EDIT BY METEOR WAYNE: jim specifically asked for and obtained permission to post this long excerpt. In general we don't allow such things, but because of the upcoming Halloween anniversery, the moderator and administration team decided to permit it. This should not be considered Carte Blanche to post similar long items without specific permission from the staff of SDC. Your cooperation is appreciated. Now with that out of the way, I can read it!
It was near the end of October. Business was better.
The war scare was over. More men were back at
work. Sales were picking up. On this particular
evening, October 30th, the Crossley service estimated
that thirty-two million people were listening in on
So went Orson Welles’ thumbnail sketch of the world and the nation at the beginning of The War of the Worlds radio broadcast on CBS. This other Welles, like his predecessor, would also prove to have a clever finger on the pulse of his country’s zeitgeist, and before the night was over he would make history.
Times were hard, to put it mildly. As the Great Depression lurched onward, business was better, but not by much. A recession within the Depression in late 1937 and early 1938 eroded much of what President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his “New Dealers” had accomplished in previous years, their primary tools being the famous (some would say infamous) array of alphabet soup government agencies created to reverse the tide of economic upheaval: the WPA, the CCC, FERA, the NYA & FTP to name just a few•. Roosevelt knew that the only solution to the nation’s dire situation was a fully reinvigorated economy. It would ultimately take a war to do that, but Admiral Yamamoto’s Pearl Harbor strike force was still three years in the future. The government simply couldn’t buy its way out of the Depression without bankrupting the country, although $3 billion in direct aid would be doled out, thus the old expression “Living on the dole.” New Deal programs were at best band- aids to stanch the economic and social bleeding, jump-start the economy and provide hope. “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” was one of Roosevelt’s most inspired lines.
Many were not comfortable with the New Deal, nor with Roosevelt, though he’d won office in two landslide elections. The crux to the New Deal—to the horror and chagrin of laissez-faire Republicans and other big business types who were blamed for the 1929 stock market crash which sparked the Depression—was Roosevelt’s deeply held conviction that government has an inherent obligation to improve the lot of its people. The “… promote the general welfare…” clause in the Constitution’s preamble was maddeningly vague… or was it? Many loathed Roosevelt as a socialist who was leading the country to ruin. I remember my grandparents telling me about those times. They said that when it came to FDR, there was no in between. People either loved him or hated him.
In October of 1938 far too many millions of Americans were still out of work and on some kind of relief. Factories sat idle. The Great Mid-West, once known as America’s breadbasket was now the Dust Bowl, as Mother Nature turned off the rain and blew hundreds of thousands of folks off of overgrazed farm land, sending them as far west as California to seek work. As farms failed and banks foreclosed on America’s embattled farmers, breadlines became an all-too-common sight in the nation’s cities as the scavenging unemployed sought help, but there were chronic shortages, for in a tragic irony grain silos in the mid-west were bulging but the market had imploded. Shipping it to the cities was no longer considered profitable. On one April day in 1932, a quarter of rural Mississippi was auctioned on the block. Men who were once proud providers for their families found themselves in the cities standing in blocks long lines from before sunup to apply for scarce jobs.
The war scare was over, Orson Welles told his audience that Sunday night in October of 1938. Which one?
Most of his listeners could be fairly certain that he was referring to the Nazi occupation of the Sudetenland just weeks earlier, which carved up a helpless Czechoslavakia, the result of the “Munich Pact” which British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain proudly hailed as the bedrock of “…peace for our time.” Others saw it differently, including the curmudgeonly, doom-saying Winston Churchill: “We have sustained a total and unmitigated defeat,” he growled to the House of Commons. “Do not blind ourselves to that… and do not suppose that this is the end. This is only the beginning of the reckoning.”
The word appeasement had just entered the international lexicon, and the world was finally beginning to pay attention to ranting German dictator Adolph Hitler, an odious excuse for a world leader with a Charlie Chaplin mustache.•
The previous month, in a radio broadcast carried live by WABC in New York—home of Welles’ Mercury Theatre on the Air—Americans listened transfixed to Chancellor Hitler as he cast his mesmerizing and manic spell upon an audience of over 140,00 brown-shirted faithful at Zeppelin Field in Munich. One hundred and twenty searchlights beamed vertically into the night to create what one observer described as “… a cathedral of ice.” After actually hearing Hitler’s gutteral voice and scores of thousands cheering Sieg Heil! over the radio that afternoon, Americans began to realize that somehow a diabolical lunatic had taken control of an otherwise advanced and important country.
