In the annals of radio history, one broadcast stands out like a shining star – Orson Welles’ unforgettable radio drama, ‘The War of the Worlds.’ As the clock struck 8 p.m. in New York City on the night of October 30, 1938, a young Orson Welles, known for his theatrical prowess and charisma, took center stage in a Madison Avenue radio studio. Little did he know that this fateful evening would etch his name into history.
The Prelude to Panic
Millions of Americans gathered around their radios that night, unaware of the pandemonium about to unfold. Welles and his ensemble cast were about to present a gripping dramatization of H.G. Wells’ 1898 science-fiction masterpiece, ‘The War of the Worlds.’ Ironically, most of the nation was tuned into NBC’s ‘Chase and Sanborn Hour,’ featuring the popular ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his puppet, Charlie McCarthy.
A Prank That Resembled Reality
In an era before channel surfing became commonplace, some unsuspecting listeners stumbled upon the ‘Mercury Theatre on the Air’ without hearing the disclaimer at the start of the broadcast. They were thrust into a spine-tingling hour-long drama that convinced many that their nation was under attack.
The program, written by ‘Casablanca’ screenwriter Howard Koch, opened with serene dance music by “Ramon Raquello and his orchestra.” Suddenly, an announcer’s voice pierced the airwaves with a fabricated news report of incandescent gas explosions on Mars. This unsettling announcement set the stage for a series of increasingly alarming newsflashes, culminating in Martian spacecraft crashing into Grovers Mill, New Jersey.
The Reign of Terror
For the remainder of the hour, terror gripped the nation. Breathless reporters narrated the invasion of squid-like extraterrestrial beings armed with heat rays and poisonous gas. Orson Welles and his cast members skillfully portrayed astronomers, state militia officials, and even a character eerily reminiscent of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
In the end, it was not human armies but human germs that defeated the mythical Martian invaders. Orson Welles, stepping out of character, assured the audience, “The War of the Worlds” was nothing more than a holiday offering.
The National Panic
The aftermath of Welles’ broadcast was far more profound than he had anticipated. Despite an intermission reminder that it was a dramatization, thousands of listeners believed the broadcast was real. Panic ensued as people besieged police departments, newspapers, and CBS with frantic phone calls. In New Jersey, where the fictitious invasion was centered, national guardsmen sought instructions, and the Trenton police department received 2,000 calls in under two hours. In Providence, Rhode Island, callers begged the electric company to cut power to protect against the supposed extraterrestrial threat.
The 1930s were a time of fear and anxiety. The Great Depression had strained wallets, global crises loomed on the horizon, and the recent Hurricane of 1938 and the memory of the Hindenburg disaster still haunted the collective psyche of Americans.
Capitalizing on the panic, the newspaper industry saw an opportunity to strike back against the growing popularity of radio. Reports of individual confusion were woven into a narrative of “mass hysteria.” Newspapers featured stories of suicide attempts, heart attacks, and mass exoduses from major cities. The New York Daily News ran the headline, “Fake Radio ‘War’ Stirs Terror Through U.S.,” accompanied by a photograph of a woman who had heard about black gas clouds in Times Square and had fled her apartment, breaking her arm in the process.
Welles’ Response and Legacy
Amidst threats of lawsuits and public outrage, CBS went into damage control mode. Orson Welles, in a press conference, displayed his theatrical skills and expressed remorse and shock at the public’s reaction. Although he claimed he couldn’t imagine an invasion from Mars being taken seriously, he later admitted that the scale of the response had astonished them all.
Surprisingly, the Federal Communications Commission did not sanction CBS or Welles. Instead, the “panic broadcast” proved to be a boon. It secured Campbell’s Soup as a sponsor for the radio program and led to Welles directing “Citizen Kane,” a film celebrated by the American Film Institute as the greatest of all time.
Orson Welles’ “The War of the Worlds” broadcast remains an indelible chapter in the history of radio. It showcased the power of media to incite mass panic and, at the same time, served as a turning point in Welles’ career. This Halloween prank turned treat demonstrated the fine line between fiction and reality and the enduring impact of art on society.