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The Night the Martians

The radio said Martian war machines were invading New York City. (Copyright Lee Krystek 1997)

It was a quiet Sunday night in greater New York City. October 30th, 1938: "mischief night." Thirty-two million people sat down by their radios to tune in and catch their favorite shows.

Charlie McCarthy was on at 8 o'clock. About ten minutes into the program a singer who was "less than compelling" took the microphone. This resulted in a number of people changing the dial, mid-show. At WABC, in New York, they found what was apparently a program of dance music: Ramon Raquello and his orchestra from the Meridian Room of the Park Plaza Hotel.

Suddenly the broadcast was interrupted by a series of news bulletins: A large meteor had impacted in New Jersey near Grover's Mill. The object turned out not to be a meteor, but a metal cylinder. The cylinder opened and Martians, driving huge fighting machines, emerged. They were advancing upon New York City.

Within thirty minutes the voice of a radio reporter, supposedly covering the event from a window in Manhattan, told of a gas attack on the city:

Smoke comes out...black smoke, drifting over the city. People in the streets see it now. They're running towards the East River... thousands of them, dropping like rats. Now the smoke's spreading faster. It's reached Times Square. People are trying to run away from it, but it's no use. They're falling like flies. Now the smoke's crossing Sixth Avenue...Fifth Avenue...one hundred yards away...it's fifty feet...

Then the reporter stopped talking. There was silence for a few seconds. Then the plaintive cry of a ham radio operator:

Isn't there anyone on the air? Isn't there anyone?

Many people panicked. They ran out in the streets ready to evacuate the city. Others called relatives on the telephone to warn them. Some called the police. A few simply broke down in tears. Apparently not many of them listened to what came next on the radio: An announcement that they had been listening to a Mercury Theatre on the Air production of H.G. Well's War of the Worlds.

The Mercury Theatre on the Air

Many years after the event Orson Wells, the producer of the Mercury Theatre, claimed he had "merrily anticipated" the kind of response the program drew, while being astonished by its intensity. Despite this it seems likely that none of the cast or crew of the Mercury Theatre really had any inkling of what effect the show would have before it aired.

The H.G. Wells story had been selected and assigned to Howard Koch (who later wrote the screenplay for the movie Casablanca) to adapt for the radio show. He found it difficult to write realizing that he could keep almost nothing from the original book and asked Orson Wells to give him a different subject. Wells insisted Koch continue with the work and instructed him to write the script in a newsreel format. The original book had been set in England, but Koch moved it to New Jersey to make it more immediate. He selected the town of Govers Mill, the location of the Martian landing, off a map.

To make his delivery convincing Frank Readick, who played a reporter, listened to a1937 tape of the Hindenburg disaster. Another actor, Kenny Delmar, practiced imitating the voice of then President Franklin Roosevelt, to make his part as high government official sound right.

Jumping Out to Yell "Boo!"

The Mercury Theatre on the Air, like most radio shows in those days, was done live and broadcast across the United States on the Columbia Broadcasting System. The program started with an opening narration by Orson Wells himself, then switched to the dance music interrupted by the bulletins. By the time script had reached the point of black smoke obliterating the city, halfway through, the cast knew something was up. The CBS switchboard was jammed with calls. Thousands of people were calling the police, newspapers and radio stations throughout cities in the United States and Canada seeking advice on protective measures against the gas raids (The New York Times by itself received some 875 inquiries). In Newark, New Jersey, dozens of families rushed out into the street with wet handkerchiefs and towels over their faces ready to flee from the killing smoke described on the radio.

Evening worship services in some churches were interrupted by the news. A few turned into "end of the world" prayer meetings. At St. Michael's Hospital in Newark fifteen people were treated for shock and hysteria, a scene repeated throughout New York area medical facilities. Some people claimed that the radio show had nearly given them a heart attack.

Because the broadcast had been carried throughout the country, the effect was nationwide. Listeners in the Western United States, though not fearing immediate danger for themselves, called relatives and friends back east who had not heard the program. This further fueled the panic.

Though initial reports indicated there had been many injuries and even deaths during the panic, the worst verified accident was a woman who broke her arm during a fall. Fortunately calm was restored in a few hours. While the show was still on, the Associated Press sent a message to its member newspapers: "Note: to Editors: Queries to newspapers from radio listeners throughout the United States tonight, regarding a reported meteor fall which killed a number of New Jerseyites, are the result of a studio dramatization." Similar messages were sent on police teletype networks, though in many cases officers had trouble convincing the public that the story they'd heard was fictional. One man called the Bronx Police Headquarters and stated:

"They're bombing New Jersey!"

"How do you know?" inquired an officer.

"I heard it on the radio," the voice replied. "Then I went to the roof and I could see the smoke from the bombs, drifting over toward New York. What shall I do?"

By the end of the show Orson Wells was nearly ecstatic about the effect of the broadcast. He added to the end of the show the message:

This is Orson Wells, 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 meant to be. The Mercury Theatre's own radio version of dressing up in a sheet and jumping out of a bush and saying Boo!...

Aftermath of the Invasion

The next day the public was indignant and the FCC threatened to investigate the show. CBS said it was considering dropping the Mercury Theatre on the Air from its lineup. Perhaps even more frightening than a real alien invasion was a proposal by Senator Herring of Iowa that all future radio broadcasts be reviewed by the government before presentation.

Many lawsuits were prepared but the radio network was able to defend itself by pointing to the multiple announcements made during the program reminding listeners that what they were hearing was a radio drama.

In the end the major effect of the broadcast was to increase the ratings of the Mercury Theatre on the Air and catapult Orson Well's career farther forward. Wells often credited his ability to go to Hollywood and make the renown motion picture Citizen Kane on the "success" of the War of the Worlds broadcast.

Why did it affect people so deeply? It may have been because the idea of "live" bulletins being used to interrupt scheduled radio programs was new. The War of the Worlds broadcast was probably the first time this was used as a dramatic device, confusing people about what was real and what was not.

The public was undoubtedly also jittery because of the political situation in Europe. In only six more years the United States would be drawn into WW II. Just a month before, a crisis in Munich had been covered on the radio the with same type of bulletins used in the broadcast. Welles writer, Koch, was even fooled by his own script. He slept though the broadcast to wake up the next day to hear people talking nervously about an invasion and jumped to the conclusion that Hilter had invaded another country and a war in Europe was about to break out.

Could it happen again? Many suggest that the public is now much too media savvy to be fooled by such a hoax. But consider this: In September of 1996 hundreds of people in Madrid, Spain were panicked by television "news" broadcasts depicting giant saucers hovering over United States landmarks. The segments turned out to be clever advertisements for a new alien invasion movie, Independence Day.

Copyright Lee Krystek 1997. All Rights Reserved.

 

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