In the Soviet Union Joseph Stalin—another homicidal dictator-- jammed the broadcast. He had no time for Hitler and his Nazis, although he did hold a grudging admiration for der Fuhrer. Stalin was quite busy solidifying his iron grip on absolute power. There was Communism and then there was Stalinism. While Socialists and Communists in this country viewed the Soviet Union as a kind of nascent utopia, the reality was different. The paranoid Stalin had killed millions of his own people and purged the military to ensure absolute loyalty. History tends to remember Hitler as the worst mass murderer of that era, when in fact it was Stalin. His enforced Great Famine alone killed ten million. Hitler at least waited for the war to start before beginning his genocide. Meanwhile, Stalin re-wrote Marx and Lenin to suit his own purposes. In 1938 most Americans still referred to the Russians as Bolsheviks.
The world was a troubled place and things were only going to get worse. A prescient Franklin Roosevelt said in 1936 that “… this generation has a rendezvous with destiny!” Little did that generation know that six decades later they would be called the Greatest Generation.
Italy’s Benito Mussolini had invaded powerless Ethiopia—using poison gas, no less—in 1935, and the father of modern fascism was rapidly building up his country’s military forces. Imperial Japan had been gobbling up more of China since 1931, and a year before The War of the Worlds broadcast had leveled the city of Nanking. Americans were shocked by the images they saw in newsreels. What they didn’t see was the wholesale slaughter, torture and rape of over one hundred thousand of innocent civilians. This was colonialism Japanese-style. Civil war raged in Spain, as Generalissimo Francisco Franco’s fascists battled the communist “republican” forces. Hitler and Stalin sent war supplies to their respective sides.
To most folks in this country on Halloween Eve, 1938, the real bogeymen were in Europe and across the Pacific. Americans could collectively scratch their heads and say “Too bad about Czechoslavakia. Hitler is a nut. We don’t trust those Bolsheviks, either. Mussolini thinks he’s the next Caesar, and where is Ethiopia on the map? Those Orientals have always been crafty little devils, we should raise some relief money for those poor Chinese and tell us again which side we should be rooting for in Spain? Thank God all of that grim news is so far away. Besides, we’re in the middle of the Depression. What can we do? Brother, can ya’ spare a dime?”
Not many Americans cared. Those were overseas problems. World War One, the “war to end all wars” had left a bitter taste. 50,000 American boys combat dead and for what? Europe seemed headed for another war but the next time, many believed, America should sit it out. Even FDR had run as an isolationist in 1932 and 1936. For the present, the United States was still an isolationist country in no mood to re-arm, a situation not without precedent. America had always been loathe to maintain large standing military forces. George Washington nearly lost the Revolutionary War due to lack of money, thus troops. Abraham Lincoln had to raise an army from scratch. President William McKinley was so desperate for troops to fight in Cuba in 1898 that he allowed Theodore Roosevelt to raise his Rough Riders. A less reactive President Woodrow Wilson would not allow Roosevelt to undertake a similar mission to France in 1917, even though it was taking General Pershing a long time to get an American army trained and ready to go. On the eve of Pearl Harbor, General George Marshall had had some success in getting the wheels rolling, thanks to the nation’s first peace- time draft, and not a moment too soon.
Ultimately the isolationists would be on the wrong side of history. In October of 1938, however, it was a perfectly acceptable position to take.
…the Crossley service had estimated that 32 million people were listening in on radios,” Orson Welles informed his listeners. Radio was past its infancy and coming into its own, although some (one in particular) would argue that radio was still new. New or not, Americans enjoyed a smorgasbord of the air, from the folksy wit of Will Rogers to the rabid anti-Roosevelt, anti-Semitic ravings of Father Charles Coughlin. They listened to their president, as well. Ironically, Rogers had advised FDR to stay off the air for a while following his landslide 1932 victory, but Roosevelt paid him no heed and began his famous “fireside chats”•.
Keep in mind that we live in the age of twenty four hour cable news and the Internet, not to mention satellite TV and radio. In 1938 television was around –barely—and would have been on the scene sooner if World War II hadn’t interrupted, so it was left to daily newspapers, weekly magazines and radio to provide information. Back then most newspapers put out three editions a day—which is why newspaper reporters were generically referred to as “the press”—and the press didn’t much care for that upstart radio, which was robbing it, albeit slowly, of its lifeblood: ad revenues. Only a handful of newspapers could boast of circulation figures exceeding one million, but, as Orson Welles pointed out, 32 million were listening to radio on the night of October 30. It’s been said that it is not wise to declare war on someone who buys ink by the barrel, and as the years went by and radio became more popular, the press was waiting for “radio” to screw up somehow, become passé’ and go the way of vaudeville. Two decades later radio would be having similar sentiments towards television.
Radio also brought into homes with more intimacy than television ever could The Shadow, a sepulchral-voiced crime-fighter who asked: “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!” This was always followed by insane cackling. The Shadow, a.k.a. “Lamont Cranston” was radio’s answer to other dual-identity crime-fighters such as The Scarlet Pimpernel and Zorro. Superman had only just made the scene in June of 1938 in Action Comics and Batman was still another year away. The Shadow was deliciously played over-the-top by twenty three year old boy genius Orson Welles. No one, with the possible exception of president Roosevelt, sounded better on radio.
