Tuning Into the “Happy Am I” Preacher: Researching the Radio Career of Elder Lightfoot Solomon Michaux
Welcome to the second installment of our Thursday series spotlighting endangered radio archives across the United States, promoting the work of the Radio Preservation Task Force (RPTF), which is part of the National Recording Reservation Plan of the Library of Congress. Our series kicked off two weeks ago with this post by Josh Garrett-Davis exploring both the history of Native American radio and new ways of thinking about it, and the series will conclude with a piece next week by the University of Michigan’s Derek Vaillant about radio recordings in immediate need of preservation in Detroit.
Between possible archives and endangered ones, we have an article about an archive that has begun to speak after long years of silence. Below, Professor Suzanne Smith of George Mason University gives us a preview of her research into a radio evangelist who was among the most prominent African Americans of his day, yet has been largely forgotten. Smith’s fascinating work not only revisits Elder Michaux as a historical figure, but also gives us a clear sense of how a project in radio reservation relies not only on institutional resources, but also on personal outreach. As many of us who are part of the preservation project are learning, media history lives on in storage units, basements and lockers, preserved by collectors, churches and communities that only individual connections can truly reach.
— Special Editor Neil Verma
In October 1934, the Washington Post published a feature about Elder Lightfoot Solomon Michaux in which it boldly declared that the “radio evangelist extraordinary, is the best known colored man in the United States today.” At the time, Elder Michaux, known as the “Happy Am I” Preacher, had a national radio show on the CBS network that broadcast his ministry of happiness and holiness to over twenty-five million listeners each week.
Like many popular evangelists of his era, Elder Michaux promoted his image as one of God’s prophets, presciently envisioning that radio could revolutionize the purview of modern evangelicalism. Michaux first used portable radio equipment to broadcast his holiness revivals in the mid to late 1920s in his hometown of Newport News and these religious programs were among the first of their kind in the United States. By 1929, Michaux moved to Washington, D.C. in the hopes of expanding his mission.
As an African American, Michaux initially had difficulty convincing local D.C. radio outlets to put him on the air. Eventually, he persuaded James S. Vance, local owner of WJSV, to broadcast his weekly revivals. When the CBS network bought WJSV in 1932, the budding evangelist achieved a national audience in the millions.
The key to Michaux’s success was his ability to combine his preaching with snappy, upbeat gospel songs that reminded listeners that a holy life leads to a happy life, a message that resonated with Americans navigating the economic trials of the Great Depression. By the late 1930s, the BBC invited Michaux to broadcast his program on its network and listeners around the globe soon began to tune into his WJSV broadcasts in via shortwave hookup. These opportunities allowed the charismatic preacher to reach a vast international radio audience that extended from Europe to Africa, South America, and the Caribbean. That Michaux’s broadcasts, like his story, have disappeared from radio history has impoverished our sense of the role of race in the soundscape of the era.
My current book project examines Michaux’s extraordinary life and career as a radio evangelist. For this post, I want to explain both Michaux’s significance to the history of religious radio as well as African American history; and how my research has led me to join the Radio Preservation Task Force in an effort to preserve the surviving recordings this important figure, but understudied, figure.
In spite of his many accomplishments, Elder Michaux has been largely overlooked in the histories of religious radio and African American religion. Scholarship on religious radio from the 1920s and 1930s tends to focus on figures such as Father Charles Coughlin and Aimee Semple McPherson with only passing mention of African American preachers such as Michaux. In the history of African American religion in the 1930s, Michaux tends to be overshadowed by scholarship on other major figures such as Father Divine and his Peace Mission Movement and Sweet Daddy Grace and his United House of Prayer. Although Michaux’s ministry was often categorized as a religious cult in the popular press of the time, his Gospel Spreading Radio Church of God was firmly a part of the black Holiness movement and continues to have ten active congregations today.
