Old Time Radio Part 5…The Program that Panicked America!

A Demonstration in the Power of the Theater of the Mind

It was October 30, 1938, Halloween Eve, and it started out simply enough. That evening the announcer said, “The Columbia Broadcasting System and its affiliated stations present Orson Welles and the Mercury Theater On The Air in ‘The War of the Worlds’ by H.G. Wells.” This was followed by the Mercury Theater’s theme music and an introduction by Orson Welles. What followed in the next hour, a dramatization of the science fiction classic presented as special news bulletins interrupting a make-believe music program, panicked the nation and created the most famous single episode of OTR in history.

Between 9 PM Easter Standard Time and dawn of the next day men, women and children in scores of towns and cities across the nation were in flight from objects that only existed in their imaginations. Estimates are that six million Americans heard that broadcast and of that one million panicked. Many wonder how such a thing was possible. After all, the show started with the aforementioned announcement, followed by Orson Welles orating about how Mankind has been watched since the beginning of the 20th Century.

Theories abound. Some believe those who panicked missed the opening and tuned in immediately afterward. It wasn’t until 34 minutes into the broadcast that the audience was again informed this was a production of the Mercury Theater.

What is the psychology behind it all? Why was rational behavior suspended on such a vast scale? In the course of 45 minutes of actual time — as differentiated from subjective or fictional time — the invading Martians were supposedly able to blast off from their planet, land on the earth, set up their destructive machines, defeat our army, disrupt communications, demoralize the population, and occupy whole sections of the country. In just 45 minutes.

Was it all a simple misunderstanding or was it a cagey calculation on Welles’ part? Mercury Theater aired opposite the very popular “Chase and Sandborn Hour,” a show with five times the audience featuring some top name entertainers, such as actor Don Ameche, ventriloquist Edgar Bergen, and singer Nelson Eddy. It is believed that the “Chase and Sandborn Hour” had ended its first comedy skit and was going to a musical number at the time Mercury Theater made its first announcement from Grover’s Mill.

In other words, many unwary listeners “channel surfing” came upon the “War of the Worlds” just as it was making its in the field newsflash about something having landed: “Ladies and gentleman, this is terrific, this end of the thing is beginning to flake off. The top is beginning to rotate like a screw. And this thing must be hollow. (sounds of confusion and panic). Ladies and gentlemen this is the most terrifying thing I’ve ever witnessed. Wait a minute, something, I can see is coming out of that black hole, two luminous discs, the eyes, might be a face, good heavens, something wriggling out of the shadow like a grey snake. Now it’s another one and another one and another one. They look like tentacles to me. I can see the thing’s body now. It’s large, large as a bear. It glistens like wet leather. But that face, it’s, ladies and gentlemen, it’s indescribable, I can barely force myself to keep looking at it, it’s awful.”
“We are bringing you an eye witness account of what’s happening on the Wilmette Farm in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey.”

Many claim that the reports of panic caused by the broadcast are nothing more than an urban myth, an American legend created by anecdotal stories and blown out of proportion. Anecdotal or not, there are far too many stories both in newspapers, in Police Department logs, and elsewhere for it not to be true (see sidebar). Consider that back in those days, newsflashes were commonplace and trusted to give factual news. False newsflashes, even for entertainment, were unheard of at that time. There was an almost naïve trust in the radio, a trust that was about to be broken.

Consider also that panic and fear were often easily induced. People fainted when Lon Chaney pulled off his mask in “The Phantom of the Opera” revealing his ghastly makeup. Again, because of heightened tensions overseas, it has been said that people believed it was actually the Germans landing in some sort of assault on American soil. Why then are the stories of panic so hard to believe?

The script was written by Howard Koch, who wrote most of the radio plays for the Mercury Theater’s Sunday evening programs during the six months he was on board. One day he was handed H.G. Well’s “War of the Worlds” with instructions to dramatize it. The novel was written in conventional narrative style and Koch quickly realized he could use practically nothing but the author’s idea of a Martian invasion and a description of their appearance and machines.

Invasion Panics Nations

PITTSBURTH–A man returned home in the midst of the broadcast and found his wife, a bottle of poison in her hand, screaming, “I’d rather die this way than like that.”
SAN FRANSCISCO–An offer to volunteer in stopping an invasion from Mars came among hundreds of telephone inquiries to police and newspapers during the radio dramatization of H.G. Wells’ story. One excited man called Oakland police and shouted, “My God! Where can I volunteer my services? We’ve got to stop this awful thing!”
INDIANAPOLIS–A woman ran into a church screaming, “New York’s destroyed; it’s the end of the world. You might as well go home to die. I just heard it on the radio.” Services were dismissed immediately.
BREVARD, N.C.–Five Brevard College students fainted and panic gripped the campus for a half hour with many students fighting for telephones to inform their parents to come and get them.
MILWAUKEE–A newspaper switchboard operator got several calls saying “it was thrilling; there ought to be more programs like that.” She reported most men liked the program; most women didn’t.
BOSTON–One woman declared she could “see the fire” and told the Boston Globe she and many others in her neighborhood were “getting out of here.”

