From Today In History: More tales of mystery and intrigue for…. HALLOWEEN!!!
“We know now that in the early years of the twentieth century, our planet was being watched by intelligences far greater than man’s, yet as mortal as our own….”
Thus spoke actor/director Orson Welles at the start of the Halloween broadcast of the Mercury Theater of the air on today’s date October 30, in 1938. The radio drama group was producing a radio version of the H.G. Welles story “War of the Worlds”. Adapted into a radio screenplay by writer Howard Koch, this tale of earth being invaded and it’s inhabitants exterminated by creatures from the planet Mars was done as a series radio news reports from the scene of bizarre events, starting with the arrival of a strange craft in the town of Grovers Mills, New Jersey. Local inhabitants, authorities, and reporters who ventured too close were subsequently massacred. Similar such events were dramatized as having happened all over the world. Unfortunately, many listeners in America tuned in to the program after the beginning the broadcast, and were unaware that it was a mere play. Instead they thought that they were listening to actual events. All across the country, people panicked in the firm belief that the end of the world had arrived. Said television personality Steve Allen, who was a child at the time, “My mother packed us up, and took us to church…I don’t know why,….I guess she figured it was better to get slaughtered there.”
Did Folks REALLY Flip Their Corks??
There have since been studies suggesting that the “panic” may not have been so widespread as reported in the newspapers of the period, which afterall viewed radio as a competitor in the news market and therefore had good reason to paint the new medium as untrustworthy. According to some studies, the reaction was limited almost entirely to people calling the police, etc. to find out what was really happening. And of course at the heart of it all was the always crafty and mercurial Orson Welles. According to Wikipedia:
“Later studies indicate that many missed the repeated notices that the broadcast was fictional, partly because the Mercury Theatre (an uncensored cultural program with a relatively small audience) ran opposite the popular Chase and Sanborn Hour over the Red Network of NBC, hosted by Don Ameche and featuring comic ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and singer Nelson Eddy, three of the most popular figures in broadcasting. About 15 minutes into the Chase and Sanborn program the first comic sketch ended and a musical number began, and many listeners began tuning around the dial at that point. According to the American Experience program The Battle Over Citizen Kane, Welles knew the schedule of the Chase and Sanborn show, and scheduled the first report from Grover’s Mill at the 12-minute mark to heighten the audience’s confusion. As a result, some listeners happened upon the CBS broadcast at the point the Martians emerge from their spacecraft.”
Eventually everything was sorted out, and calm restored. Orson Welles went on to direct the classic films “Citizen Kane”, “The Magnificent Ambersons” and “A Touch of Evil” among others. But he would be remembered as much for the night he panicked America as for his film career.
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The author’s twisted memory.
“The War of the Worlds” Dir. by Orson Welles, teleplay by Howard Koch, 1938
“Orson Welles” by Simon Callow, Penguin Books, New York, 1995.