Between 8:00 and 9:00 p.m. on October 30, 1938, listeners tuning in to the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) radio broadcast thought they were listening to live orchestral music from Park Plaza in New York. What they weren’t expecting to hear were special bulletins and interviews interrupting the hour-long program.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we interrupt our program of dance music to bring you a special bulletin from the Intercontinental Radio News. At twenty minutes before eight, central time, Professor Farrell of the Mount Jennings Observatory, Chicago, Illinois, reports observing several explosions of incandescent gas, occurring at regular intervals on the planet Mars…Ladies and gentlemen…Seismograph registered shock of almost earthquake intensity occurring within a radius of twenty miles of Princeton. Please investigate…Could this occurrence possibly have something to do with the disturbances observed on the planet Mars? Ladies and gentlemen…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…we have dispatched a special mobile unit to the scene…Ladies and gentlemen…object itself doesn’t look very much like a meteor…looks more like a huge cylinder…I’ve never seen anything like it…Just a minute…something’s happening! Ladies and gentlemen…this is terrific…the top is beginning to rotate like a screw…she’s moving…the darn thing’s unscrewing…keep back, keep back! Ladies and gentlemen, this is the most terrifying thing I’ve ever witnessed…SCREAMS AND UNEARTHLY SHRIEKS…now the whole field’s caught fire…EXPLOSION THEN DEAD SILENCE.”
Then a little bit later, “Ladies and gentlemen…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 the last two hours three million people have moved out along the road to the north, Hutchison River Parkway still kept open for motor traffic. Avoid bridges to Long Island…hopelessly jammed. All communication with Jersey shore 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.”
Now imagine what might have been going through listeners’ minds who had tuned in to the program midway through it, hearing claims that aliens from Mars had invaded New Jersey. With the concerns of World War II imminent, hysteria and panic ensued; the phone lines at CBS were jammed with callers, and police officers arrived at the studio ready to shut down the production. It wasn’t until the close of that long hour that all was revealed to be what it really was: a Halloween hoax, orchestrated by a young Orson Welles. The above was taken as excerpts from the radio transcript airing that night.
The twenty-three-year-old Welles directed and narrated an adaptation of H.G. Wells’ (no relation) science fiction classic, The War of the Worlds, for an episode of the Mercury Theatre on the Air, complete with live bulletins and sound effects. While the novel’s aliens invaded Great Britain, Welles and company had the Martians landing in the United States with actors reacting to the fictional tale. It stirred up a lot of trouble for the network and the actors, with the Federal Communications Commission launching an investigation into Welles that would eventually be dropped. The actor even lamented that he feared his career was over.
Legend of the panic escalated and grew over the years. Decades later, some say the panic was nothing more than myth and hype created mostly by newspapers taking vengeance against broadcasters. They argued that the Mercury Theatre on the Air had few listeners, and the newspapers sensationalized the coverage to place doubt with advertisers about the integrity of radio broadcasts. It seemed to be about revenue.
Orson Welles didn’t disappear; he lived until the age of seventy, working in theatre, film and radio. I first learned about the early radio broadcast during a film class in college. We researched Welles and watched his 1941 classic, Citizen Kane (with Welles’ character based on newspaper magnate, William Randolph Hearst). Told in flashback, the movie is about a reporter who goes in search of discovering the meaning of Kane’s dying word, “Rosebud”. While I won’t give away the meaning behind it, I do recall being rather close in what I thought it to be. I also remember thinking Orson Welles (as co-screenwriter) was very clever with that script; some probably believe he was just as clever in what he did with that radio broadcast three years earlier, even though he claimed there was no intent behind it.
Finally, as we near the 79th anniversary of that infamous broadcast which instilled fear and belief that Martians were walking on earth, I’ll end with the final statement of the transcript. Also, Happy Halloween, everyone. May there be no Martians threatening tricks this All Hallows’ Eve.
“Orson Welles: 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 best next 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 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 Hallowe’en.”
|Part of the transcript for the 1938 radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds|