War of the Worlds Radio Broadcast Part 1

About the famous War of the Worlds radio broadcast by Orson Welles which sent America into a state of panic.


"Everybody was terribly frightened. Some of the women almost went crazy. The men were a little calmer. Some of the women tried to call their families. Some got down on their knees and prayed. Others were actually trembling. My daughter was terribly frightened and really suffered from shock. A 10-year-old child that was here was petrified. He looked like marble." For the New Jersey nurse who spoke these words--and thousands of other Americans--what had started out as a relaxed Sunday night in front of the radio turned into a night of fear, confusion, and panic. For it was Oct. 30, 1938, the night before Halloween and the night the Martians invaded the earth. It was the night Orson Welles's Mercury Theatre of the Air terrorized America with a radio dramatization of H. G. Wells's War of the Worlds.

The play, loosely adapted from the classic science-fiction story, was only an hour long. What was there about it, then, that could make people dash hysterically through the streets, or abandon their homes, or fatalistically face death at the hands of the invaders as one woman in Pittsburgh did, who was found in her bathroom clutching a bottle of poison and shrieking, "I'd rather die this way than like that"?

Making a radio play from Wells's novel was Orson Welles's idea. He and the Mercury Theatre Company were then broadcasting an hour-long play from CBS's Studio One every Sunday at 8:00 P.M., competing against the ultrapopular Chase and Sanborn Hour, which featured ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his red-headed, smart-mouthed dummy, Charlie McCarthy. There were those in radio circles who said no one listened to Studio One. Obviously, they were wrong.

Writer Howard Koch, given the task of creating the script, said it was impossible. But somehow he got it done, and somewhere along the line, his employers decided to turn the novel into a broadcast of simulated news bulletins and to change the setting to the U.S. Koch set to work with a map of New Jersey he had got from a gas station, picking off place names to put in the script--the Pulaski Skyway, Bayonne, Route 23. He chose the landing spot of the Martians--Grovers Mill, 22 mi. from Princeton--by covering his eyes and stabbing at random with his pencil point.

To increase the air of reality, an actor cast as a radio announcer listened over and over to a recording of the hysterical voice of Herb Morrison, who had reported the explosion of the Hindenburg, and then copied his intonations.

Welles, who played Princeton scientist Professor Pierson, seemed to have a presentiment of what was about to happen, for he spotted announcements throughout the broadcast explaining that it was only a play.

Reaching an audience that numbered close to a million, the show began as usual with a few bars of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto in B-flat Minor and an announcement of the show. After a weather report, an announcer said, "We now take you to the Meridian Room in the Hotel Park Plaza in downtown New York, where you will be entertained by the music of Ramon Raquello and his orchestra." The music began, and then was interrupted by a series of news bulletins--a report of mysterious gas eruptions on Mars as seen by astronomers and an interview between announcer Carl Phillips and Professor Pierson, ostensibly on their way to Grovers Mill to investigate an object that had fallen from the skies, perhaps a meteor. In the background were the sounds of crowds and emergency sirens. Then more music and another bulletin, which advised that the "meteor" was actually a humming metal cylinder.

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