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Eighty years ago, on the night of October 30, 1938, millions of Americans believed that Earth was being invaded by creatures from the planet Mars. It was the result of a radio show produced on CBS by the Mercury Theater Players under the direction of Orson Welles. The nature of the program caused widespread pockets of panic throughout the country. It remains the most infamous broadcast in history.
Welles was considered at the time to be a boy genius. He was 23, but had already met with fame and success as an actor-producer-director on both the New York stage and radio. With his famous baritone voice, he was in demand as a radio star. He played The Shadow, a mysterious crime fighter with the ability to render himself invisible. The Shadow’s alter-ego was Lamont Cranston, a dashing young man-about-town with a reputation as a ladies man. The role perfectly suited Welles, as he proved by living the busy life of a New York playboy, escorting beautiful actresses to nightclubs and parties every night. He ran the Mercury Theater in downtown Manhattan, serving as its director and star, and he also had a contract to direct and star in a Sunday night series of radio dramas for the Columbia Broadcasting Company (CBS).
The Mercury Theater Players On the Air, as they were known, was made up of actors from the Mercury Theater and various radio performers. Welles already had such a spectacular reputation that he was able to attract some of the most talented people in show business to work with him. Bernard Herrmann, who would soon become one of Hollywood’s most gifted composers, ran the show’s small orchestra. Most important, perhaps, was John Houseman, who served as Welles’ producing partner. Because Welles had a frantic schedule, it was Houseman’s job to make sure that everything ran smoothly in his absence. The show they performed that fateful night was Houseman’s selection: The War of the Worlds.
The War of the Worlds formed part of the Mercury Players general plan of contrasting shows. Since the episode that week took them almost to Halloween, it was decided to do something scary and fun. Houseman considered several works of science fiction before settling on the H.G. Wells story, which he and Welles both thought they remembered. It is, however, quite possible that no one associated with the broadcast that week had ever read it.
Howard Koch, the writer for that week’s episode, complained that the story was silly. Houseman suggested changing the setting from Edwardian England to contemporary New York. He further recommended breaking the story into news bulletins told by fictional eyewitnesses. The famous recording of the Hindenburg air disaster served as the inspiration for the broadcast. They used a map of New York and New Jersey, sticking pins in various places to trace the progression of the Martians across the Hudson River. It was this kind of detail which helped convince people that the invasion was real.
The most popular radio show at the time was The Chase and Sanborn Hour, a variety show starring Edgar Bergen, a ventriloquist. I’m not kidding. An estimated 32 million people were listening to their radios that night, but most were tuned into Bergen’s program. Then, within minutes of the beginning of the show, singer Nelson Eddy began singing a tune from an operetta. It was so awful that millions switched the station. At that precise moment on CBS some dance music played by Herrmann’s orchestra abruptly ended and a voice said, “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, Illinois, reports observing several explosions of incandescent gas, occurring at regular intervals on the planet Mars. The spectroscope indicates the gas to be hydrogen and moving towards the earth with enormous velocity.”
Within minutes, listeners were brought to the very real town of Grovers Mill, NJ where the fictional Martians had landed. Within 30 minutes the US Army had been defeated and the Martian invasion was laying waste to the nation. All of this was broadcast as news reports and interviews. At one point, an actor imitating President Franklin Roosevelt spoke to calm the nation. It had the opposite effect.
Exactly how many listeners were fooled into believing the show is in dispute. What is known is that switchboards, the method for routing calls to their destinations, were jammed with calls. Police and municipal agencies across the nation were busy with inquiries about how to deal with the Martian crisis. The CBS switchboard was flooded with calls. Eventually, those calls came from public officials and government representatives demanding a retraction and an immediate end to the broadcast. By the time they took a brief intermission, however, the damage was done.
For Welles, it was the greatest publicity he could ever have imagined. Once he was finally allowed to leave the studios he drove to midtown Manhattan where a lighted bulletin board circling the New York Times proclaimed ORSON WELLES CAUSES PANIC! The next day Welles issued a mildly contrite apology, but he knew that his fame was now assured. He took full credit for the show which had terrified millions. Within weeks Welles signed a contract with RKO Pictures Studios to star and direct in movies.
CBS was contractually obligated for any lawsuits, and there were many. However, the only money that the network ever paid out was to a man who claimed that his shoes had been ruined that night in the panic. CBS bought him a new pair.
Orson Welles’ first film, released when he was 26, was Citizen Kane. It is still widely regarded as perhaps the greatest movie ever made.
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