Throughout his career, which began in the late 1920s and extended until his death in 1968, Elder Michaux defied the odds and challenged boundaries of race, theology and politics to become one of the most successful religious leaders and media celebrities of his time. As early as 1926, Michaux, whose Holiness ministry openly welcomed all races, was arrested for baptizing whites and blacks together. Once established in Washington, D.C., Michaux led annual mass baptisms in the Potomac River and later at Griffith Stadium that drew tens of thousands of followers. At the height of his fame, from the 1930s through the 1950s, Michaux was regularly invited to the White House to consult with Presidents Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower about the racial issues of the day. By the early 1960s, Michaux engaged in public debates with both Martin Luther King Jr. and Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam, about the direction of the civil rights struggle.
My book argues that Elder Lightfoot Solomon Michaux is critical to our understanding of how religious leaders used the mass medium of radio to literally “sell” evangelical faith movements in modern America. Elder Michaux was the first to fully develop the concept of a “Radio Church,” which offered official membership to followers and created one of the first, if not the first, virtual religious communities in modern America. A true evangelist, Michaux sought to reach believers and potential converts wherever they were and knew that the radio could facilitate his mission in revolutionary ways. In an interview in 1938, Michaux explained, “I wanted to give people religion over the air so they might have it at home. Then they couldn’t have an excuse for not going to church. They couldn’t say that they were tired or didn’t have the right clothes. They could get God and his teachings right in their own parlor.” Most significantly, Michaux’s entrepreneurial skill at marketing his Gospel Spreading Church of God through the radio was simultaneously in service to his race and racially transgressive in ways that complicate our understanding of how modern religious movements navigated Jim Crow segregation.
So how can we actually give an account of Michaux’s contributions? Researching radio programming from the 1920s and 1930s presents a number of challenges for any historian because recordings of broadcasts from this period are rare. Fortunately, Elder Michaux began his career on WJSV, one of the most powerful stations in Washington in the 1930s (which became WTOP, the most popular local news radio station in Washington, D.C. today). The first director of WJSV under CBS ownership was Harry Butcher, who had the foresight in September 1939 to record an entire day of programming, which is remarkable considering this was accomplished without the use of magnetic recording tape. Although this collection does not include Elder Michaux’s program, it is a valuable audio snapshot of the radio era in which he thrived.
My quest to locate recordings of Elder Michaux’s broadcast has led me to destinations as far away as the BBC archives in London, which houses two recordings of Michaux’s first British broadcasts; and as close as the main branch of the current Gospel Spreading Church of God here in Washington.
In the past two years, I have also developed meaningful relationships with congregants of the church, who have begun to be willing to share their private archive of recordings. During one oral history interview, one church member, who is 92-years old, gave me a reel-to-reel tape from Elder Michaux’s funeral service, which was broadcast in October 1968. Another elder member from Newport News sent me recordings of Michaux preaching at Lorton Prison in Lorton, Virginia in the 1950s. Most significantly, I recently met the current sound engineer at the church, who has been a member since the 1940s and has a large archive of reel-to-reel tapes of Michaux’s radio broadcasts from the 1950s and 1960s. At the height of his fame in the early 1930s, Elder Michaux broadcast his religious services daily and never missed a week of broadcasting until his death in 1968. The church has only kept a fraction of these broadcasts. Nevertheless, a significant number of them exist and are housed in the church’s private storage. I am currently trying to assess the scope of the church’s collection, which has involved reaching out to church members in Philadelphia, New York City, and Newport News, Virginia. I am also trying to investigate grants that might support my efforts to digitize the tapes as soon as possible since they are at risk of deterioration in the church storage facilities.
My research on Elder Lightfoot Solomon Michaux’s career has convinced me that more work needs to be done to pursue the preservation of African American religious radio broadcasts in general. The work of the Radio Preservation Task Force can support this mission, but it will also involve grassroots outreach to established African American churches. Many of these churches regularly broadcast their services and may have their own private archives of recordings that can offer us an invaluable glimpse at the aural history of African American religious practices in the twentieth century.
Moreover, through my ongoing relationships with the congregants of Elder Michaux’s Gospel Spreading Church of God, I have developed a deeper appreciation for the importance of personal outreach to African American religious communities in the service of preserving the history of religious radio. The efforts of the Radio Preservation Task Force are critically important in terms of identifying existing institutional archives, but only through individual connections with these vital, but often overlooked minority communities, will we be able to discover and preserve these treasures of our radio past.