Welles was in fact an impresario—actor, producer, director and writer—in a word brilliant. He was also in demand, juggling a grueling stage/radio/rehearsal schedule. Controversy came early to Welles and would stay with him forever, the first encounter being with the WPA’s Federal Theatre Program. Hey, even actors have to work. At the tender age of twenty he directed an all black production of MacBeth in Harlem for his friend John Houseman, with the other eyebrow raiser being the live chicken and goat sacrifices being performed on stage. The Mercury Theatre also mounted a production of Julius Ceasar, which featured Roman soldiers marching in jackboot step. Welles and Houseman survived the FTP’s scorn—art is art, after all—and soon found themselves at the Columbia Broadcasting System, along with their talented theatrical troupe.
CBS had been trying to develop a show to go head-to-head on Sunday nights against The Chase ‘n’ Sanborn Hour on NBC, which was a solid hit. The biggest draw on that program was a ventriloquist by the name of Edgar Bergen—whose daughter Candice would enjoy fame in movies and television from the mid-sixties to the present—and his wooden dummy, Charlie McCarthy. CBS knew that Welles was hot and with the right vehicle he could become nationally famous beyond his roles in The Shadow. They knew what they were getting in Welles and Houseman and were willing to take a chance on their avant-garde style in order to claim some segment of the Sunday night audience. But after sixteen weeks on the air, the now re-named Mercury Theatre on the Air had barely made a dent against The Chase’ n’ Sanborn Hour, despite good quality dramas adapted for radio by Welles and writer Howard W. Koch, including “dramatizations” of A Tale of Two Cities and Around the World in Eighty Days.
A ventriloquist and his dummy• were clobbering Charles Dickens and Jules Verne, and The Mercury Theatre on the Air was still without a commercial sponsor. Again, things were different back then. Decades later CBS Television wouldn’t hesitate to yank a poorly performing show after just three or four airings, but even those shows had commercials. Given a choice between an hour of dead air on Sunday nights or a low rated program, the network had decided to underwrite the costs of The Mercury Theatre on the Air, hoping that the show would eventually build a larger audience.
On the night of October 30, 1938, it did.
Announcer: Ladies and gentlemen the director of the Mercury Theatre on the Air and star of these broadcasts, Orson Welles…
Orson Welles: We know now that in the early years of the twentieth century this world was being watched closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own. We know now that as human beings busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinized and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinize the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. With infinite complacence people went to and fro over the earth about their little affairs, serene in the assurance of their dominion over this small spinning fragment of solar driftwood which by chance or design man has inherited out of the dark mystery of Time and Space. Yet across an immense ethereal gulf, minds that to our minds as ours are to the beasts in the jungle, intellects vast, cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes and slowly and surely drew their plans against us. In the thirty –ninth year of the twentieth century came the great disillusionment.
So far, so good. Howard W. Koch’s script was sounding very much like H.G. Wells’ work, but what was to follow for the next forty minutes bore little resemblance to Wells’ novel, to say the least. Curiously, no one was thrilled with the script, not Welles nor Houseman or the network. Technicians and secretaries at WABC in New York thought it was rather silly and sub-par for The Mercury Theatre.
Orson Welles: It was near the end of October. Business was better. The war scare was over. More men were back at work. Sales were picking up. On this particular evening, October 30th, the Crossley service estimated that thirty-two million people were listening in on radios.
Truthfully, what followed for the next forty minutes was nothing less than brilliant, but also a calculated risk on the part of Welles and Houseman. After all, The Mercury Theatre on the Air barely managed a feeble 3.6 Crossley rating compared to The Chase’ n’ Sanborn Hour’s 34.7. Would anyone else be listening? Not if the ratings for the previous sixteen weeks were any indication.
Next came a rather routine and dull weather report, then the program switched to the “Meridian Room” in the Hotel Park Plaza for the Spanish themes of Ramon Raquello and his Orchestra. “Ramon” and his boys were pretty good, too, especially with “La Cumparista”… not exactly Arturo Sandoval but heck, that would have to wait several decades. Then an announcer broke in with a news bulletin from “Intercontinental Radio News”—curiously not CBS news—informing listeners that several bursts of incandescent gas had been observed occurring at regular intervals on the planet Mars. Then there was more jukin’ n’ jivin with Ramon, followed by applause. The orchestra continued with the “ever popular” “Star Dust”, but not for long.
A different announcer interrupted to say that an interview with the noted astronomer “Professor Pierson” was being arranged at the Princeton Observatory in Princeton, New Jersey, in light of the strange doings on Mars. Back to the Meridian Room, some more music and then a previous announcer tells listeners that they are being switched live to reporter “Carl Phillips”, standing by to interview Professor Pierson. Welles—as Pierson—nonchalantly assures Phillips that nothing out of the ordinary was happening while pointing out that the chances against any living intelligence existing on Mars are a thousand to one.
