At home in the 1930’s, millions listened to the radio.
On October 30th, 1938, the night before Halloween, at 8pm, CBS , from their Madison Avenue radio studio, made this announcement: “The Columbia Broadcasting System and its affiliated stations present Orson Welles and The Mercury Theatre On The Air in “THE WAR OF THE WORLDS” by H. G. Wells.”
So far ,so good. The Mercury Theatre of the Air had been on the air for several months, presenting adaptions of literary classics (Dracula, The 39 Steps, Jane Eyre). The series did not have a sponsor, therefore there were no commercials . It was done on a small budget but had a loyal following.
Screenwriter Howard Koch adapted Wells’ 1898 science fiction novel of an invasion of the Earth by Martians.
Koch, producer John Houseman and Welles used an unusual technique in telling the story . As Welles said, “I had conceived the idea of doing a radio broadcast in such a manner that a crisis would actually appear to be happening.”
The company had a week to prepare each live broadcast.
After an introduction by Welles, the drama starts very low key – a weather report is followed by the announcer telling listeners that they are being taken to “The Meridian Room in the Hotel Park Plaza in downtown New York, with the music of Ramon Raquello and his orchestra.
Then began a series of interruptions to the light music – news bulletins of strange activity on the surface of Mars , then mysterious lights and fires in an area of Grovers Mill, New Jersey.
In a short space of time, the drama is amped up as reporters visit the scene, scientists are interviewed and it becomes clear the Martians have landed!
The hour long broadcast can be heard on You Tube and I can only praise the actors, the superb sound effects, and the excellent script.
You hear sirens, the screams of spectators, crashing autos. Reporters on the spot described the Martian walking war machines, the heat ray weapons and the poison gas!
It really is perfect radio. Your imagination takes over!
At the end of the first part of the broadcast, a forlorn, desperate voice says, “Is there anyone on the air? …..is there anyone?”
Then a CBS station announcer ( 40 minutes into the broadcast) reminded listeners that this is a Mercury Theatre On The Air production.
The remaining 20 minutes is in the form of an epilogue, with Welles as the astronomer reflecting on what had happened after the Martians seemed to be taking over the world.
He walks around an empty Times Square in NY and then realises that the Martian activity has ceased – they have efficiently prepared their invasion but had no immunity to human diseases. So their invasion failed . Human germs killed them.
Orson Welles ended the broadcast: “This is Orson Welles, out of character, to assure you that War of the Worlds was the Mercury Theatre’s own radio version of dressing up in a sheet and jumping out of a bush and saying boo!”
”Ladies and Gentlemen, I have a grave announcement to make. Incredible as it may seem, strange beings who landed in New Jersey tonight are the vanguard of an invading army from Mars.”
Howard Koch was a lawyer who started writing for radio and was contracted for Mercury Theatre of the Air. He dramatised “War of the Worlds” for the Halloween radio broadcast.
(Howard Koch shared a Best Screenplay Oscar with Philip and Julius Epstein for CASABLANCA. His career was cut short in Hollywood after he was blacklisted.)
Paul Stewart was associate producer of the show and contributed to the writing and also directed rehearsals. He also played one of the roles . (Welles was heavily involved in directing a play (Danton’s Death) which was due to open within a few days. On the night of the famous broadcast, Welles went directly the theatre after the broadcast ended.)
Ora Nichols was the head of sound engineering at CBS and was responsible for the marvellous sound effects.
According to the press the next day after the broadcast, the country had experienced mass hysteria, believing that the CBS program was real. CBS had to hastily arrange a press conference in which a chastened and contrite ( though enjoying the publicity) Welles tried to explain he had never intended that anyone would believe that his play was real.
Public response at the time was perhaps not as wild as the press indicated.
In 1988, an A T&T telephone operator who had been on duty that night in 1938 said:”Our boards lit up when they announced the Martians were crossing the George Washington bridge.”
One person wrote: “I was one of the thousands who heard this program and did not jump out the window, did not see the Martians landing in the park across the street, but sat serenely entertained by the fine portrayal of a fine play.
The Mercury Theatre has been one of the radio highlights of the week for me this fall.”
The broadcast was on at the same time as NBC’s popular Chase and Sanborn Hour, starring Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. Ten minutes into the variety show, Dorothy Lamour started singing “Two Sleepy People” and it has been speculated listeners started twiddling their dials and ended up listening to the Welles program just as the Martians’ first attack in New Jersey!
Radio was the way people consumed daily news . Big media events would have forty million listeners. Radio was trusted. Some undoubtedly did think it was a live news broadcast, especially since there were no commercials.
The C.E. hooper ratings company , that night, telephoned 5,000 households for its national ratings survey. Only 2% said they were listening to War of the Worlds.