Suzanne E. Smith is Professor of History in the Department of History and Art History at George Mason University. She is the author of Dancing in the Street: Motown and the Cultural Politics of Detroit (Harvard University Press, 1999) and To Serve the Living: Funeral Directors and the African American Way of Death (Belknap Press, 2010). She is currently working on her third book, tentatively titled The ‘Happy Am I’ Preacher: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Elder Lightfoot Solomon Michaux.
All images courtesy of the author.
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Welcome back to From Mercury to Mars, our series of posts (in conjunction with Antenna) that reflect on Orson Welles’s radio career, and the upcoming anniversary of its highlight, “The War of the Worlds.”
When scholars discuss the effect of that play on people, they often fall into reveries about its most serious dimensions — what the Martian Panic says about human susceptibility, about the power of the media, about sound and the unknown. But it’s important to realize that, besides being terribly humorless, this approach also isn’t historically just. Although Welles was — like some of his listeners — spooked the night of the event, in the days that followed he and many others came to recognize some humor in the the whole thing, too. Later in life, Welles focused on that dimension of his memory, repeatedly recalling with laughter that when the actor John Barrymore (something of a “grand old man” of the American stage in 1938), heard the Martian invasion broadcast he tearfully decided to free his beloved dogs, so they could taste freedom before meeting the inexorable doom.
Such tall tales aren’t trivial. Actually, we misunderstand the WOTW escapade if we don’t recognize that immediately adjacent to modern America’s propensity for panic stood its equally fascinating capacity to laugh at itself. Both tendencies do cultural work, often in concert with one another. With that in mind, this week our Mercury to Mars series moves from the macabre (see Debra Rae Cohen’s piece on Welles and Dracula) to the ridiculous, focusing on the relationship between Welles’s puffed-up fame and how it was lampooned by Fred Allen, one of the great absurdist comics in modern entertainment, and perhaps the most creative radio comedian of his era.
To introduce this crucial entertainer and to explain why his relationship to Welles matters so much, we are lucky to have one of the most important voices in radio studies today: Kathleen Battles, Associate Professor of Communication at Oakland University, author of a paradigm-shifting study of the relationship between radio and policing, Calling All Cars: Radio Dragnets and the Technology of Policing (Minnesota, 2010). Battles is also one of the co-editors of a book you should all be reading, assigning, and handing out like Halloween candy — War of the Worlds to Social Media: Mediated Communication in Times of Crisis (Peter Lang, 2013).
Here’s a taste, just to get you started.
Contemporary public memory of Orson Welles seems bent on remembering him as mercurial, imperious, haughty genius, driven in equal parts by ambition and artistic vision. It is hard to remember that this image of the auteur – not Welles but “Welles” – was one crafted not by the man alone, but by a host of actors and other performers, all with their own interest in attaching themselves to such a “genius.” As Welles’s reputation grew in the wake of the “War of the Worlds” broadcast, furthering his transformation into “Welles,” it was simply a matter of time before he became a fodder for another kind of auteur, the radio comedian. One of the most popular was Fred Allen, who made a career archly satirizing the cultural conventions of the day, with the radio industry itself being one of his favorite targets. “Welles” was too rich a subject to forego.
This post explores two key moments of Allen’s satire. The first came on November 9, 1939, when Allen’s show featured a comic skit, entitled “The Soundman’s Revenge, or, He Only Pulled the Trigger a Little, Because the Leading Man was Half Shot Anyway,” a radio skit that deftly mimes the Mercury/Campbell style to comic effect. The second is from three years later, October 18, 1942, when Welles himself appeared on Allen’s show, joining in the fun as the pair rehearse Les Miserables, with Welles gamely mocking “Welles.” In these two short skits, Allen and his team of writers and performers quickly dismantle what had become the more recognizable elements of the Mercury/Campbell style–as exemplified in Welles’s version of A Tale of Two Cities–including the elevation of Welles to the genius “author” of the plays, its narrative and performance techniques, and the use of sound effects.
