by Martin Grams, Jr.
This is Orson Welles, ladies and gentlemen, out of character to assure you that ‘The War of the Worlds’ has no further significance than as the holiday offering it was intended to be. The Mercury Theater’s own radio version of dressing up in a sheet and jumping out of a bush and saying ‘boo’! Starting now we couldn’t soap all your windows and steal all your garden gates by tomorrow night . . . so we did the next best thing. We annihilated the world before your very ears, and utterly destroyed the Columbia Broadcasting System. You will be relieved, I hope, to learn that we didn’t mean it, and that both institutions are still open for business. So good-bye everybody, and remember please, for the next day or so the terrible lesson you learned tonight. The grinning, globular invader of your living room is an inhabitant of the pumpkin patch, and if your doorbell rings and nobody’s there . . . that was no Martian – it’s Halloween.
As 1938 drew to a close, the unbeatable Yankees wiped out the Cubs in four straight games in the World Series. Hollywood box office receipts were at an all-time high. But as the days grew darker so did a sense of gloom as news from Europe too often told of Adolf Hitler’s increasing belligerence in Europe. As 1938 grew to a close, Americans were fearing for the worst.
January 16, 1926. During a period of an unusual labor strife, London England. On that day the traditionally complacent English listener was startled by a description given by Father Ronald Knox (in the customary news broadcast), of an unruly unemployed mob. The mob was said to have attempted to destroy the Houses of Parliament, using their trench mortars to bring Big Ben to the ground. They hanged the Minister of Traffic from a tramway post, and the London broadcast ended with the destruction of the BBC’s radio station. After the fictional broadcast, newspaper offices, police and radio stations were besieged with calls from frantic citizens. The panic created by Father Knox’s broadcast did not cause widespread panic, but it foreshadowed the shape of things to come.
On the hot afternoon of June 24, 1938, science-fiction became science-fact when reality crash-landed outside Pittsburgh. A ball of fire roared over sky scrapers and hit outside the city with such explosive force that cars stopped in the streets, people grew silent, and windows in department stores cracked. Scientists rushed outside of town to check out the space debris that landed within a few miles of city limits, and they found a bright, orange-glowing heat shield in a small crater. Reporters took pictures, and the property owner began selling refreshments and giving eyewitness statements.
Twenty-four hours later, an observatory nearby reported that a 500-ton meteor had entered the Earth’s atmosphere, burning up as it hurled ground-ward at a shallow angle. Scientists calculated that if the meteorite had come straight down – instead of an angle – Pittsburgh would have been partially destroyed. The lives of a few million people were spared by what appeared to have been a near-death experience.
Enter stage left, Orson Welles who at the age of 23 was producing, directing and starring in his own radio series entitled The Mercury Theater on the Air. Each week Welles and a superb cast were presenting dramatizations of popular literary works including "The Man Who Was Thursday," "The Count of Monte Cristo" and "The Affairs of Anatole." Welles and his partner John Houseman had formed a repertory company a few years earlier that they called "The Mercury Theater." Houseman, who co-produced the Mercury productions with Welles, agreed to use H.G. Wells’ science-fiction novel War of the Worlds sometime in September, but because of world affairs at the time the novel was postponed for a later broadcast. Having no memory of the novel, Houseman and Welles turned to a young lawyer-turned-playwright named Howard Koch to write the adaptation, and after reading the novel Koch found very little to work with and so he asked Houseman if another novel could be substituted. Houseman informed Koch that the only available script was what Houseman described as a weak adaptation of Lorna Doone, but suggestions of Matthew Shield’s Purple Cloud and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World circulated before Houseman stood his ground, suggesting that Halloween would be an appropriate time for War of the Worlds; moreover, Houseman suggested that Koch employ a number of "news bulletins" to heighten the War of the Worlds plot-line. Koch agreed, and he changed the location from England to New Jersey, randomly picking a spot on the map, Grover’s Mill, and Koch choosing the nearby Princeton Observatory as the opening setting.