There were no reports of a spike in hospital admissions.
Newspapers had taken a huge advertising hit with the advent of radio. Radio stations could deliver news as it happened. The print media were happy to blame Radio for the panic.
Orson Welles , at the age of 23, had already been on the cover of TIME magazine a few months early ( for his stage work with the Mercury Theatre). The notoriety of the broadcast helped secure him a Hollywood contract and would produce CITIZEN KANE.
Radio networks agreed to be more cautious in their programming.
A few days after the broadcast Mercury Theatre On The Air got its first sponsor – Campbells Soup.
With hindsight it’s obvious that even the Martians couldn’t leave their planet, land on earth and destroy everything on sight -in the space of an hour!
One of the thousands of letters Orson Welles received.
Orson met H.G.Wells once, in 1940 and they did a radio interview which can be heard online.
Wells said of Orson, “He carries my name, with an extra’E’!”
The author seemed to accept the scepticism about the extent of the panic. He also asked Orson about his new film, CITIZEN KANE. They joked about Wells giving the film a plug.
Amazing to hear the voice of the great author.
H.G.Wells , born in 1866 in Kent, has been called The Father of Science Fiction. Before “The War of the Worlds”, he had written “The Time Machine “ and “The invisible Man.” He also wrote “The Island of Dr. Moreau.”
In a 1978 musical version of the story by Jeff Wayne, there is a narration by Richard Burton. The rich Burton tones can be heard : “Across the gulf of space, minds immeasurably superior to ours regarded this Earth with envious eyes. And slowly and surely they drew their plans.”
A jovial Orson Welles was interviewed by Dick Cavett in the 1970s.
Referencing Edgar Bergen, Welles told Cavett of a telegram he got from Alexander Woollcott (theatre critic and inspiration for The Man Who Came To Dinner): This only goes to prove, my boy, that all intelligent people were listening to Bergen!”
The 1953 George Pal production of The War of The Worlds won an Oscar for special effects. It starred Gene Barry and Ann Robinson.
Pal had been responsible for Destination Moon and When Worlds Collide. His film of the H.G.Wells story is well regarded but personally I don’t rate it alongside The Thing From Another World and The Day The Earth Stood Still.
The size of the building miniatures in the 1953 film.
In 1988, the small township of Grovers Mill, New Jersey , in memory of their claim to fame, erected a seven foot bronze monument to The War of the Worlds broadcast. It showed a family listening to the broadcast, a Martian tripod machine and Orson Welles at the microphone.
It bears the inscription, “He fooled us.”
86 year old Howard Koch attended the unveiling.
The fascination with the H.G.Wells story continues . There was another film version starring Tom Cruise in 2005, and In 2019, the BBC produced a three part adaptation of the novel, set in Edwardian times ( not the original Victorian setting.)
STAR TREK casts ,in 2002, recreated the original Welles broadcast.
There was talk in 2019 of a new film about the making of the radio broadcast, with Martin Freeman as John Houseman . No other casting was announced.
And, as I write this, the NASA probe has landing on the surface of the Red Planet.
Are we alone! Watch the skies!
So refreshing: an entry about radio drama! and even crucial in these anti-language times when visual and merely sound “bites” are considered important. Radio and literature so much more fully engage the spectators’ imaginations and “War of the Worlds” is one example of this.
I had the privilege of acting in some of the last radio plays done in N. America – in Seattle and Vancouver in the 80s and early 90s. In addition to all its other pleasures, what a treat to not have to fuss over how you LOOK!
Many thanks – Greg
Thanks, Greg. We are lucky that so much of vintage radio is available to listen to.
That’s for sure. This was brought home to me at CBC Vancouver where the Sam Payne Award is given annually in honor of the late actor. At the ’96 presentation when it was given to my colleague Peter Mannering, a scene from “The Cherry Orchard” was played and came so vividly to life, Mr. Payne as Firs every bit as good as Peggy Ashcroft, who’d come to Vancouver to record Ranevsky in the play. That was from ’67 when radio was taken seriously enough to receive as careful rehearsal as a stage production would today. By the time I was on the scene, it was so under-funded we’d arrive with our scripts, do a runthrough and record.
Welles considered John Drainie the second-finest radio actor – after himself, of course. Mannering and Nonnie Griffin with whom I also worked, had played in radio with Drainie and other greats many times, and deeply regretted its demise – as I do.
Thanks for setting history straight about the broadcast. Great post.
Thanks Geri. It was certainly a phenomenon of the period . Apparently within a day or two, the story was off the front pages. Obviously the papers couldn’t come up with more examples of the ‘ panic’.