Oct. 30, 1938, started as a fairly typical Halloween Eve … but it ended with many people convinced Martians were attacking.
The reason was one of the most famous hours in the history of broadcasting: “The War of the Worlds,” Orson Welles’ “Mercury Theatre on the Air” CBS radio adaptation of the H.G. Wells science-fiction novel. The 75th anniversary of the program, and its effect on untold numbers of terrified listeners, is marked by a new episode of PBS’ “American Experience” Tuesday, Oct. 29 (check local listings).
Oliver Platt (“The Big C”) narrates the account, which merges audio clips and comments from “witnesses” (actually actors voicing people’s reactions from the time) with relevant interviews. Welles’ daughter Chris Welles Feder and filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich – who became a close friend of Welles – are among those recalling how latecomers thought the radio play was an actual newscast, prompting widespread fear before a disclaimer (purposely delayed by Welles) reaffirmed it was all fake.
“I think it’s such a fascinating topic, historically and sociologically, why that program caused a national panic,” Feder tells Zap2it. “Even if I wasn’t personally involved with it, I would be interested in watching this.
“A lot of people did what, in those days, was called ‘dial-twiddling.’ They would start with one show, then go over to another, so a lot of people simply didn’t hear the opening (of ‘The War of the Worlds’) that made it clear this was a fictional radio drama, as it always was on ‘Mercury Theatre on the Air.’ If people had heard that, I’m sure it would have avoided a lot of the panic.”
Instead, many began the hour listening to popular rival Edgar Bergen and his literal dummy Charlie McCarthy on NBC’s variety-oriented “The Chase and Sanborn Hour.” Also interviewed for this piece, Bogdanovich notes the irony of people only hearing and not watching a ventriloquist, but also that its lure was enough to keep many from knowing from the start that “The War of the Worlds” was purely fantasy.
“It’s funny, because Orson always used to say, ‘It wasn’t one of our best shows,’ ” Bogdanovich reflects. “It got him a sponsor, though. ‘Mercury Theatre on the Air’ was a sustaining show that didn’t have a sponsor, and it wasn’t until ‘The War of the Worlds’ shook everybody up that Campbell’s Soup got interested.
“The idea of a fake newscast had been done a couple of years before in Spain,” recalls “The Last Picture Show” and “Mask” director Bogdanovich, “and that’s where Orson got the idea. The guy in Spain had gone to jail for it, and Orson said, ‘I didn’t go to jail. I went to Hollywood.'”
The specific era also had much to do with how “The War of the Worlds” was received.
“We have to remember there was no television,” Feder notes, “but even more importantly, there was no Internet. If this had happened today, you would have immediately Googled, ‘Are Martians landing in New Jersey?’ You would have had ways of double-checking if what you were hearing was, in fact, real news or an invention.”
Moreover, the 1937 radio coverage of the Hindenburg airship disaster had helped make the “you are there” style of reporting familiar — as with the journalist who supposedly was watching aliens lay waste to Grover’s Mill, a real Jersey town — and the potential for World War II, which would begin in 1939, already had the public on edge.
“My father was criticized for having caused this terrible panic, but that was really not his intention,” Feder says. “He never dreamed that people would fall for it and believe it had really happened, and he was totally stunned when he realized they were hopping into their cars and heading for the hills. Once it happened, there were headlines about it in newspapers all over the world.
“He had been a big wheel in the New York theater and in radio, but overnight, he became internationally famous because of this,” Feder adds. “And obviously, he didn’t mind that. The real turning point in his career was this broadcast.”
“The War of the Worlds” also has inspired several movies – including a 1953 classic that won an Oscar for special effects, and the Tom Cruise-starring 2005 version directed by Steven Spielberg (who bought Welles’ own copy of the radio script at an auction) – as well as a syndicated late-1980s television series. The radio show got Welles invited to Hollywood, but instead of the desired “War of the Worlds” film, he made something else as his first feature: the 1941 masterpiece “Citizen Kane.”
“He told me that he knew it was going to get a reaction,” Bogdanovich explains of Welles’ approach to “The War of the Worlds.” “He couldn’t count on the size of the reaction, though.
“What I think scared people the most was the silence that followed the ‘green monster’ attacking the reporter at the scene, and the microphone went dead. Dick Wilson, who was one of the associate producers, told me that Orson stood in the middle of the studio with his arms outstretched … indicating to everyone to be quiet and hold the silence.”
As a result, Bogdanovich reports, “One of the things that came out of that evening is that the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) doesn’t allow dead air. And they don’t allow fake news broadcasts. It had a tremendous impact.”