Mercury Theater was strongly marked with the authorial imprint of the real Welles, but the legend of “Orson Welles” was also crafted quite deliberately by CBS, and then later by show sponsor Campbell’s Soup, for their own aims at cultural legitimacy. As Michele Hilmes argued, such moves were key to legitimizing the medium as operating in the “public interest” (183-88). Here is a clip from just after Campbell Soup began sponsoring the Welles program:
As other writers have pointed out, such as Debra Rae Cohen in her entry to this series, Neil Verma, and Paul Heyer, the show was among the best in emphasizing the sonic properties of radio to maximum effect in storytelling. The quality acting of members of the Mercury Theater, the music of Bernard Herrmann, the ambitious use of sound effects, and some stellar examples of adapting literary tales make the show worthy of praise.
The emotional and narrative power of Welles himself is evident in the Mercury Theater dramatization of A Tale of Two Cities. Taking on Dickens’ sprawling classic in one hour certainly demanded some creative choices. One was to open with Dr. Mannette’s letter from the Bastille prison, with Welles as Mannette emotionally dictating the words that would later serve to betray his own family.
This is contrasted against the later reading of the same letter in a courtroom scene, where the emotional poignancy of Welles’s performance is counterpointed against its dry reading as a piece of evidence.
Dynamic use of sound effects was another key element of the Mercury/Campbell style. From his work in March of Time and The Shadow, which both used sound effects to enact key narrative devices (Time varied times and locations, the Shadow’s invisibility), Welles used his own radio program to push the boundaries of what such effects could achieve. In A Tale of Two Cities, sound effects are used to punctuate key moments, none to greater effect than the final scene in which the sound of the guillotine serves as the morbid backdrop to Carton’s final, famous speech of self sacrifice:
All of these tendencies are key to Allen’s “Soundman’s Revenge,” in which Orson Welles and the Campbell’s Playhouse become “Dorson Belles” and “Finnegan’s Playhouse,” with the evening’s entertainment an adaptation of Jack and Jill fetching a pail of water.
Belles, acted by Fred Allen, tells his listeners that “My program is famous, and rightly so, for my sound effects, conceived in solitude by me.” The skit reaches ridiculous heights during a dramatization of “Jack’s” first meeting with “Jill.” As Jack and Jill wax enthusiastically at each other merely by repeating each others’ names, the host breaks in to tell listeners that “This dialogue, ladies and gentleman, is not to be found in the original Mother Goose version. It has been interprellated by Dorson Belles. We return you now to the play.”
The always potential high culture pretentiousness of Mercury/Campbell aesthetic choices are brought to the fore by the ridiculous choice of a Mother Goose nursery rhyme as the “play” within the skit. But other things do as well. The skit opens in typical Mercury first person narrative style, where Jack tells the tale from his own perspective in a ponderous, overwrought dramatic fashion. Jack does not live in postcard ready New England, he lives in a “land of penury and misery.” He does not merely make a mess while preparing his dinner, but “licks the albumen of owl’s egg off his fingers.”’
In its most pointed reference to Mercury style, the skit directly plays off a memorable moment in War of the Worlds when, as Professor Pierson narrates his travels in New Jersey, he states that “I saw something crouching in a doorway, and it rose up and became a man. A man armed with a large knife.” Here is the clip:
In similar dramatic style, Jack narrates his journey up the hill, hauling his “heavy oaken pail” and asks “What was that huddled form crouching in my path? Was it a girl? It was!”
The comic tour-de-force, however, comes with its satire of sound effects. Allen’s team goes for broke as listeners laugh along to the gradual undoing of the hapless Theodore Slade, Welles’s sound effects engineer in the skit, who is driven to madness by the excessive number of effects. Slade makes many mistakes throughout, but his errors really add up when Jack kills his father and he describes the “long arm of the law” reaching out, coming from the north on horseback, the east by train, the west by “aeroplane,” and the north by sleigh. Each description is punctuated by its appropriate sound; hooves, whistles, engines, and of course, sleigh bells.