Pierson is then handed a message, which he allows Carl Phillips to read on the air: “9:15 p.m. Eastern Standard Time. Seismograph registered shock of almost earthquake intensity occurring within a radius of twenty miles of Princeton. Please investigate.” Pierson sounds unconcerned and Phillips thanks him for his time, then sends the audience to “… our New York studio.”
The fact that it was about twelve minutes after 8:00 p.m. on the East Coast and not 9:15 should have been a clue to listeners, but that didn’t matter. The audience—such as it was—was about to increase exponentially, for around that time Fortune smiled on Orson Welles and The Mercury Theatre on the Air. Over at NBC, a mediocre singer was trying the patience of The Chase’ n’ Sanborn Hour’s listeners, so many of them simply turned the tuning knob on their radios to hear what else was on that Sunday night. Yes, people channel-surfed back in 1938, but those surfers were about to help make history, for they landed on CBS just in time to hear an authoritative-sounding announcement, and again note the time: “It is reported that at 8:50 p.m. a huge flaming object, believed to be a meteorite, fell on a farm in the neighborhood of Grovers Mill, New Jersey…”
Carl Phillips, listeners were told, had been dispatched to the scene with a special mobile unit. In the meantime “… we take you to the Hotel Martinet in Brooklyn, where Bobby Millete and his Orchestra are offering a program of dance music.”
(Swing band for twenty seconds… then cut)
We take you now to Grovers Mill, New Jersey.
(Crowd noises… police sirens)
Most of those who tuned over from NBC never tuned back that Sunday night, not even for Charlie McCarthy. What they were hearing sounded awfully real, and even if some remembered that the Mercury-Whatever-It-Is was supposed to be on, it was no longer. Important news bulletins were coming in. Like radio itself, however, channel surfing was a work-in-progress. Few that night bothered to tune back to NBC or over to the Mutual Network to hear if they were covering the story.
Meanwhile, back in Grovers Mill, things were heating up-- and about to get a lot hotter—but at that point most listeners had to be asking where in the hell Grovers Mill, New Jersey, was. Howard Koch hadn’t known either until just a few days before. He’d just blindly stuck a pin on a map and liked what he saw, for it was a serendipitous choice. Grovers Mill was close to Princeton University, and New Jersey was of course close to the “New York studio”.
Somehow Carl Phillips and Professor Pierson made it to the “Wilmuth” farm in Grovers Mill in record time. Pierson is still his cool, unflappable self as he studies the meteor half - buried in the ground. The police keep the crowd back as Phillips interviews Mr. Wilmuth, owner of the property. Pierson finally professes puzzlement at the meteor’s smooth, cylindrical shape, but before he can elaborate…
Just a minute! Something’s happening! Ladies and
gentlemen this is terrific! The end of the thing is
beginning to flake off! The top is beginning to rotate
like a screw! The thing must be hollow!
That’s a lot of exclamation points! The crowd grows audibly nervous at the unscrewing sound, followed by the hard clank of a large piece of falling metal.
Ladies and gentlemen this is the most terrible
thing I have ever witnessed… Wait a minute!
Someone’s crawling out of the hollow top.
Someone or… something. I can see peering
out of that black hole two luminous disks… are
they eyes? It might be a face. It might be…
Shouts of awe from the crowd as something climbs out of the “meteorite”. The visceral power of radio was about to be demonstrated as never before. Just as radio was able to bring Orson Welles as The Shadow into American homes with an intimacy that no other medium could match—not to mention Fibber McGee’s closet and Jack Benny’s vault—now an estimated 12 million people were trying to conjure in their minds’ eye exactly what was transpiring in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey, and therein lay the power of radio drama and of the medium itself, for listeners were using their imaginations based upon the audio clues they were given.
Phillips described the “something” as multi-tentacled , as large as a bear and glistening like wet leather. The eyes were black and gleamed like a serpent. Its rimless lips quivered with saliva. The monster seemed to have trouble adapting to our gravity for it moved awkwardly.
We are bringing you an eyewitness account
of what’s happening on the Wilmuth farm,
Grovers Mill, New Jersey. (More piano) We
now return you to Carl Phillips at Grovers
The crowd has moved back. Professor Pierson is talking with one of the policemen. Two other policemen have tied a white handkerchief to a pole and are slowly approaching the crashed object. It is hoped that the “creature” will understand a flag of truce. Suddenly there is a bizarre hissing sound followed by an unusual humming that grows louder.
A humped shape is rising out of the pit.
