Thursday, October 30, 2008

Scare on the air - 70 years later

The date was October 30, 1938. The setting was the CBS radio studios in. A scrappy 22 year-old radio and stage producer/actor named Orson Welles, along with his troupe, The Mercury Theatre on the Air, were preparing a special retelling of a science fiction classic. What resulted would become the stuff of legend – even 70 years later.

Welles' group, which had previously done ambitious retellings of classic and contemporary on their weekly radio series, had something special in mind for Halloween of that year. The group obviously felt they needed to do something to grab attention. Ratings for the show weren't very good. The Mercury Theatre didn't even have a sponsor at the time. CBS moved them to Monday night death slot, opposite one of the top shows on the air, the NBC Red Network's Chase and Sanborn Hour, hosted by Don Ameche and featuring Edgar Bergen and his wooden dummy Charlie McCarthy.

Welles and company prepared an adaptation of H.G. Wells' science fiction thriller The War Of The Worlds, which told the tale of a violent alien invasion of Earth. And in keeping with the eccentric nature of their on-stage productions, which included Shakespearian works set in Fascist Italy and the Carribean, among various contemporary settings, this adaptation would be unique.

The broadcast, as envisioned by Welles, was to be done as a hoax. Welles was never a fan of overly-political radio commentators such as Father Charles Coughlin, and perhaps wanted to show people that they could not necessarily believe everything they heard on the radio. Most likely, he was inspired by the horrific thought of his ambitious dramas getting clobbered in the ratings by a radio ventriloquist. Something had to be done.

The show started with an ordinary ballroom concert performance (actually the CBS radio orchestra conducted by Bernard Herrmann) would be interrupted by live news reports and announcer cut-ins, reporters on the scene, sounds of ham radio operators and interviews with fictitious government officials – all relaying a fictional Martian attack on Grovers Mill, New Jersey.

Welles made sure to announce at the beginning of the program that this was merely a dramatic presentation, that Martians weren't really blowing up New Jersey. But he was smart enough to realize that Chase and Sanborn took their first musical break at fifteen minutes past the hour. He scheduled the first 'report' from Grover's Mill at the twelve-minute mark to heighten the audience's confusion. Welles mischievously knew that quite a few channel surfers would have missed the earlier disclaimer claiming it was all fiction. As a result, some listeners happened upon the CBS broadcast at the point when the Martians started to emerge from their spacecraft.
What happened next has been subject to much debate, and the real-life incidents that transpired ironically made the whole thing even more legendary. Many newspapers of the day, including The New York Times, reported that many people listening to Mercury Theatre that night thought they were listening to a real newscast and were pretty freaked out. Listeners reportedly ran to tell their neighbors and friends, and just like the childhood game of 'telephone,' the whole thing took on a life of its own. The media reported mass hysteria over the broadcast, and even more contemporary historical retellings claim the same. In reality, nobody has really come to a consensus on what the overall reaction truly was. Was the reaction really overblown? There were stories of crowds gathering in the Grovers Mill area. And there were other isolated reports of mass panic. In Concrete, Washington, where listeners heard the show on Seattle stations KIRO and KVI, listeners were pretty freaked when a coincidental city-wide power failure occurred during the broadcast, resulting in residents storming the town center with shotguns. Likely, most of the reports of hysteria were, like the radio show, overblown. Most people were perhaps more baffled than scared. But the reports of panic added an entirely new dimension to the hoax broadcast. Life was truly imitating art.

Whatever the reaction by the public was during and immediately after the broadcast, there was definitely an outcry in the days that followed. CBS defended Welles, claiming that there were disclaimers throughout the broadcast, and gave Welles and company a slap on the wrist. CBS did promise never to do anything like that again. The FCC investigated starting the next day. Some in Congress demanded more government control over radio content.

While the Mercury Theatre was mildly rebuked over the whole incident, it did get the troupe what they really needed – attention. Campbell's Soup, impressed over the reaction, signed on as a sponsor. And Hollywood came calling, with RKO Pictures wooing Welles and the Mercury Theatre to the silver screen with a lucrative contract promising complete artistic freedom. The result was 1941's Citizen Kane, regarded by many as the greatest film ever made. The film was controversial, due to its main character's resemblance to powerful newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst. Hearst put pressure on RKO and other studios to destroy the film, but an adamant Welles premiered the film anyway, which initially flopped due to shunning by the Hollywood moguls. Welles lost much of his clout, and subsequent films, such as The Magnificent Ambersons, famously fell victim to studio meddling and editing. In later years, up until his death in 1985, he wound up doing acting gigs, in addition to commercial and television work, to finance his own independent low-budget films, where he at least had creative freedom.

The Mercury Theatre's broadcast of The War of the Worlds has gone down in history as perhaps the most famous of all the old time radio dramas. Many stations, mostly noncommercial, air the original 1938 broadcast every Halloween. Quite a few others, perhaps even in your town, stage live recreations of the original – on the air, on stage, or both. But the original had the magic. I have long been a fan of the broadcast, its lore and even the story itself. I have heard various reenactments. I've seen some of the film versions of the original story, including the frightening Steven Spielberg/Tom Cruise take from a few years ago. I wrote about the legendary Orson Welles version one year ago here. And 70 years later after the original historic broadcast, the story is still as scary as ever.

Here is a listening treat for you, the original 1938 broadcast from Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre On The Air, doing their take on War Of The Worlds. Turn off the lights and enjoy:

As I mentioned before, there have been remakes. And there have been a few contemporary retellings. Perhaps the best, and most famous, was done in 1968 by WKBW in Buffalo , NY (which is now progressive talker WWKB). There are no professional actors taking part in this - it was done by the WKBW on-air staff and news and programming departments. It was updated in 1971 and 1975, to reflect station staff changes. Here's a double treat, a rarity – the 1971 edit of WKBW's adaptation of War Of The Worlds:

You can also download the entire broadcast directly from The Internet Archive (low bitrate) or at The Mercury Theatle 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. The Glowing Dial podcast has a three hour show that also features the original, Welles' press conference the following morning, a few interviews, the WKBW 1971 version and even a very rare radio conversation between Orson Welles and the aging H.G. Wells.


The Reaper said...

WNYC's show RadioLab did an episode about the War of the Worlds broadcast - highly recommended!

King Daevid MacKenzie said...

...thanx for the link to my Echoes of a Century: Martians, Go Home! program at my Podbean page. However, aas of 8:15 A.M. PDT this morning, the link in your text code isn't working, so allow me please to provide a short URL to the page: (I also put up a whole bushel of other Halloween stuff, too, like Vincent Price in the Australian Lux Radio Theatre production of 1984, Welles' version of Dracula, and Boris Karloff's Lights Out! performance in Arch Oboler's Cat Wife, as well as old radio commercials for classic horror flicks like Night of the Living Dead and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. For all that, simply go to and have a look around...

ltr said...

I cleaned it up, and corrected the links. I originally typed the whole thing in Word (actually, Open Office Writer, which is the same thing). For some reason, the hyperlinks did not transfer.

Everything should be cool now, so have fun and do some web surfing!

And thanks Daevid for the links.

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