It works the first time, but when Jack dramatically asks if he and Jill can escape each of these modes of capture, Slade plays the wrong effects. When Jack tells us he stabbed the Sherriff, Slade plays a gunshot. This time, when Belles chastises him, Slade lets loose, telling Belles that he is going “nuts,” then trying to rectify the mistake by killing the Sherriff again. Belles yells out that “this is confusing!” to which Slade retorts, “you’re telling me!” As Jill tries to continue the scene, telling us she is shooting herself, Slade plays the train whistle. Finally Jack narrates that Jill, the Sherriff, and his father are dead, and that “I alone live.” Slade replies, “yeah, but not for long,” and after listing off years worth of complaints, shoots Belles. Belles, in a pitch perfect rendition of Welles’s weekly closing of his radio show, says “This is Dorson Belles, signing off permanently. Pending rigor mortis, I remain, obediently yours.”
Perhaps Welles was offended, or perhaps he yearned to be in on the joke. He certainly seemed to relish the chance for that opportunity, when he appeared as a guest on Allen’s show, 3 years later on October 18, 1942. Here he plays along in the skewering of his own genius image, tied to his authorial control over all his projects. As the cast nervously awaits the arrival of the great “Welles,” Allen tries to calm them. Once “Welles” enters the studio, Allen himself comes in for his own ribbing. “Welles” tells him that they will be performing a new version of one of Welles’s early radio dramatizations, Les Miserables. Here Welles successfully mocks both “Welles” and Allen, insisting on sole authorship, giving an overwrought performance, using the first person singular mode of delivery, and most humorously by reducing Allen’s contribution to a few sound effects.
In those few moments where Welles himself cannot help from laughing along with the mockery, “Welles” becomes Welles, and we in the audience get to laugh with, not at, the man.
While CBS, Campbell Soup, and the press turned Welles into “Welles,” Allen undermined that move, puncturing the grandiose myth, a project in which Welles himself was only too willing to participate. By breaking it down to its constituent elements, the “Soundman” and Les Miserables skits celebrate the unique style of the Mercury/Campbell radio productions. Yet, they also pierce its cultured veneer by pointing to the unsung efforts of the always-necessary team to make radio performances work, and skewering the pretentiousness of the program’s extra-textual discourses. In the process Welles and Allen mutually constructed and deflated each other’s reputation as radio geniuses.
Featured Image: Orson Welles and Anthony Perkins sharing a laugh on the set of The Trial.
Kathleen Battles is Associate Professor and Graduate Director in the Department of Communication and Journalism at Oakland University (MI not CA). She is recently co-editor (with Joy Hayes and Wendy Hilton-Morrow) of War of the Worlds to Social Media: Mediated Communication in Times of Crisis (Peter Lang, 2013), a volume that seeks to draw connections between the War of the Worlds broadcast event and contemporary issues surrounding new media. She is also the author Calling All Cars: Radio Dragnets and the Technology of Policing (University of Minnesota Press, 2010). Her research interests include Depression era radio cultures, the interrelationship between radio, telephones, and automobiles, media and space/time, the historical continuities between “old” and “new” media, and contemporary issues surrounding sexuality and the media.
Want to catch up on the Mercury to Mars series?
Click here to read Tom McEnaney’s thoughts on the place of Latin America in Welles’s radio work.
Click here to read Eleanor Patterson’s reflections on recorded re-releases of the “War of the Worlds” broadcast.
Click here to read Debra Rae Cohen’s thoughts on vampire media in Orson Welles’s “Dracula.”
And click here to read Cynthia B. Meyers on the challenges and rewards of teaching WOTW in the classroom.
While I’ve still got you here … be sure to join our WOTW anniversary Facebook group. Next month we’re planning exciting events around the anniversary of the Martian Panic on October 30, 2013 from 7-10 EST, and hoping to get as many of you as we can to liveTweet the Invasion broadcast. Sign up to join in!
And now, we interrupt this broadcast for a message from Guest Editor Neil Verma: At 9:00 pm on July 11, 1938, the Columbia Broadcasting System unfurled a plush Tchaikovsky concerto to welcome 23 year-old wunderkind Orson Welles and his Mercury Theater troupe to national airwaves for a show destined to become the most famous dramatic radio anthology ever aired.
The Mercury Theater on the Air came with hype. Welles was fresh off a streak of innovative stage adaptations of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” Shaw’s “Heartbreak House,” and Marlowe’s “Doctor Faustus,” pledging in a New York Times article to “treat radio with the intelligence and respect such a beautiful and powerful medium deserves.” A jab at his rivals? Maybe. Legends tell of 17-hour writing sessions, of rows minutes before airtime between Welles, producer John Houseman and composer Bernard Herrmann, of sound men abusing baskets, watermelons, toilets, lawnmowers to make audio. Time described Mercury’s ambition as “bounded north and south by hope, east and west by nerve.”
Welles was by then a radio veteran, the hero of The Shadow and impersonator of newsmakers from Sigmund Freud to Fiorello laGuardia on The March of Time. Hundreds of extant recordings link Welles to rousing Norman Corwin pageants, Columbia Workshop experiments, strident war shows like Ceiling Unlimited, buffoon turns on the Jack Benny and Fred Allen Shows, picaresque Harry Lime adventures, dense thrillers on Suspense, romances on Lux Radio Theater, diplomacy on Hello Americans, and on and on. Welles gave radio new forms, as radio informed his filmmaking profoundly – the sound of Citizen Kane (1941) the characters in Mr. Arkadin (1955), the vocals in Touch of Evil (1958) the theme of F is for Fake (1974). Welles invented a cinema that is, among other things, a kind of radio play you can see.
Mercury (and the Campbell Playhouse it became) undertook plays like “Dracula,” “Treasure Island,” “The 39 Steps,” “Rebecca,” “Jane Eyre,” and “The Magnificent Ambersons” and dozens of others. But none would be remembered were it not for the “War of the Worlds,” adapted from H.G. Wells’s novel by Howard Koch. In October of 1938, WOTW aired to six million listeners, hundreds of thousands of whom misheard it as news. The “Panic Broadcast” became a series of fables: listeners treated for shock in Newark; families on Boston rooftops watching the fires of New York in the distance; an Indianapolis church service interrupted by a parishioner telling congregants “you might as well go home to die;” bomb threats and a police raid on CBS headquarters. Three quarters of a century later many agree with the New York Tribune’s Dorothy Thompson, who declared the Invasion “one of the most fascinating and important events of all time,” but the meaning of that event also feels unclear, growing more ambiguous with time. Today, the alien invasion is itself increasingly alien.
To confront that issue and to open Mercury to new kinds of critical practices in sound studies, Sounding Out! is partnering with Antenna over the next six months to bring you a 12-part series entitled From Mercury to Mars: Orson Welles on Radio after 75 Years. I’m honored to serve as Sounding Out!‘s Guest Editor. We’ll be bringing you authors who engage aesthetic, historical and political aspects of Welles’ radio work with a depth and intensity unusual in Welles studies.
That’s especially true of this inaugural post by Cornell Comparative Literature Professor and SO! contributor Tom McEnaney, who has been working on a book project involving radio and the “neighborhood” of the Americas. I’m thrilled welcome Tom’s nuanced and provocative take on Welles’s adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and his Hello, Americans program, and I hope it will encourage you to stay with us as the series unfolds.
Like Welles, we’ve got a few tricks up our sleeve. Stay tuned. — nv
When WNYC’s Radiolab aired their live celebration of War of the Worlds five years ago, the odd laugh line was reserved for a moment at the start of the radio play when an announcer interjects “now we return to the music of Ramón Raquello and his orchestra.”
Raquello, as the Radiolab team makes clear, didn’t exist, and his “orchestra” was just an anonymous phonograph recording of the famous tango “La cumparsita.” Welles apparently chose the song for its “tedium,” hoping it would make believable the lunacy to come. That the music of the Southern Cone set up listeners in the United States for the greatest hoax in history might have been yet another of the inside jokes Welles left us to listen for.