THURSDAY, OCTOBER 27. Koch had the rough draft typed up. Welles, in the meantime spent almost the entire week across New York City working on his stage production of Danton’s Death. Mercury member Paul Stewart helped Koch record a rough-cut read-through for Welles, who found the work "boring." For fans of old-time radio, there actually exists in circulation many recordings of read-through and rehearsals of the Mercury Theater radio productions, but none to date of the War of the Worlds rehearsals. It should also be noted that Welles had very little to do with the script or the radio production itself until the very day of the broadcast.
FRIDAY EVENING, OCTOBER 28. Koch along with Houseman, Houseman’s assistant Ann Froelich, and Paul Stewart polished the script.
SATURDAY, OCTOBER 29. CBS reviewed the second draft and gave approval on the stipulation that several names of actual people and locations be changed. Hence, the Hotel Biltmore became the Park Plaza; the Trans-America became the International; President Roosevelt became the "Secretary of the Interior;" and Bernard Herrmann and the CBS Orchestra became "Ramon Raquello and his Orchestra."
SUNDAY MORNING, OCTOBER 30. The day before broadcast, Paul Stewart directed the technical rehearsals with the sound men, who worked on complex crowd scenes, such as the sound of fleeing refugees boarding ships in the New York harbor, and that of the Martian heat ray.
SUNDAY AFTERNOON, OCTOBER 30. Just hours before the scheduled broadcast. Welles tears himself away from Danton’s Death and arrives at the CBS Studio. Adding that Wellesian dramatic flair that he is famous for, Welles lengthened some of the dialogue exchanged between professor Pierson and the reporter at the Princeton Observatory. Kenny Delmar, known for playing Senator Claghorn on The Fred Allen Show, practiced his Roosevelt impersonation he had done so many times before on The March of Time. Frank Readick, set to play the part of Carl Phillips, the reporter at Grover’s Mill, acquired a recording of Herb Morrison’s report of the Hindenberg crash in Lakehurst. Readick replayed the recording over and over, attempting to capture the same emotional response when the disaster occurred. Others in the cast included Everett Sloane and Ray Collins.
Welles wasn’t in favor of the finished product, according to Dick Barr, who recalled that, "All during the [Sunday] rehearsals, Orson railed at the text, cursing the writers and at the whole idea of his presenting so silly a show."
Finally at eight o’clock p.m., Eastern Standard Time, the opening bars of Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto opened The Mercury Theater on the Air. Inside Studio One, the announcer plugged the show’s title and the evening’s drama:
The Columbia Broadcasting System, and it’s affiliated stations present Orson Welles and The Mercury Theater on the Air, in ‘War of the Worlds’ by H.G. Wells.
Meanwhile on NBC, The Chase and Sanborn Hour opened with the usual Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy monologue. Madeline Carroll was the guest for the evening and all seemed right at first. Sometime between 8:08 and 8:11 p.m., EST, Nelson Eddy began singing and an estimated one to two million people began dial switching. What they heard was not the opening announcement of The Mercury Theater on the Air, but rather ballroom music being interrupted by news bulletins about strange gasses emanating from the planet Mars.
After several interruptions and a small chat at Princeton Observatory, the Martian’s heat ray began burning on-lookers in Grover’s Mill and people by the hundreds were slaughtered. Radio listeners became horrified by what they heard and the telephone service began receiving an extra-ordinary amount of traffic. Impetuous listeners urged relatives to tune into the program, and by this time radios in taverns had tuned in to the so-called "Presidential Speech" delivered by Kenny Delmar. Before the program was even halfway over, the CBS switchboard was jammed with demands for verification. Even NBC reported having received a few calls, and Koch recalled that an operator at CBS properly replied to a question as to whether the world was coming to an end that, "I’m sorry, we don’t have that information here." Welles and his crew suspected that some sort of confusion would arise (regardless of later interviews claiming complete denial and innocence) but not to the extent that was unraveling throughout air-time.
"The first inkling we, all of us in the studio had, was when we saw the control room a big gang of policemen," recalled Welles. "The cops were pretty bewildered, they didn’t know how to arrest a radio program so we carried on."
