Monday, October 24, 1938. We’re sitting next to Howard Koch as he drives back to New York through New Jersey after visiting his parents on his day off. Who is Howard Koch?
Well, early in the autumn season of The Mercury Theater on the Air, the adaptation process got to be too much for John Houseman. He was forced to condense large victorian novels into 60 minute radio dramas in three working days each week.
The first Sunday evening adaptation was Julius Caesar on September 11th. That was followed by Jane Eyre, Sherlock Holmes, and Oliver Twist. Around this time Howard Koch walked into Houseman’s office asking him for a writing job. Houseman hired him on the spot for $75 a week, grateful to turn the script writing duties over.
Koch’s first script was an adaptation of Hell on Ice, which aired on October 9th. It was from a book by Edward Ellsberg about the disastrous attempt by George W. De Long to reach the North Pole in 1879. The story told how De Long’s ship, the Jeannette, was trapped in an icepack. Only a handful of men survived, enduring horrendous conditions for nearly two years.
The following two shows were adaptations of Book Tarkington’s Seventeen and Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 days. The last of which aired last night.
Orson Welles wants a spook show… something appropriate for Halloween. He’s decided to dust off H.G. Wells 40-year-old science fiction fantasy, The War of the Worlds.
Koch is worried. The narrative tone of the novel is hopelessly dated, but he has his assignment. Orson has given him some general guidelines. He wants the story to be told in a series of news bulletins, with cutaways to first-person narrative.
This won’t be any cutting job. Koch will have to write the entire story over as a modern tale. He’s only got six days to do it. On the way home, Koch stops to pick up a road map.
It’s now Tuesday the 25th. We’re back at Howard Koch’s New York apartment. He’s opening the map. Koch closes his eyes and drops his pencil point. It’s landed in a village called Grover’s Mill in New Jersey. This is where the martians will land.
Next he’s telephoning John Houseman direct. He needs some help. Houseman agrees to come over and work on the script with him.
It’s now 2AM on the morning Wednesday the 26th. Houseman has finally arrived. Howard Koch is in better spirits. He’s starting to have fun with the script, laying waste to the entire state of New Jersey. He’s especially enjoying getting to destroy CBS.
Houseman and Koch will work through the night and all through the day until Wednesday at dusk. Orson Welles is busy rehearsing a broadway play, Danton’s Death and unavailable.
On Thursday, the rest of the cast gets their first rehearsal, led by Welles associate Paul Stewart. Everyone felt it was a flop. It played too dull… it needed more of a spark.
Houseman and Koch got together and plunged in again… They worked all night, spicing it with circumstantial allusions and authentic detail. Eventually, they ran out of time. On Friday evening the script was in the hands of the CBS censor and Orson.
The only censor requests were to change the Hotel Biltmore to a fictional “Meridian Room of the Hotel Park Plaza in downtown New York” and to change CBS references to a generic “Broadcast building.”
Sunday October 30th, the afternoon of the broadcast. Orson Welles has finally made an appearance at rehearsal, taking over for Paul Stewart and beginning to edit the broadcast script into one of his style of elocution.
A strange fever has begun to take over the studio. The first to feel it are the actors. They know they’re about to attempt something never before done.
Frank Readick, who’ll play the soon-to-be incinerated newsman Carl Philips is studying the transcriptions of Herb Morrison’s description of the Hindenburg disaster. He wants to capture the authenticity of Morrison’s voice.
Welles is putting longer cutaways back into the script. He wants the elongated tension of dance music scenes to force the audience to wonder what’s happening. He feels the tedium of the first portion of the show will add believability to the later portions.
Men will travel large distances, cabinet meetings will be held, savage battles will be fought in the air and on land. They’re ready.
It’s now 8PM. Welles has mounted the podium, assuming the stance of both director and star.
It’s time to go on the air.