I can make out a small beam of light against
a mirror. What’s that? There’s a jet of flame
springing from the mirror, and it leaps right
at the advancing men. It strikes them head
on! Good Lord, they’re turning into flame!
(Screams and unearthly shrieks)
Now the whole field’s caught fire! (Explosion)
The woods… the barns… the gas tanks of
Automobiles… it’s spreading everywhere.
It’s coming this way. About twenty yards to
Listeners were told now that due to technical difficulties contact with the Wilmuth farm in Grovers Mill could not be re-established. Also, a California astronomer was convinced that the explosions seen on the planet Mars were nothing more than routine volcanic activity. Then amazingly another piano interlude!
Actually for the Martians to have blasted off and gotten to Jersey so quickly they would had to have been at warp- speed. It takes us a good nine months to get a space probe there. Still, anyone listening to the fantastic account wasn’t about to touch that tuning dial, and more were tuning in as people up and down the Eastern Seaboard hurriedly—and in many cases frantically—called their friends and neighbors. Ah, but the night is young!
In short order it was learned that at least forty persons were dead at the Wilmuth farm, their bodies burned beyond recognition. The New Jersey state militia had been activated and various counties placed under martial law, per “General Montgomery”. The fires were being brought under control and the creature with its “jet of flame” had retreated back into the meteor pit. It all sounded quite professional, almost business-like. Contact was briefly regained with Professor Pierson, who offered some rather dry conjecture as to the nature of the thing’s terrible weapon, reluctantly calling it a “heat ray”. Curiously, Pierson failed to comment not only on the purpose of the creature on Earth but its origin as well.
More bulletins came in. The Red Cross had been activated. Fires were under control at Grovers Mill. All quiet in the meteor pit. The charred body of Carl Phillips was positively identified. The broadcasting facilities had been placed at the disposal of the New Jersey state militia, which allowed “Captain Lansing” to assure the listeners that there was nothing at all to be excited about. Sounding not unlike one of General William Westmoreland’s Vietnam press briefings decades later, he seemed rather bored with the whole affair. Everything was under control. Seven thousand men armed with rifles and machine guns had the pit surrounded. Captain Lansing virtually denied that anything out of the ordinary had happened: “… it’s an interesting outing for the troops.” The fires had probably been started by campers. He sounded ready to doze off, until something began to rise up out of the pit: “… solid metal…” Lansing said. “ It’s going higher and higher. Why, it’s standing on legs… actually rearing up on a sort of metal framework. Now it’s reaching above the trees and the searchlights are on it. Hold on!”
Well, at least our good Captain Lansing didn’t try to claim that the object was merely the planet Venus or swamp gas, as his real-life counterparts would do regularly with other “objects”… in the future!
Ladies and gentlemen I have a grave announcement
to make. Incredible as it may seem, both the
observations of science and the evidence of our
own eyes lead to the inescapable assumption
that those strange beings who landed in the
Jersey farmlands tonight are the vanguard of
an invading army from the planet Mars. The
battle which took place at Grovers Mill has ended
in one of the most startling defeats ever suffered
by any army in modern times: seven thousand
men armed with rifles and machine guns pitted
against a single fighting machine of the invaders
from Mars. One hundred and twenty known
Meanwhile, back in reality, a couple of genuine Princeton professors had piled into a car and raced to Grovers Mill to find the meteor, not Martians•. What they found instead were wide-eyed, shotgun-toting residents wandering about in terrified fascination, ready for the Martians but wondering exactly where the battle was raging. There was a Wilson farm nearby, but nothing by the name of Wilmuth. They had seen no forest fires, no searchlights and certainly not seven thousand troops armed with rifles and machine guns. Besides, how had all of those men gotten there so quickly, and where were they? The lack of continued gunfire—or any gunfire-- characteristic of a battle also had them puzzled.
Additional news bulletins poured in quickly. Communications down from Pennsylvania to the Atlantic Ocean. Railroad tracks torn up and service from New York to Philadelphia discontinued. All highways hopelessly clogged with frantic human traffic. Police and Army reserves unable to control the panic. Then came the voice of the “Secretary of the Interior”, sounding perilously similar to president Roosevelt, acknowledging the gravity of the situation but asking citizens to place their faith in God and the military forces. The military forces of the United States. In 1938? Perhaps that is one reason why history has been unable to deal harshly with those who took the broadcast seriously enough to flee for their lives.
Another battle was shaping up, this one in the Watchtung Mountains, where the army had managed to get field pieces in place barely in time in an attempt to stop a group of Martian machines. “Special wires” were run to the artillery line to allow listeners to hear the action. The gunners actually nailed one of the machines, but now a new twist: a black cloud of poison gas which quickly swept over the battlefield, blinding and choking the artillerymen who coughed through their gas masks and bravely continued firing.
