Orson Welles caused a nationwide panic in the US when he broadcast his “War of the Worlds” radio play on Sunday night, October 30, 1938. It was so realistic, listeners who tuned in late after 8:00 PM thought they were hearing horrifying news accounts of an actual Martian invasion! Remember, there was no television yet in the 1930s.
Welles was only 23 years old when his Mercury Theater Company decided to present a modernized version of H.G. Wells’ classic science fiction novel on CBS Radio – one that was taking place in the present, rather than last century. His Mercury Theatre on the Air had already put on successful radio plays of Julius Caesar and Oliver Twist. Welles was already internationally famous in radio as the sinister baritone voice of “The Shadow,” a hit mystery program.
Sunday evenings in the 1930’s were prime-time in Radio’s Golden Age of listeners. Millions of Americans had their large console radios tuned in, with the entire family gathered around. If you happened to tune in late and miss the introduction of the play, Welles’ program began innocently enough, with peppy Big Band dance music, supposedly from the Hotel Park Plaza in New York City. But then an announcer broke in to report that a college professor watching at an observatory had detected strange explosions on the red planet Mars, earth’s neighbor. This was followed by another yet urgent interruption in which listeners were told a large meteor had just crashed into a farm in Grovers Mills, New Jersey near Princeton! Then came more infuriating dance music as the audience listened and waited.
Soon, a breathless announcer claimed to be at the crash site, along with the National Guard. He describing in great detail a metallic, cylindrical Spaceship with a hideous Martian emerging!!
The Martian War Machine then fired a “heat-ray” disintegrating the reporter and all 7,000 National Guardsman! The radio went deadly silent for an entire minute. Next, another voice somberly announced the deaths in Grover’s Mill and reported that other “Martian cylinders” were now landing in Chicago, Buffalo and St. Louis! More National Guard troops were being deployed. Oh my God! listeners thought, IT’S AN INVASION! The radio actors were VERY good at their job, portraying terrified announcers and using plenty of creepy alien sound effects. Announcers reported widespread panic had broken out in all major US cities, with thousands of families desperately trying to flee the oncoming Martian havoc.
In fact, that’s what was exactly happening. The United States was already on nervous edge, with news of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Army threatening yet another world war in Europe. As many as a million radio listeners believed that a Real Martian Invasion was actually occurring. Panic broke out across the country with terrified families jamming the highways to escape the cities, calling confused police departments and begging for gas masks. Others showed up with rifles and shotguns, ready to fight and defend America against the Martians.
Phones began ringing constantly at the CBS Radio Studio in New York City. When news of the real-life panic reached Welles in the studio, he was shocked. He personally went on the air and broke into the show to remind listeners that it was just a radio play, and that none of it was real. The spell was broken for those listening. For those already fleeing, the news would slowly trickle in. Can you imagine the reaction? As word reached the streets, confused and beleaguered Americans turned around and went back to their homes.
That night, mayors across America wanted Welles’ head and the police wanted him arrested. They stormed the CBS Radio Studio in Manhattan wanting to “punch him in the kisser.” The entire cast and producers sneaked out of the building via a rear exit. The next day (Halloween by chance), a bewildered-looking Orson Welles held a quick press conference. He stated he never had any intention of deceiving people or inciting a panic. He was just trying to put on a good show for his loyal audience. In fact, the arrogant and ego-centric Welles was quite thrilled with the panic he caused and soaked up the national attention.
As the saying goes, there is no such thing as bad publicity. The fame helped land young Orson Welles a lucrative movie contract in Hollywood, California. He soon left New York and radio behind for a lucrative career in motion pictures. Say what you will of the man, you cannot deny his talent. Just two years later, he directed, co-wrote, produced, and starred in the Academy Award winning movie Citizen Kane. To this day it is hailed as one of the greatest films every made. It received nine Oscar nominations and won for Best Screenplay.
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