Tuesday, October 30, 2007

When radio really scared people

Long before Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity and their ilk tried to frighten people into voting Republican, and long before FOX Noise claimed that al Qaeda operatives set the recent Southern California wildfires, a different type of fearmongering took place on our nation's airwaves. But this one was played as an ingenious dramatic hoax. And unlike the feeble attempts of today's propagandist blowhards, a 22-year old actor/producer/director named Orson Welles really did scare the hell out of people.

In honor of Halloween, and the 69th anniversary of a very infamous broadcast, I'd like to share a little story.

The date was October 30, 1938. The Mercury Theatre on the Air, a theatre company headed by Welles and John Houseman, had already done a variety of high-brow dramatic radio presentations for CBS, mostly based on classic and contemporary literature. Adapted titles up to that point inlcuded Bram Stoker's Dracula, A Tale of Two Cities, The Magnificent Ambersons (which Welles later turned into a film) and Heart of Darkness, to name a few. Stars included Joseph Cotten, Agnes Moorehead and others. The music for the show was composed by CBS staff conductor Bernard Herrmann, who later went on to become perhaps the greatest film scorer in history with Welles' Citizen Kane, Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, Vertigo and North By Northwest, and his last film, 1976's Taxi Driver, on his impressive resume.

Unfortunately, as with many other brilliant shows since, there wasn't that much interest. The Mercury Theatre, which had no sponsor at the time, was moved to Monday nights opposite one of the top shows on the air, The NBC Red Network's Chase and Sanborn Hour, featuring Edgar Bergen and his wooden dummy Charlie McCarthy. Yes, they was getting their asses kicked by a radio ventriloquist! Obviously, Welles and company needed to kick it up a notch.

For the Halloween broadcast, the same troupe that had done stage adaptations of Shakespeare's works set in Facist Italy and the Carribean (complete with an all-black cast) decided to adapt H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds, a book about a Martian invasion, in a totally different style - it was to be in the form of a live news bulletin, complete with a faux music program being interrupted by announcer cut-ins, reporters on the scene, sounds of ham radio operators and interviews with fictitious government officials, including a phony Secretary of the Interior who sounded a lot like President Roosevelt, all relaying a Martian attack on New Jersey. Keep in mind that, at a time when Hitler and Mussolini had banded together and started their march over Europe, people everywhere were a bit timid.

To his credit, Welles did announce at the beginning of the show that this was all just a dramatic presentation. Obviously, he knew that most radio listeners were tuned to the radio ventriloquist, and probably did a little channel surfing over to his show during musical numbers and commercials. He made sure the first pseudo-report at the 12 minute mark, about the time that the aliens had allegedly started to emerge from their spacecraft. After that, distraught reporters on the broadcast relayed the news of aliens blasting bridges and buildings and releasing poisonous gas in the air.

"2X2L calling CQ ... Isn't there anyone on the air? Isn't there anyone on the air? Isn't there ... anyone?"

Voice of ham radio operator in The War of the Worlds

Keep in mind that in the early days of radio, people hadn't ever heard anything like this. Even though most of the voices of the Mercury Theatre were well-known (Welles was the star of the popular radio drama The Shadow), most thought that we really were being invaded, particularly with all of the paranoia involving the growing Nazi threat in Europe. While the broadcast was in progress, residents in northeastern cities went outside to ask their neighbors what was happening. As the story was repeated by word of mouth, rumours began to spread, and these rumours caused quite a bit of panic.

The curious quickly started to descend on Grovers Mill, New Jersey, the site of the alleged Martian landing. Eventually police were sent to the area to help control the crowds. To people arriving later in the evening, the scene really did look like the events being narrated on the radio broadcast, with panicked crowds and flashing police lights streaming across the masses. All that was really missing was the sight of Martians incinerating people with death-rays.

The switchboard at CBS lit up. The police and the media were befuddled over the realism of the fake news bulletins. There were instances of panic scattered throughout the US as a result of the broadcast, especially in New York and New Jersey. It was estimated that roughly 6 million had tuned in to the broadcast at one point or another, and about a third of them believed it was true.

In Newark more than 20 families wrapped their faces in wet towels to save themselves from the gas raid, tied up traffic with their calls for gas masks, inhalators, ambulances, police rescue squads...While a doughty little band of Princeton scientists set out to investigate the reported catastrophe, in Harlem the godly gathered in prayer. Eight hundred and seventy-five panic-stricken people phoned the New York Times alone.

"Boo!" Time Magazine, November 7, 1938

At the end of the broadcast, Welles broke character to remind listeners again that it was all just a dramatization. As per the Howard Koch-penned script, this was done several times during the broadcast.

The broadcast made front page news the next few days. Needless to say, in the aftermath of the program, the people who fell for it were rather livid. CBS defended Welles, claiming that there were disclaimers throughout the broadcast. They did, however promise never to do anything like that again. The FCC investigated starting the next day. Some in Congress demanded that the government exert more control over radio content. In the aftermath, broadcasters have become more careful about what they say and do over the airwaves. Well, not entirely.

And Welles and his cohorts went on to much bigger things. They immediately got a sponsor in the form of Campbell's Soup, and RKO Pictures wooed Welles and the Mercury Theatre to Hollywood, where they stirred up even more controversy by making Citizen Kane, regarded by many as the greatest film ever made.

Today, the Mercury Theatre's broadcast of The War of the Worlds has gone down in history as the most remembered of all the old radio dramas. In 1988, West Windsor Township, where Grovers Mills is located, held a "Martian festival" to commemorate the broadcast, and even erected a monument on the site of the alleged invasion. Every Halloween, many noncommercial radio stations and theater troupes still reenact the broadcast. Likely, there may be one in your town.

Sixty-nine years later, it is still an amazing broadcast, and even sent shivers up my spine when I first heard it years ago. For your listening pleasure, I present to you below, the Mercury Theatre's original broadcast of The War of the Worlds.

You can also download the broadcast directly from the Internet Archive (low bitrate) or at the Mercury Theatre website (higher bitrate). For a different experience, try King Daevid MacKenzie's version, which edits together both the Mercury Theatre broadcast and the Chase and Sanborn Hour, approximating the sequence that many had originally heard when flipping around the dial.

So, kick back, turn off the lights and enjoy. Even to this day, it's capable of sending goosebumps up and down your spine. Imagine the impact it had back in 1938.


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