That action was observed by a group of Army Air Corps bombers, whose pilots deduced that the Martian’s objective was New York City. The magic of radio—and appropriately Orson Welles was an amateur magician—placed the audience in the cockpit of the lead plane as the squadron commander described the battle and his own attack to headquarters at Langham Field, Virginia. Once again it was a grotesquely lob-sided fight, as the lead plane, caught in a heat ray and unable to drop its bombs, deliberately crashes into one of the Martian machines.
Eight army bombers in engagement with enemy
tripod machines over Jersey flats. Engines
incapacitated by heat ray. All crashed. One
enemy machine destroyed. Enemy now
discharging heavy smoke in direction of—
This is Newark, New Jersey… This is Newark,
New Jersey… Warning! Poisonous black smoke
pouring in from Jersey marshes. Reaches South
Street. Gas masks useless. Urge population
to move into open spaces…
More radio chatter… call signs. How’s reception? Little wonder folks didn’t dare tune back to NBC or the Mutual Network. They sat in their homes and in their cars and listened to what they thought was an honest-to-God invasion from Mars that Sunday night. It sounded so real, and it was all happening so quickly, wasn’t it?
I’m speaking from the roof of the Broadcasting
Building… New York City. The bells you hear are
ringing to warn the people to evacuate the city as
the Martians approach. Estimated in last two hours
three million people have moved out along the roads
to the north. Hutchinson River Parkway still kept
open for motor traffic. Avoid bridges to Long
Island… hopelessly jammed. All communication
with Jersey closed ten minutes ago. No more
defenses. Our army wiped out… artillery, air force,
everything wiped out. This may be the last
broadcast. We’ll stay here to the end… People are
holding service below us… in the cathedral
(Voices singing hymns)
Now I look down the harbor. All manner of boats,
Overloaded with fleeing population, pulling out
(Sound of boat whistles)
Conspicuous by its absence was the cacophony of a New York City traffic jam. Aside from that, The Mercury Theatre on the Air’s engineers did a great job that night, considering how low-tech radio was by today’s standards.
The Martians were unstoppable. Their machines waded across the Hudson River, spewing the deadly black smoke. The brave announcer kept going for as long as he could, describing the tableau as the smoke rolled into Times Square. People were dropping like flies, and finally the announcer did as well. Then came perhaps the most chilling moment of the broadcast: a seemingly disembodied voice calling out into the night as boat whistles fade in the background.
2X2L calling CQ…
2X2L calling CQ…
2X2L calling CQ… New York?
Isn’t there anyone on the air?
Isn’t there anyone on the air?
Isn’t there anyone… ?
For decades, journalists, social historians, broadcast veterans and even psychologists would wonder what would have happened had Welles ended the show right there. The previous forty minutes would be a tough act to follow and he might have entertained thoughts of just tossing the rest of the script, but the fact was that there was still twenty minutes of air- time to fill. With no commercials, what listeners—many of them badly shaken, others outright terrified—heard next was:
“You are listening to a CBS presentation of Orson Welles and The Mercury Theatre on the Air in an original dramatization of The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells. The performance will continue after a brief intermission. This is the Columbia Broadcasting System.”
A “brief intermission” did not mean dead air. Music played for several seconds. That should have done the trick, right? It’s just a radio show. They told us that at the beginning, didn’t they? And a damned fine radio show at that!
What Welles and his talented troupe of radio thespians had no way of knowing was that before the scheduled break, all un-shirted hell had broken loose, and not just in New York and New Jersey. Life was imitating art, or at the very least radio. The CBS switchboard lit up, and the phone lines to hundreds of police precincts were jammed. Newspapers were inundated by calls as people demanded to know what was going on and what to do. CBS told its operators to simply remind folks that it was just a radio play. The police told them to keep calm. Night editors at newspaper city desks didn’t know what they were talking about, save for The New York Times, but only because they’d written about Orson Welles that day. A CBS point-man at the studio demanded that John Houseman break into the broadcast and read a disclaimer but Houseman refused, pointing up that there was only five minutes left until the break.
The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells,
starring Orson Welles and the Mercury
Theatre on the Air.
(Music up—dramatic, lonely theme)
The second act of the show finally started to sound like Wells’ novel. A now-humbled and awestruck Professor Pierson, amazed that he was still alive, wanders the shattered countryside on his way back to the city, offering narrative speculation as to mankind’s fate under the Martians. That should have been obvious. By then, however, in what was surely an ironic turnabout, The Mercury Theatre on the Air had lost most of its audience. Houseman would later lament that fact. The second act was “… extremely well written and sensitively played, but nobody heard it.”
By nine o’clock Eastern Standard Time the Martians were history. The aliens of course had no defense against Earth’s teeming bacteria… “slain after all man’s defenses had failed, by the humblest thing God in His wisdom put upon this earth.” And Orson Welles had made history, though he didn’t know that yet.