In short, he had been asked to do an almost entirely original, hour-length play in six days. As history shows, he was able to do it and the result sent people fleeing blindly in every direction, hundreds of cars racing down streets, disregarding traffic lights to the complete bewilderment of policemen.

Orson Welles became an instant world celebrity and transported the Mercury players to Hollywood to make the classic movie “Citizen Kane,” while Joseph Cotten and John Houseman also achieved stardom thanks to this one hour little drama that terrified the nation. And the writer of that radio play? He went on to help write the screenplay for what is arguably one of the greatest films of all time, “Casablanca.”

And if you thought I’d leave you without giving you a chance to listen to what essentially is one of the greatest slices of Americana, then you don’t know me very well. I am proud to present for your listening enjoyment, the Mercury Theater adaptation of H.G.Well’s “War of the Worlds.”

Mercury Theater on the Air presents: The War of the Worlds
Original Air Date: October 30, 1938
Total Run Time: 50:48
Part 1
Click here to listen to Part 1 of The War of the Worlds

To download Part 1 of The War of the Worlds right-click here.

Part 2
Click here to listen to Part 2 of The War of the Worlds

To download Part 2 of The War of the Worlds right-click here.

Information on The Mercury Theater’s “War of the Worlds” came from the album sleeve of the 1969 Evolution Records release and from the website The War of the Worlds Invasion.

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6 thoughts on “Old Time Radio Part 5…The Program that Panicked America!

  1. Yay! My favorite 😀 I adore this broadcast. And yes, the first time I heard it I kept thinking “How could people fall for this? They come in now and then and remind us it’s a fictional broadcast.” and then I began to wonder if the talk of panic was also fiction – but when you stop to think about it, you really have to put it in context.

    This was 1938. America was on the brink of World War II. Tensions were high, we were hearing about Adolf Hitler – the radio at the time was our only source of immediate information – and the news was a trusted organization that never falsified reports or fabricated stories for ratings.

    Special effects in the movies were non existant. Horror was seeing a black and white talkie with a dude taking off a rubber mask. We weren’t reading Stephen King at the bus stop or watching previews for Saw XXMMCCII on our PDAs.

    If you keep that in mind, put yourself in 1938 with its surrounding innocence and trust, then put out a few lights, draw the radio close, and go get some hot cocoa while the announcer is telling you this isn’t real – that what you’re listening to is a fictional tale – I dare you not to get the chills when you hear the hatch door twisting open.

    I dare you to have visions of anything BUT a hideous, otherworldly creature coming through Grover’s Mill on it’s way to YOUR little town!

    I LOVE this 😀 Go listen. Go listen right now.

  2. Yay! My favorite 😀 I adore this broadcast. And yes, the first time I heard it I kept thinking “How could people fall for this? They come in now and then and remind us it’s a fictional broadcast.” and then I began to wonder if the talk of panic was also fiction – but when you stop to think about it, you really have to put it in context.This was 1938. America was on the brink of World War II. Tensions were high, we were hearing about Adolf Hitler – the radio at the time was our only source of immediate information – and the news was a trusted organization that never falsified reports or fabricated stories for ratings.Special effects in the movies were non existant. Horror was seeing a black and white talkie with a dude taking off a rubber mask. We weren’t reading Stephen King at the bus stop or watching previews for Saw XXMMCCII on our PDAs.If you keep that in mind, put yourself in 1938 with its surrounding innocence and trust, then put out a few lights, draw the radio close, and go get some hot cocoa while the announcer is telling you this isn’t real – that what you’re listening to is a fictional tale – I dare you not to get the chills when you hear the hatch door twisting open.I dare you to have visions of anything BUT a hideous, otherworldly creature coming through Grover’s Mill on it’s way to YOUR little town!I LOVE this 😀 Go listen. Go listen right now.

  3. Imagination. That’s the point. Unlike television or movies where the images are right there for you to absorb, in radio everything is created by you, in your head.

    Add to that, all the those things like Hitler, tensions, innocense, trust in the media, and you’re right. It’s easy to see why people freaked.

    I love turning off the lights and listening to some of the OTR horror shows. My imagination is a lot scarier than any visual special effects expert.

    Glad you like, MM.

  4. Imagination. That’s the point. Unlike television or movies where the images are right there for you to absorb, in radio everything is created by you, in your head.Add to that, all the those things like Hitler, tensions, innocense, trust in the media, and you’re right. It’s easy to see why people freaked.I love turning off the lights and listening to some of the OTR horror shows. My imagination is a lot scarier than any visual special effects expert.Glad you like, MM.

  5. “They’re jumping into the river like rats, desperate to get away from the smoke! It’s coming, ten yards away now, I–I can’t–” *thump*

    2X2L.
    2X2L, is there anyone on the air?

    Hello?

    Is there . . . anyone?

    *chill* 😀

  6. “They’re jumping into the river like rats, desperate to get away from the smoke! It’s coming, ten yards away now, I–I can’t–” *thump*2X2L.2X2L, is there anyone on the air?Hello?Is there . . . anyone?*chill* 😀

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