A man in Pittsburgh opened his front door and heard a sad voice; the voice came from the radio and seemed to be mourning the end of the world. Calling for his wife, the man heard a scream and ran towards it. Flinging open the bathroom door, he saw his wife. Her hand held a bottle of poison; her eyes held a look of terror. “I’d rather die of poison than die like that,” she yelled. The wife told her husband a fantastic tale about giant Martians landing in New Jersey and how they vaporized everyone in sight. Her husband took away the poison and told her the story was a fictional radio show. Indeed it was a radio show, the most famous radio show of all time — Orson Welles’s Mercury Theatre of the Air’s production of “War of the Worlds.”
On Halloween Eve, Sunday, October 30, 1938, between 8 and 9 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, one hour earlier in each successive time zone (this was live radio), producer, director, actor, playwright Orson Welles scared the wits out of millions of Americans. Welles presented “War of the Worlds” with such realism that many people believed they were listening to a live news report of a Martian invasion of earth. Hundreds were injured in mad scrambles to escape the invasion; luckily no one died. In the aftermath many people demanded the censorship of radio. Even more people condemned the Columbia Broadcasting System and particularly Orson Welles.
The 23-year old Welles was known for directing New York plays and for his radio role as Lamont Cranston — “The Shadow.” In 1938, Welles created a Sunday evening radio drama for CBS called Mercury Theatre on the Air. For the Halloween Eve program Welles decided to dramatize the science fiction classic War of the Worlds, by H. G. Wells (no relation). To adapt the book for radio Welles changed the story’s location from England to America and the time period from the 1890s to 1939, one year hence. Welles then added realistic touches to increase believability, such as presenting the play as a news event with announcers breaking into musical programs with bulletins about real places. Given the nation’s mood on that Halloween Eve, these realistic effects acted like a lighted match to gasoline.
During the late summer and early fall of 1938, Americans had grown nervous listening to their radios describe the approach of another world war. Adolf Hitler wanted the Sudetenland for Germany and he seemed willing to go to war with England and France to get it. England’s Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, appeased Hitler at the Munich Conference, delaying the war for another year.
The Munich Conference supplied the relatively new medium of radio with its first fast-breaking international crisis. News bulletins informing listeners about the apparent march to war broke into radio programs at all hours. The barrage of bulletins set listeners on edge; it was as if the American radio audience was sitting in a dark room on Halloween Eve 1938, just waiting for someone to yell BOO!
At 8 p.m. EST, October 30, 1938, on the CBS radio network an announcer’s voice informed listeners of the Mercury Theater’s presentation of War of the Worlds and introduced “the director of the Mercury Theatre and star of these broadcasts, Orson Welles.” Welles’s sonorous voice began:”We know now that in the early years of the twentieth century this world was being watched closely by intelligences greater than man’s yet as mortal as his own….”
Meanwhile on the NBC network, the most popular radio show of 1938 — Edgar Beran and Charlie McCarthy — began with the usual comedy lines between Bergan and his wooden dummy. At 8:12 p.m. the comedy stopped as Nelson Eddy began singing a light opera piece. At this momment many listeners suffered what Life magazine later called “dialitis” — spin the dial and see what else is on.
At 8:12 p.m. on the CBS network: “…a huge flaming object, believed to be a meteorite, fell on a farm in the neighborhood of Grovers Mill, New Jersey, twenty-two miles from Trenton. We have dispatched a special mobile unit to the scene, and will have our commentator, Mr. Phillips, give you a word description as soon as he can reach there from Princeton. In the meantime, we take you to the Hotel Martinet in Brooklyn, where Bobby Millet and his orchestra are offering a program of dance music.” A swing band played for 20 seconds and then the announcer informed listeners that they were going live to Grovers Mill. The radio audience heard a shouting crowd and police sirens as commentator Phillips informed them that the meteorite had been identified as a space ship. Within minutes unearthly creatures climbed out firing “heat rays.” “It’s coming this way,” Phillips yelled over the screaming crowd. “About twenty yards to my right…” Listeners heard a terrible sound. Then silence. Piano music intervened followed by the announcement of a martial law declaration and the call up of the state militia. Shortly before 8:30 the announcer introduced the Secretary of the Interior — an actor attempting to sound like Franklin Roosevelt
By this time an estimated six million people were tuned in and hundreds of calls flooded local police departments. The New York Times received 875 calls and Associated Press warned their editors that a radio dramatization was causing a panic. All over the country thousands of people fled their homes with towels wrapped around their heads to ward off the Martian poison gas. New Jersey suffered the worst, as the cars of people fleeing the state clogged the highways.
The police arrived at New York’s CBS studio just as Welles finished the broadcast with his closing remarks. He assured everyone that this presentation was “Mercury Theatre’s own radio version of dressing up in a sheet and jumping out of a bush and saying Boo! We couldn’t soap all your windows and steal all your garden gates, by tomorrow night…so we did the next best thing. We annihilated the world before your very ears… if your doorbell rings and nobdy’s there, that was no Martian…it’s Halloween.” Welles knew he had created a sensation, but failed to realize how big a sensation until midnight when he saw the lighted bulletin circling the Times building : “ORSON WELLES CAUSES PANIC”
The next morning at a press conference, Welles offered “deep regret over any misapprehension created among some listeners.” He listed four factors that should have “maintained the illusion of fiction.” First, the invasion took place in the future(1939); second, the broadcast was advertised in the papers; third, CBS made three seperate announcements that the program was a dramatization; fourth, the fables familiarity, “For many decades ‘the man from Mars’ has been almost a synonym for fantasy,” said Welles.
The Federal Communications Commission concluded that Welles and CBS had taken “steps sufficient to protect the public interest.” But the FCC’s absolution failed to stop the injury law suits. Meanwhile, some of the nations press called for censorship, but others like Heywood Broun feared “the next invasion is likely to be an expedition of censors. We have far more to fear from the silhoutes of the censors than from the shadow of Orson Welles.”
CBS settled the law suits and Welles went on to greater heights with “Citizen Kane” and other triumphs. Yet, the broadcast was never forgotten. And when, on a Sunday morning in December 1941, another seemingly unbelievable story blared forth from the radio, some people waved their hand, laughed, and said, “It’s Orson Welles again.”