexpected. In fact, if you can make one statement about that famous program, it is this: All of its results were exactly the opposite of what everyone thought they'd be. And since everyone thought the results would be bad, the strange fact gradually emerges that the scare was a pretty healthy thing for all concerned, after all.

Take what it's done for the young genius who was the central figure in all the commotion -- Orson Welles.

Up until the night of October 30, you could have mentioned his name anywhere in the United States except New York without drawing a spark of interest from nine out of every 10 people. The tenth person might have known that he had something to do with a Sunday-night radio program.

Yet for the last four years Welles has been an important radio actor. He's sent cold shivers up and down your back many a time if you've ever listened to The Shadow programs, in which he played the title role until this season. You've heard him acting in the March of Tme and many another commercial show. You've even heard him reading poetry in the pauses between a lady announcer's cooking recipes. But that wasn't the sort of thing that would make a dent in the public's consciousness. Radio actors, unless they hire high-powered press agents, don't become famous.

On Broadway, he was well-known, all right. He's been the Main Stem's wonder boy ever since he produced a Federal Theater version of Shakespeare's Macbeth with a cast of black actors. He followed this up with another Federal Theater hit or two, then branched out to become director, star, stage manager, scenic designer and general handyman for his own Mercury Theater. But Broadway isn't America, and it's doubtful if all his excellent work on the New York stage would have ever made him matter much to the rest of the country.

And then -- an accident, an innocent mistake, a blunder ... and everybody in the country knew who he was. Overnight, the attention of 12 million people was focused on this young man, as it would never have been if he'd just gone on producing and starring in good radio shows and plays.

Norton Russell in Radio Mirror, February 1939

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