‘War of the Worlds’: The night America panicked in 1938

Orson Welles’ landmark 1938 radio broadcast of H.G. Wells’ “The War of the Worlds” didn’t need Twitter, Facebook or Google Plus to turn it into a sensation.

The then 23-year-old Welles’ sheer brilliance and chutzpah were enough for the broadcast to become one of the biggest mass-hysteria events in U.S. history.

A new “American Experience” documentary, “The War of the Worlds,” airing Oct. 29 on PBS, will examine the pioneering radio broadcast of Oct. 30, 1938.


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“In an era where the public can still be fooled or misled by what is read online, in print, or seen on TV, ‘War of the Worlds’ is a timely reminder of the power of mass media,” executive producer Mark Samels said in a statement.

Welles’ CBS Radio series “Mercury Theatre on the Air” began its adaptation of Wells’ “War of the Worlds” at about 8 p.m. on the East Coast. It started with dance music, which was interrupted by a nervous announcer proclaiming that there were explosions taking place on Mars. Another bulletin quickly followed, saying that Martians had landed in the small New Jersey town of Grover’s Mill.

Though it was mentioned at the beginning of the broadcast that this was only a radio show, millions of listeners who tuned in late didn’t have a clue and thought that Martians had really invaded New Jersey. Chicago newspaper switchboards were flooded with frightened calls and in New Jersey, National Guardsmen called armories to find out where to report for duty.

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There wasn’t an another explanation informing listeners that the broadcast was fictional until about 40 minutes into it, but by that time the panic was in full swing.

The new documentary examines the broadcast and its aftermath through first-hand accounts and print media coverage of the day.

Among those interviewed are film director and Welles’ friend, Peter Bogdanovich, and Welles’ daughter, Chris Welles Feder.


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