Before television, there was radio, with only two national radio networks, NBC and CBS. They broadcast many sit-coms such as George Burns and Gracie Allen, Fibber McGee and Molly and the like.
The most popular show in America during the mid 1930s was NBC’s “Chase and Sanborn Radio Hour,” a variety program, featuring the playful antics of ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummies, Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd. More than 50 million people tuned in each Sunday evening to Chase and Sanborn, making stiff competition for CBS. In fact, CBS could not even find a sponsor willing to underwrite a show to go up against Bergen.
Having already lost the low-brow audience, CBS aimed instead for some high culture and commissioned Orson Welles, then a 23-year-old director, who had thrilled theater critics with his unusual staging of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” (set in Haiti with an all black cast), to provide them each week with a one-hour, commercial free drama aired directly opposite Bergen and McCarthy.
On the night of Oct. 30, 1938, Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater opted to present a radio play based on H.G. Wells’ “The War of the Worlds.”
Disappointed with the script they had assembled, the young director and his colleagues decided at the last minute to exploit the growing reputation of the radio as the medium of truth and offered the play’s events as realistic as possible.
They would begin as if they were presenting an evening of music from a hotel ballroom and then interrupt the band with a sudden announcement that Martians had landed on a farm near Grover’s Mill, New Jersey. From there, the story would unfold much as a real crisis might, with radio reporters relaying dispatches from the scene.
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is the most terrifying thing I have ever witnessed…” sobbed the correspondent, as he encountered the invaders. “There, I can see the thing’s body. It’s as large as a bear and it glistens like wet leather … their eyes are black and gleam like a serpent. The mouth is V-shaped with saliva dripping from its rimless lips…”
Orson Welles had provided the proper disclaimer at the top of the hour, assuring people that what they were about to hear was fiction and the Mercury Theater’s loyal listeners, few though they might be, no doubt took it for what it was.
What Welles had not anticipated, was the large number of people who would join his drama after it had already begun, maybe they’d taken in the Chase and Sanborn show, then during a commercial, spun the dial around only to come upon the “news bulletin” describing the invasion from Mars.
In the course of a single hour, Welles’ Martians landed on earth, had constructed some deadly heat-ray machines, defeated the American Army, destroyed radio communications, and occupied large sections of the country.
Remarkably, hundreds of thousands of Americans believed every word of it. Radio stations were inundated with calls from listeners who were gripped with fear; train stations became crowded with families demanding tickets for “anywhere.” In New York City, theaters were emptied in panic and in northern New Jersey – the site of the Martian landing – roads were jammed with people who had packed their cars with their most precious belongings and set out to flee extraterrestrial annihilation.
When Welles signed off at 9 p.m., he was greeted by a throng of New York City police, ready to arrest him for the hysteria his broadcast had set off. Yet in fact, he had broken no laws.
Instead, there was a mild reprimand from the Federal Communications Commission, and, for the next two days, CBS followed its regular network identification tag with a line saying “the entire story was entirely fiction.”
Ref: “The Century” by Peter Jennings and Todd Brewster
To reach Ted W. Stillwell send email to [email protected], or call him at 816-896-3592.