The great actor and director Orson Welles was so talented that he caused a sort of nationwide panic with his realistic radio broadcast of War Of The Worlds, a dramatization of a Martian invasion of Earth.
There was a time before television when families would gather around their radio, during an era when the radio was a large, major piece of furniture, and spend the evening listening to broadcasts: variety and musical shows, comedies and serialized dramas.
Welles was only 23-years-old when his famed Mercury Theater Company decided to adapt and update H.G. Wells’ science fiction novel The War Of The Worlds (1897) for national radio, presented as news bulletins interrupting another program using techniques similar to those of The March Of Time, a CBS news radio series in which Welles was a member of the program’s regular cast.
Despite his very young age, Welles had been doing radio for several years. He was famous most for being the voice of The Shadow, a hit mystery program. War Of The Worlds was not planned as a radio hoax, and Welles and company could not have known of the mayhem it would cause.
The show began on Sunday, October 30, at 8pm. A voice announced:
“The Columbia Broadcasting System and its affiliated stations present: Orson Welles and the Mercury Theater on the air in War Of The Worlds by H.G. Wells.”
In the 1930s, Sunday evenings were primetime for radio broadcasts. Most Americans had their radios tuned to the very popular ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummy Charlie McCarthy on NBC (that’s right, the number one radio show featured a ventriloquist) and they moved the dial to CBS at 8:12pm after the open sketch ended and a musical guest was introduced. By then, the story of a Martian invasion of Earth had already begun.
Welles introduced his radio adaptation followed by an announcer reading the weather report. Then, the announcer took listeners to: “…the Meridian Room in the Hotel Park Plaza in downtown New York, where you will be entertained by the music of Ramon Raquello and his orchestra”. A dance version of Stardust played for a minute, and then an announcer broke in to report that “Professor Farrell of the Mount Jenning Observatory” had detected explosions on the planet Mars. Then the dance music came back on, followed by another interruption in which listeners were informed that a large meteor had crashed into a farmer’s field in Grover’s Mills, New Jersey.
A reporter at the crash site described a Martian emerging from a large metallic cylinder:
“Good heavens! Something’s wriggling out of the shadow like a gray snake. Now here’s another and another one and another one. They look like tentacles to me… I can see the thing’s body now. It’s large, large as a bear. It glistens like wet leather. But that face, it… it … ladies and gentlemen, it’s indescribable. I can hardly force myself to keep looking at it, it’s so awful. The eyes are black and gleam like a serpent. The mouth is kind of V-shaped with saliva dripping from its rimless lips that seem to quiver and pulsate.”
The Martians mounted walking war machines and fired ray-guns at the earthlings gathered at the crash site. It was reported that they annihilated 7,000 National Guardsman, and after being attacked by artillery and bombers the Martians fought back with a poisonous gas. Next, more Martian cylinders landed in Chicago and then St. Louis.
The script was very realistic, with The Mercury Theatre Company using sophisticated sound effects and the actors convincingly portraying terrified announcers and other characters. The announcer reported widespread panic and that thousands of people were desperately trying to flee.
As many as a million radio listeners believed that a real Martian invasion was underway. In New Jersey, terrified civilians caused traffic jams on the highways. People begged police for gas masks to save them from the poison gas. Citizens called their electric companies to turn off the power so that the Martians wouldn’t see the lights. A woman ran into an Indianapolis church where evening services were being held and yelled: “New York has been destroyed! It’s the end of the world! Go home and prepare to die!”
When news of the real-life panic reached the CBS studios, Welles went on the air as himself to remind listeners that it was all just fiction. There were rumors that the show caused suicides, which wasn’t true, but the many myths remain to this day.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) investigated the program but found no laws were broken. The networks did agree to be more cautious in their future programming. Welles was afraid that the controversy over his War Of The Worlds would mean the end of his career. In fact, the publicity helped land him a contract with RKO Studios, and in 1941, he directed, wrote, produced, and starred in Citizen Kane.
Dozens of police showed up at the CBS studios that night. Because of the crowd of reporters, photographers, and police, the cast of The War Of The Worlds escaped the CBS building via a rear entrance. Aware of the sensation the broadcast had made, Welles still went to the Mercury Theatre where an all-night rehearsal of a new play was in progress. Shortly after midnight, someone told Welles that news about The War Of The Worlds was being flashed in Times Square. Standing on the corner of Broadway and 42nd Street, Welles read the lighted bulletin that encircled the New York Times building: ORSON WELLES CAUSES PANIC.
Initially apologetic about the supposed panic his broadcast had caused, Welles later embraced the story as part of his own personal mythology.
In 1988, Grover’s Mill, NJ, commemorated the 50th anniversary of the broadcast with four days of Martian themed art, planetarium shows, a panel discussion, a parade, burial of a time capsule, and a film festival devoted to the works of H. G. Wells and Orson Welles, and the dedication of a bronze monument to the fictional Martian landings. In 2013, the 75th anniversary of The War Of The Worlds was marked by an international radio and Internet rebroadcast with an introduction by our own George Takei. In 2003, the broadcast was one of the first 50 recordings made part of the National Recording Registry of the Library Of Congress.
Since the original 1938 broadcast of The War Of The Worlds, many re-airings, remakes, re-enactments, and parodies have become a Halloween tradition.