“Ladies and gentlemen, we interrupt our program…”
Of the many adaptations of H.G. Wells’ science fiction classic The War of the Worlds (1897), one of the most written about is the 1938 live radio adaptation by Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre on the Air. Instead of Martians attacking Victorian England, the 23-year-old Welles set the story in modern day, with newscasters interrupting a music program to describe death and destruction spreading across New Jersey and New York.
Despite his relatively young age, Welles had performed on radio for several years, most notably as Lamont Cranston on the hit mystery program The Shadow. The production of War of the Worlds was not planned as a radio hoax and Welles had no idea of the havoc it would cause.
Listeners who tuned in to their CBS radio station after the 8 p.m. opening missed Welles’ introduction for the dramatization and, instead, heard the music of Ramón Raquello and his orchestra from New York City’s Meridian Room. The program is suddenly interrupted by a special bulletin to say Chicago’s Mount Jennings Observatory reported several explosions occurring at regular intervals on the planet Mars. Shifting back and forth between the music program and news bulletins, a live report comes from Grovers Mill, N.J., where a flaming meteorite has landed on a nearby farm, with officials and other observers surrounding a strange cylindrical object. Martians eventually emerge from the cylinder and attack the people with a heat ray. Increasingly alarming bulletins detail devastating invasions across the U.S. leading up to another live report of giant Martian war machines releasing clouds of poisonous gas over New York City.
At the program’s close Welles steps out of character to reiterate that the program was the Mercury Theatre’s Halloween prank, a “radio version of dressing up in a sheet and jumping out of bush and saying ‘Boo!’”
The next day, newspapers reported wide-spread panic. The New York Times’ front page headline declared “Radio Listeners in Panic, Taking War Drama as Fact.” Other news reports stated that people fled their homes or flooded police stations, newspaper offices and their local CBS stations with phone calls demanding to know more about the “invasion.” Over the next few days, there were additional reports of listeners reacting to the program as if an actual invasion had taken place. Sensational stories also reported suicides and people being treated for shock at local hospitals.
Decades later, however, the idea of wide-spread mass hysteria has been disproven. Very few of the sensational news stories were investigated and many were confirmed as unsubstantiated. In fact, the Hooper ratings service reported that only about 2 percent of radio listeners were tuned into Welles’ broadcast that night, indicating that most Americans didn’t even hear the program. A CBS audience survey also concluded that many Americans did not hear the show and, among those listeners who did, many were well aware that the show was “a prank and accepted it that way.” The Federal Communications Commission investigated the program but found no laws were broken. Networks did agree, however, to be more cautious in their programming in the future.
When Welles was asked to comment on the hysteria the program supposedly caused, he said, “We’ve been putting on all sorts of things from the most realistic situations to the wildest fantasy, but nobody ever bothered to get serious about them before … It’s too bad that so many people got excited, but after all, we kept reminding them that it wasn’t really true.”
Welles feared that the controversy generated by the broadcast would ruin his career. But, in fact, the publicity helped land him a contract with RKO Studios, and in 1941 he directed/wrote/produced/starred in Citizen Kane - which many consider the greatest film ever made.
You can listen to War of the Worlds, as well as other productions from Welles’ Mercury Theatre and Campbell Playhouse here.
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