This Day In Writing History
On October 30th, 1938, the Mercury Theater radio program, famous for its radio play adaptations of classic literature, presented a production of War Of The Worlds, an adaptation of the classic science fiction novel by the legendary English writer H.G. Wells.
The radio play was written by and starred the legendary actor, filmmaker, and writer Orson Welles, who had co-founded the Mercury Theater company with actor / director John Houseman.
Welles was only 23 years old at the time of the broadcast, yet he had already established himself as a renowned stage and radio actor, having starred as the voice of the Shadow on that popular suspense program.
The Mercury Theater program aired on Sunday nights at 8PM. It was common for many people to tune in around 8:12PM after the comedy sketch on the Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy Show ended and a singer filled out the remaining time.
Had these late comers tuned in at the beginning of this particular episode of Mercury Theater, they would have known that what they were listening to was Orson Welles' adaptation of War Of The Worlds. Instead, they thought they were listening to a real newscast describing an actual Martian invasion of Earth!
The radio play was presented in the format of a mock news broadcast. It began with an announcer reading a weather report, then taking 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."
After a few minutes of dreadful dance music, an announcer broke in with a news bulletin: a scientist, Professor Farrell of the Mount Jenning Observatory, had detected explosions on Mars.
The lame dance music returned, then an announcer broke in again to report that a large meteor had crashed into a farm in Grovers Mills, New Jersey. Soon, an on-the-spot reporter at the crash site begins describing a monstrous space alien 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 initiate a massive attack, wiping out 7,000 National Guardsmen and lobbing canisters of poison gas across America. The incredibly realistic radio play featured sophisticated sound effects and a first rate cast of actors portraying announcers and other terrified characters.
When one announcer character reported that widespread panic had broken out at the crash sites, with thousands of people trying to flee, it wasn't far from the truth. Panic had actually broken out across the country, as perhaps a million people believed that Martians really had attacked the Earth!
In New Jersey, people fleeing in terror caused huge traffic jams on the highways. Others begged police for gas masks to protect them from the Martians' poison gas and pleaded with electric companies to shut off the power so the Martians couldn't see their lights.
In Indianapolis, a terrified woman ran into a church during evening services, screaming that New York had been destroyed and warning the congregation that the end of the world had come. News of the panic reached CBS studio bosses, who also panicked.
Orson Welles then broke character and went on the air as himself to remind people that they were listening to a radio play. After the broadcast, the Federal Communications Commission investigated the Mercury Theater program and concluded that no laws had been broken.
Radio networks promised to be more cautious with their programming in the future. Nevertheless, people were furious that the War Of The Worlds broadcast caused so much unnecessary duress.
Most believed that the broadcast was a Halloween prank played on listeners by Welles and his cast mates. It wasn't, but Welles gave them the impression that it was in his snarky on-air apology:
This is Orson Welles, ladies and gentlemen, out of character to assure you that The War of the Worlds has no further significance than as the holiday offering it was intended to be. The Mercury Theater's own radio version of dressing up in a sheet and jumping out of a bush and saying boo. Starting now, 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, and utterly destroyed the Columbia Broadcasting System.
You will be relieved, I hope, to learn that we didn't mean it, and that both institutions are still open for business. So goodbye everybody, and remember please, for the next day or so, the terrible lesson you learned tonight. That grinning, glowing, globular invader of your living room is an inhabitant of the pumpkin patch, and if your doorbell rings and nobody's there, that was no Martian. It's Halloween.
Despite Welles' apology, many still believe that the notorious War Of The Worlds broadcast was indeed a caustic practical joke aimed at a nervous American public wary from the Great Depression and fearful of the looming threat of Hitler and another world war.
Orson Welles feared that his career had been ruined by the controversy, but just the opposite happened. The publicity helped him land a lucrative movie contract with RKO Pictures, for whom he would write, direct, and star in what many (including me) consider to be the greatest film ever made - Citizen Kane (1941).
To this day, the 1938 War Of The Worlds broadcast is rightfully considered an Old Time Radio (OTR) classic and is a treasured favorite of OTR enthusiasts like myself.
The famous radio broadcast would be recreated many times and inspire tribute productions such as the 1994 TV movie, Without Warning. The movie aired on the CBS network as both a Halloween special and a tribute to the Welles broadcast.
Taking the form of a mock newscast, the movie told the story of an extraterrestrial contact apparently misinterpreted by the military, which results in a declaration of war by the unseen aliens, who then attempt to wipe out the human race.
Like Orson Welles' famous radio play, the film included disclaimers before and after the commercial breaks stating that it was indeed just a movie. Still, CBS and its affiliate stations were flooded with phone calls from frightened viewers wondering if the film's mock newscast was real.
The other TV networks - ABC, NBC, and Fox - were also flooded with calls asking why they weren't covering the same important story as CBS. The CBS network was later condemned as irresponsible for broadcasting the film on Halloween night.
Like the listeners who tuned in late to Orson Welles' famous radio broadcast, many adult TV viewers who tuned in late to Without Warning because of trick-or-treating or Halloween parties were not sure what they were seeing. Real CBS News graphics were used for the film's mock newscast.
No TV network has attempted a similar Halloween night broadcast since then. Two years before CBS aired Without Warning, the BBC broadcast Ghostwatch, a mock BBC TV reality program supposedly broadcast live from an allegedly haunted house. Many terrified viewers thought it was real.
Quote Of The Day
"Ask not what you can do for your country. Ask what's for lunch." - Orson Welles
Today's video features the complete 1938 Mercury Theater broadcast of War Of The Worlds. Enjoy!