Radio Pioneer and acclaimed actor/director, Orson Wells
The 1930s were a tumultuous and challenging time throughout the United States. The citizens of the United States suffered through the worst economic depression in its Nation’s history. To take their minds off of their troubles, many Americans looked to the entertainment industry to enjoy themselves. Talking movies began in the late 1920s, but in the 1930s the movie industry boomed, millions of Americans enjoyed going to the movies and taking their entire family along with them.
It was also during the 1930s that a new entertainment medium took the country by storm, radio. Radio holds a bit of magic, especially in the 1930s, invisible waves through the air brings voices from thousands of miles away into your home. During the depression, when times were the hardest, American families often went without groceries so that they could afford their weekly credit payments on their radios. The radio was like the television or computer in today’s home, it was in the living room, and all the comfortable chairs were gathered around the beautiful cathedral radio.
If you haven’t listened to old time radio shows, you should, they are magical, the acting and the realization beat anything on television today. Networks created comedies, dramas, news and other programs for the masses. Citizens of the world also gathered around their radios for news from Europe, Europe was on the verge of war once again, and German Chancellor Adolf Hitler continued to spread his evil, Nazi regime throughout western Europe. News interruptions and broadcasts were an everyday event, and many people were accustomed to terrible news of the war in places like Austria and Czechoslovakia.
The world was on the brink of disaster, and quite frankly, the populace was afraid, and for a good reason. Remember, these people had lived through the carnage of World War I, and no one wanted to see another outbreak of World War. People huddled around their radios hoping that there would be good news, something to hold on to, but whenever the news came on, it was terrible.
It was in this tense environment when people needed radio shows to forget about their worries, and one of the most popular shows was on Sunday nights on the Columbia Broadcast System (CBS), it was the Mercury Theater on the Air. The Mercury Theater adapted stage plays and novels for a radio audience, and it was led by the famous director, Orson Welles. Welles was brilliant because of his ability to adapt anything for radio, and in October of 1938, he and his troop of actors decided on the science fiction classic, War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells. The War of the World tells the story of a Martian invasion of Britain, but Welles decided to change that to just outside of New York, in a small town of Grovers Mill, New Jersey.
Welles also made another creative decision that played a huge role in this broadcast being remembered to this day; he decided to run the play like a series of news broadcasts over the radio. Welles devised the idea of having fake dance music and actors doing a short skit, and then it was interrupted by news broadcasts announcing the attacking Martians.
When people tuned in at 8 p.m. on that Sunday evening, they were greeted by Welles explaining the upcoming show, but many people didn’t catch the beginning of the play. For millions of Americans, when they changed their dials between the hours of 8 and 9 p.m., they heard random news interruptions claiming that Martians were attacking New Jersey and New York. Remember, these people were tense, to begin with, and the war clouds hung over the world, so when they heard scientists on the radio telling them that the Martians had finally attacked, a handful of people believed it. As the show was still on the air, CBS received hundreds and hundreds of phone calls about the terror many felt, reports filed in that many Americans were crowding roads attempting to flee the northeast and escape from the invading Martians. Welles eventually came back on just before the end of the show to tell people it was a Halloween drama, but many were already scrambling for safety. The next day, newspapers from all over the country reported the flight in fear of thousands and even reported a few instances of suicide from fear.
Remember what I said in a previous chapter? Fear of the unknown can cause people to do strange and terrifying things. Americans were so quick to think the worst, that when they heard a radio drama about invading Martians, many bought it hook, line and sinker. The front page of the New York Daily News the day after the broadcast said in massive, bold, type, “Fake Radio War Stirs Terror Throughout the U.S..” The paper reported that thousands fled to churches throughout New York and New Jersey for their last rites and to pray for protection, and fifteen were admitted to a Newark, New Jersey hospital overnight for the shock. The most interesting aspect of it all is that the paper reports multiple instances of people claiming to have seen the entire thing! One woman called the newspaper saying, “you can’t believe the scene, it’s hell!” Another man ran into a local business and said he saw the alien spacecraft and saw the Martians kill citizens. Think about this guys; these people were either so crazy or so scared, that they genuinely believed they saw all of these events, it truly is terrifying how the mind works.
Welles was in trouble but got out of it eventually. Many people threatened legal action, but there isn’t much in the law of the United States about a radio play causing death and panic. The War of the Worlds broadcast showed the United States and the World for that matter, just how gullible and easily fooled the masses can be.