The sounds of Ramón Raquello and the settings of some of Welles’s most famous films—The Lady From Shanghai (1947); Touch of Evil (1958)—remind us how Latin America, and its relationship to the United States, fascinated Welles in the late 30s and 40s. Five years after War of the Worlds, he began the final episode of his CBS program Hello Americans by recalling the show’s mission: “It is important for the people of this hemisphere to get better acquainted, and the Mercury [Theater] has been given the job of helping out with the introductions.”
An artful propagandist, Welles told Nelson A. Rockefeller, FDR’s head of Inter-American Affairs and Welles’s boss at RKO studios, that radio and film were the best way “to sell South America to North America.” Between 1938 and 1943 his technical innovations in film and radio, in addition to a 1942 stint as a “good will ambassador” to Latin America, created for him by Rockefeller, were meant to convince U.S. audiences of FDR’s claim in his first inaugural that the United States should follow the policy of the “Good Neighbor.” Whether listening, watching, or reading his work during World War II, Welles’s U.S. audiences were constantly reminded that they were residents of the Americas, rather than an exceptional and isolated America.
To assess the aesthetics and politics of Welles’s engagement with Latin America, it’s worth returning to the October 30, 1938 broadcast of War of the Worlds. Presented as a live news report of an alien invasion on the East Coast of the United States, War of the Worlds sent its mass audience into hysterics, proving to Marshal McLuhan that radio was “a tribal drum,” capable of calling forth the “archaic forces” of “the resonating Africa within” (301). The primitivist and racist logic in McLuhan’s Understanding Media (1964) sought to explain away the irrationality he (and his Frankfurt School forebears) identified as the enlightenment’s dialectical twin by exiling it to Africa. In this, he might have merely followed Welles’s Mercury Theater, which aired a production of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness a week after War of the Worlds, thus linking an allegory about fascism (and radio’s dangerous complicity with irrational politics) to a Conrad adaptation that critic Michael Denning calls “a fascist parable” exalting “power for power’s sake” (376).
Yet these radio works concern themselves with fascism from very different narrative and social positions. While War of the Worlds depicts an alien invasion, his Heart of Darkness describes a journey towards the alien racial Other, presenting listeners with what had become by 1938 the more mundane miracle of radio—to bring them close enough to hear Kurtz’s haunting repetition: “the horror, the horror.”
Welles, who plays both Kurtz and Marlow in the conversation that leads up to these climactic lines, depicts here the seductive power of his own voice, able to encapsulate the story’s most important characters, and, as Kurtz, to impress even himself, as Marlow.
“Mr. Kurtz,” Marlow / Welles says with awe, “is a remarkable man.” Repeating a line heard throughout the play, Marlow’s words are slyly deflated when they are echoed, with a tone of critical distance, in the voice of one of the ivory company’s employees, a voice that stands in for the listening audience, and encourages their own distrust of Marlow’s naïve faith in Kurtz’s lust for power.
Meanwhile, the play tells a complimentary story of proximity and distance: as the boat moves back down the river, the music shifts from tribal drums to spiritual laments to a meandering jazz saxophone, tracing, in basic and exoticist fashion, a capsule history of African diasporic music.
One year later, Welles also attempted to adapt Heart of Darkness as his cinematic directorial debut for RKO, shifting the frame narrative to New York City, while planning to shoot on location in Panama, where expansion had begun that year on the Panama Canal to allow for the transportation of US warships. For this project, Welles planned a first-person camera technique, mimicking his radio work with first person address. The Mercury Theater’s program, originally named “First Person Singular,” placed listeners on the scene. In film the technique became even more immersive, plunging the audience into uneasy, inescapable identification with Marlow’s point of view.
The first person in Welles’s screenplay combines Heart of Darkness’ journey into alien territory with War of the Worlds’ alien invasion—the sense that the audience was under attack. Forced to look out through the eyes of the imperialist adventurer Marlow, the audience surprisingly became the object that everyone in the film watches. The technique could prove threatening to the predominantly white and male movie audiences in the United States of 1940, as Welles planned to enlist 3,000 African American actors to play the so-called natives on the shores of the river—2500 more black extras than worked in Hollywood at the time. When the audience fell under the black gaze in the Canal Zone, where African American men increasingly worked as part of the defense industries, the story’s imperialist theme would have pointed back to the United States’ own racist working conditions, revealing the nation’s complicity and subordination to the imperialist pursuit whose destiny is the primitivist conditions it creates.