For the rest of his life—and depending upon whom he was talking to—Welles never completely ‘fessed up to pre-meditated panic or inspiring a mob. Houseman would dismiss such charges as “rubbish”. Welles would always go out of his way to equate the broadcast with putting on a sheet, running down the hall and shouting Boo! They didn’t call him a boy genius for nothing, however. As H.G. Wells had done with his novel, Orson Welles had taken the measure of his audience—and the country in general—and measured well, which would explain why he closed the show with the following, which was already in the script and not hastily written before they went off the air, as some have speculated:
“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 Theatre’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 C.B.S. 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, 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.”
Tonight the Columbia Broadcasting System
and its affiliated stations coast-to-coast have brought
you The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells, the
seventeenth in its weekly series of dramatic broadcasts
featuring Orson Welles and The Mercury Theatre on
the Air. Next week we present a dramatization of
three famous short stories… This is the Columbia
Now it was Welles’ turn to panic. As composer/conductor Bernard Hermann cued down the orchestra, the studio was packed with CBS brass and New York City cops. Houseman rushed in and ordered everyone to grab all of the scripts and head downstairs and wait. The press would be looking for them and neither Houseman or Welles had any idea what to say, if anything. For the rest of the night the network aired repeated disclaimers, assuring everyone that it had just been a radio play.
The stories of the country’s reaction to the show have become the stuff of legend. It was finally determined that over 12 million people ultimately tuned into the broadcast at its height—word spread fast--and of that number 3 million took it seriously… a drop in the bucket compared with the country’s population at that time of around 130 million, but a lot of folks nonetheless. That was one helluva program, wasn’t it? Here’s a sample of what followed from across the country:
“At first I thought it was a lot of Buck Rogers stuff, but when a friend telephoned me that general orders had been issued to evacuate everyone from the metropolitan area, I put the customers out, closed the place and started to drive home.”
--a bartender from West Orange,
“It all sounded perfectly real until people began hopping around too fast… when people moved twenty miles in a couple of minutes, I put my tongue in my cheek and figured it was just about the smartest play I’d ever heard.”
“The gas was supposed to be spreading up north. I didn’t have any idea exactly what I was fleeing from, and that made me all the more afraid. All I could think of was being burned or being gassed.”
--a college senior
One man packed his family into their car, determined to get well away from the Martians. He backed right through the garage door. “We’re never gonna’ be needing that again anyway,” he told his wife.
Hundreds of thousands of telephone calls cascaded into radio stations, firehouses, newspaper offices, police stations, military bases and even power companies. People wanted to know the latest and what to do. In many cities across the country traffic cops watched dumbfounded as blew through red lights and past stop signs. On the west coast the power went out in a small town at precisely the moment the Martians were bringing down power lines. The result was bedlam. Many folks no longer had their radios to keep them informed.
“I knew it was the Germans trying to gas all of us. When the announcer kept calling them people from Mars, I thought he was just ignorant and didn’t know yet that Hitler had sent them all.”
“I felt it might be the Japanese—they are so crafty.”
“I believed the broadcast as soon as I heard the professor from Princeton and the officials in Washington. I knew it was an awfully dangerous situation when all those military men were there and the Secretary of State spoke.”
In Newark, New Jersey, all the occupants of a block of flats left their homes with wet towels around their heads as improvised gas masks, and a teenager who heard about the “invasion” while attending a church meeting consoled herself by saying “I am in the Lord’s House.”
In that Sunday’s edition of The New York Times, the entertainment section featured a story about radio drama, including a picture of Orson Welles rehearsing with The Mercury Theatre and noting: “Tonight’s show is War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells.”
“I never hugged my radio so closely as I did last night. I held a crucifix in my hand and prayed while looking out of my open window for falling meteors. I also wanted to get a faint whiff of the gas so that I would know when to close my window and hermetically seal my room with waterproof cement or anything else I could get hold of. My plan was to stay in the room and hope that I would not suffocate before the gas blew away. When the monsters were wading across the Hudson River and coming into New York, I wanted to run up on my roof to see what they looked like, but I could not leave my radio while it was telling me of their whereabouts.”
“I listened from the very beginning. I always listen to The Mercury Theatre. But when the flashes came, I thought they were really interrupting the play.”
“The broadcast had us all worried, but I knew it would scare at least ten years’ life out of my mother-in-law.”
“It was the thrill of a lifetime—to hear something like that and think it’s real.”
Remember, this happened before television, before CNN, before the Internet and before cell phones. It truly was a different, simpler time, before America lost its innocence on December 7, 1941. Overnight, The War of the Worlds caused radio to lose innocence, and its fake news bulletins reporting grim happenings were harbingers of its things to come. It was a shot across the bow, and many in the press were quick to recognize that, even those who still hoped that commercial radio would fade like some passing fad.
