Orson Welles’ night of mischief with ‘War of the Worlds’ resonates
“Ladies and gentlemen, we interrupt our program of dance music to bring you a special bulletin from the Intercontinental Radio News. At twenty minutes before eight, central time, Professor Farrell of the Mount Jennings Observatory, Chicago, Ill., reports observing several explosions of incandescent gas, occurring at regular interviews on the planet Mars.” — Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds”
The eve before Halloween is known as Mischief Night. And on Oct. 30, 1938, a 23-year-old Orson Welles caused more than a bit of mischief with his landmark radio broadcast of “War of the Worlds.”
Most of the 6 million who tuned into Welles’ “Mercury Theater on the Air” innovative adaptation of H.G. Wells’ sci-fi classic about a Martian invasion realized it was drama. But because of its realistic news bulletin format, some believed aliens from the Red Planet had actually landed and overrun the small town of Grover’s Mill, N.J., and were on the move through the rest of the country.
Even in this pre-Twitter and Facebook era, the reaction was instantaneous. Listeners called into Chicago newspapers in a panic during the broadcast, while in San Francisco people fretted that the Martians were heading West. And in New Jersey, National Guardsmen were calling their armories to find out if they needed to report.
After the broadcast, thousands of letters were sent to Welles from listeners, as well as to the FCC complaining about the broadcast. And Welles, who had already made a name for himself in the New York theater scene, became a superstar. Just three years later he would shatter the rules once again with his groundbreaking feature film “Citizen Kane.”
A new “American Experience” documentary, “War of the Worlds” which airs 9 p.m. Tuesday on PBS in conjunction with the show’s 75th anniversary, examines the factors that turned the radio broadcast into such an extraordinary event.
With “War of the Worlds,” Welles tapped into the anxiety felt by a nation that had been in the grips of the Great Depression for nearly a decade. Plus Hitler and Mussolini were coming into power, noted Cathleen O'Connell, the documentary’s director-producer.
“There were late-breaking news bulletins coming in from Europe all the time about the escalation of events,” said Paul Heyer, professor at Canada’s Wilfrid Laurier University and author of “The Medium and the Magician,” about the radio legacy of Welles.
There was also a strong belief that there was life of Mars. “So when Orson Welles said Martians have landed, it wasn’t necessarily a clue to people that this was a fantasy — to some people it was actually very plausible,” said O'Connell.
And there was a marked rivalry between newspapers and the young upstart radio, which was becoming the primary source for late-breaking news.
“Radio was a lifeline to the nation and to the world,” said Susan J. Douglas, professor at the University of Michigan and author of “Listening In: Radio and the American Imagination.”
“When Roosevelt would do his fireside chats, 40 million people tuned in,” said Douglas. “People would readily give up their telephones before they could give up their radios. It was very central to a sense of nation-building in a really difficult time.”
Yet the No. 1 show at 8 p.m. Oct. 30 was not “War of the Worlds” but NBC’s “Chase and Sanborn Hour” featuring ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummy Charlie McCarthy. That evening fans tuned in to listen to Bergen and McCarthy comedy monologue but began to channel surf when singer and movie star Nelson Eddy started to croon.
Though it was made clear at the beginning of the “War of the Worlds” broadcast that it was a dramatization, audiences who switched from NBC to CBS wouldn’t have known that because when they tuned in “War of the Worlds” sounded like a typical dance music program. That is until a nervous announcer suddenly interrupted with news of the discovery of explosions on Mars.
Welles, said Heyer, felt the broadcast “would frighten a few people, but he did not have any idea of how widespread it would be.”
‘American Experience: War of the Worlds’
When: 9 p.m. Tuesday
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