RKO rejected Welles’s screenplay, as they did his later documentary project, It’s All True, which sought to transform his 1942 trip throughout Latin America into a tale that fused “the story of samba” with “the story of jazz” to situate African American and Afro-Brazilian musical cultures at the heart of Pan-American culture. Welles soon repurposed the material from It’s All True for a radio program entitled “Hello Americans” that attempted to complete the shift in representation towards a more lateral and dialogic notion of adjacency, positioning U.S. and Latin American culture on the same plane. The means to make these introductions included interviews with and recordings by musicians from Cuba, Brazil, and Mexico, historical tales about Montezuma, Toussaint L’Ouverture, Benito Juárez, Atahualpa and others.
In the show’s most experimental section, Welles simultaneously reinforces and mocks the idea that radio’s ability to collapse distances and transcend borders makes it the medium to communicate the idea of neighborliness.
Transporting his audience to “a clay hut somewhere in South America,” Welles introduces a small family in which the son, Juan, builds radios at a new factory, and his father, José, listens to the device. Once the broadcast begins, the listening audience within the frame—Juan, José and his mother—share the same space as the audience listening to “Hello Americans.” All listen together as a broadcast voice introduces Roosevelt’s inaugural address, then Roosevelt’s recorded voice announces his policy of the Good Neighbor, and finally static interrupts Roosevelt’s voice, and a German accented voice takes over to complain about “the republic of the Jew Franklin Roosevelt.” When José comments that the broadcast seems strange, his son Juan answers, “Oh no, they’re all like that. Señor Schmidt at the factory told us it’s uh, it’s because we’re closer to Germany.” Then, a musical curtain falls and Welles returns to reassure his audience that “Juan has learned. Today he works in another factory and he’s a member of the Latin American Confederation of Workers.”
The passage distinguishes between voices—José, Juan, the US broadcaster, Roosevelt, and the German propagandist—and reflects the imagined proximity implicit in Roosevelt’s idea of the Good Neighbor. But the technique also reveals how “Señor Schmidt” and his countrymen take advantage of the geographical confusion made possible by radio’s transcendence of borders to imply that Germany is actually more of a “neighbor” than the United States. These types of confusion between imagination and reality had once launched listeners into panic, but now Welles steps in to calmly and condescendingly reassure the audience that Juan “has learned.” Learned, that is, to join the left leaning Confederation: an untenable statement on US radio less than a decade later.
And yet, the unnamed obstacle impeding both foreign transmissions is language itself. Because everything filters through English, with accents marking the space between Spanish and German, Hello Americans imagines Pan-Americanism through one language alone. Radio’s monolingualism highlights one of the medium’s limitations. Whereas It’s All True could employ subtitles, and allow audiences to listen to a subject’s voice while reading what they said, radio faltered on its most medium-specific component – words.
Furthermore, while Welles imagines a “neighborhood” for all Americans, listeners lose the more radical racial politics he had once placed at the center of his Haitian Macbeth (1936), Heart of Darkness (1938), his theatrical production of Richard Wright’s Native Son (1941) and It’s All True (1942). Together these works place the African diaspora at the center of U.S., Pan-American, and world culture. They insist that the attack on fascism abroad must include a change in race relations at home. More ambivalently, they reveal Welles participating in acts of love and theft – a New Deal Kurtz, he draws the power to criticize fascist power from exoticized images of Afro-Caribbean, Afro-Brazilian, and African American cultures, supporting and appropriating the art and struggles of the African diaspora to bill himself as the cultural leader of, not just the ambassador for, Pan-Americanism.
Tom McEnaney is an Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature at Cornell University. His work focuses on the connections between the novel and various sound recording and transmission technologies in Argentina, Cuba, and the United States. He is currently at work on a manuscript tentatively titled “Acoustic Properties: Radio, Narrative, and the New Neighborhood of the Americas.”
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