After holding Welles, Houseman and The Mercury Theatre players, the police let them slip out the back of the building. There was really nothing to charge them with. Welles walked a few blocks down a street thankfully devoid of heat rays and poison gas and entered the auditorium where the Mercury stage cast was rehearsing a play. He knew what was coming and sure enough, the press was waiting for him. Ever the showman, he bounded up on the stage, dismissed his cast then turned to face the glare of popping flashbulbs. A classic photograph taken of Welles that night shows him standing with his arms outstretched, looking bewildered, as if to say “I didn’t know…”
Didn’t he? Here’s what he had to say in 1955: “We weren’t as innocent as we meant to be when we did the Martian broadcast. We were fed up with the way in which everything that came over this new magic box, the radio, was being swallowed… So, in a way, our broadcast was an assault on the credibility of that machine…”
FAKE RADIO ‘WAR’
So screamed the next day’s N.Y. Daily News headline, over that photo of Welles looking so, well… misunderstood. The New York Times was of course somewhat more restrained in smaller typeset: Radio Listeners In Panic, Taking War Drama as Fact. Now the press was going to put that upstart radio in its place, or so it seemed. After grilling Welles at another press conference that Monday morning, what they finally wrote would surprise many, most of all Orson Welles. Despite the hysteria, no one—amazingly—had been killed or seriously injured. CBS quickly issued a public apology and promised never to let such a thing happen again. That was the least they could do, for they were just as much on the hot seat as Welles and company. After all, it was their network. They decided what went on the air and what didn’t. They had final script approval and had in fact ordered some minor last minute changes to Koch’s radio play. Hundreds of lawsuits would be filed against CBS and Orson Welles but none of them stuck, if only because there was no legal precedent for what happened and it seemed that no judge could be found who was prepared to establish one. The government would later step in by passing a federal regulation prohibiting the “parodying” of radio on radio.
In the end the nation’s press largely gave Welles a pass and many rallied to his defense: “Hitler managed to scare all Europe to its knees a month ago, but he at least had an army and an air force to back up his shrieking words,” was New York Tribune columnist Dorothy Thompson’s back-handed compliment to Welles. “… far from blaming Mr. Orson Welles, he ought to be given a Congressional medal and a national prize for having made the most amazing and important contributions to the social sciences,” she continued. Other journalists feared the government imposing draconian censorship on radio, and if that could happen to radio then what would be next, The New York Times? They stood by Welles, even though their publishers knew that all of the fuss would only boost his ratings and maybe even get him a commercial sponsor, which of course it did!
RADIO DOES U.S. A FAVOR
That was Variety’s November 2 headline, making the logical link to fear of a Martian invasion to fear of a Nazi one, but the Hollywood trade paper failed to ask an obvious question: If the Nazis attack and Americans learn of it on the radio, will they believe it after that Martian broadcast? In fact, three years later most Americans would first learn of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor from their radios, and many were initially skeptical, thinking it to be another Orson Welles stunt… which would also have ramifications in the future when it came to “flying saucers”.
After sixteen low-rated weeks on the air followed by a seventeenth that went out of the ballpark, The Mercury Theatre on the Air did in fact get its first commercial sponsor: The Campbell Soup Company. That made the network very happy so it was hard for them to stay mad at Welles. Still, there was a cautionary lesson that was not lost on either the network or Orson Welles: The airwaves are licensed by the government, which means that they belong to the people, and Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre on the Air had gone into the people’s homes one night courtesy of the Columbia Broadcasting System and scared the living bejeezus out of almost three million of them. Commercial radio, despite Welles’ lame defense that “… radio is new…” was now overnight in the big leagues and being taken seriously. It was a powerful tool, as The War of the Worlds had proven all too well, and that lesson would not be forgotten by future television executives, many of whom would move there from careers in radio.
On the second anniversary of the broadcast, Welles finally met Wells face-to-face. H.G. Wells was touring America in the fall of 1940 to campaign for his friend President Franklin Roosevelt—who was seeking an unprecedented third term—and to raise badly needed war relief funds for Great Britain, which by then was being pounded day and night by Hitler’s Luftwaffe. At a radio station in Texas, Welles presented Wells with a copy of the radio play’s script. Wells was long over his outrage over The Mercury Theatre’s production. He initially thought that they were simply going to read his novel on the air. When sales of his 1897 novel increased dramatically in the wake of the broadcast, he minimized his criticisms.
When a reporter at the station said something about not being able to “belittle” the public’s reaction to The War of the Worlds radio play, Welles again found himself on the defensive and tried to enlist Wells’ help. But Wells--with a burning, shattered London and a possible German invasion looming large in his thoughts--would have none of it. “You aren’t quite serious in America yet,” he chided the junior Welles. “You haven’t got the war right under your… chins… and consequently you can still play with ideas of terror and conflict.” Well put.