No one else saw the officers but CBS supervisor Davidson Taylor did arrive at the control room to report that the studio switchboard was jammed with calls. Dick Barr wrote that: "Someone had called threatening to blow up the CBS building, so we called the police and hid in the ladies’ room on the studio floor. Houseman denies this, but I distinctly remember a group of frightened men squeezed in the ladies’ room of the CBS building." Taylor wanted to interrupt the show to give the listeners some reassurance, and so he did shortly after Ray Collins choked to death from a gas attack on top of the CBS control tower.
By then the damage was done.
Altogether during the broadcast, four announcements were made. One at the beginning of the program, once before the station break, one after the station break, and one after the drama. The following announcement was broadcast over the Columbia Broadcasting System on the same evening at 10:30, 11:30 and 12 midnight:
For those listeners who tuned in to Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater on the Air broadcast from 8 to 9 p.m., Eastern Standard Time tonight and did not realize that the program was merely a modernized adaptation of H.G. Wells’ famous novel, ‘War of the Worlds,’ we are repeating the fact which was made clear four times on the program that, while the names of some American cities were used, as in all novels and dramatizations, the entire story and all of its incidents were fictitious.
So why was a fictional drama mistaken for reality, especially when it dealt with invaders from outer space? Perhaps one reason was because Orson Welles’ distinctive voice wasn’t recognizable to the radio listeners until after the spooky broadcast. The Chase and Sanborn Hour was considered the highest-rated program on Sunday evenings and more listeners were familiar with the voice of Charlie McCarthy. Another would be because 35 days before Halloween, the Munich crisis stunned listeners by hearing fixed live reports from Europe in a new technique called "on the spot reporting."
"The War of the Worlds was a work of pure fiction," recalled Arch Oboler, "and any idiot that thought he was being invaded . . . deserved to be invaded." Welles himself summed it up this way: "Radio in those days wasn’t just a noise in somebody’s pocket – it was the voice of authority. Too much so – at least I thought so. I figured it was time to take the mickey out of some of that authority."
Outside the studio, hundreds of people across the East Coast began panicking, but the numbers involved were, in actuality, small. But they were scattered creating small pockets of pandemonium, and numerous stories regarding the panic have cropped up over the years – many fictional and many fact. Reporters found no problem finding citizens to gab away about the world coming to an end. In Newark, all of the occupants of a block of flats left their homes with wet towels around their necks as improvised gas masks. Others stayed home, gathering water and food for storage, and some living within city limits rushed to the roof tops to check out the smoke and gas that was supposedly spreading across the city sky-line. Many police stations received phone calls, and the New York Times estimated that it received 875 phone calls to their office.
In South Carolina, one woman reported that her aunt fainted. According to the Baltimore Sun, a freshman in a Mary Washing College dorm at Fredricksburg, Maryland called Mrs. C.L. Bushnell, dean of women, to stop a wave of mass hysteria. Five boys at Brevard College in North Carolina reportedly fainted. One woman fell down a flight of stairs in a panic, and according to Norman Corwin, her husband called CBS to thank them for the broadcast saying, "Geez, it was a wonderful program!"
If one report can be believed, a water tower in New Jersey was found filled with buckshot, apparently mistaken as a Martian war machine. A Pittsburgh woman attempted suicide, but a dissenting voice raised by Thomas Sweeney, who said that his two children were also listening to the radio. But when the Martians landed, he said, the youngsters exclaimed, "That’s ridiculous. Let’s get Charlie McCarthy."
"Remember John Barrymore?" Orson Welles recalled. "The greatest of all great actors, the last one. He also has the radio on, and he put down his highball, lurched out to his private kennels, where he kept a clutch of great Danes, opened the gates and said ‘Fend for yourselves’!"
Howard Koch, among all who were involved, was tired that evening and went to bed early. To ensure his sleep he disconnected the phone. When he woke, a surprise was waiting for him on the streets. "Not knowing anything about [the panic], it was my day off, it was a Monday following the broadcast," said Koch. "I went down to get a haircut and as I walked down 72nd Street, there was a sort of buzz of war in the air. This was the time Hitler was busy in Europe and I thought, you know, has there been war? Has something happened? So when I got into the barbershop, the first thing I asked the barber was, ‘There hasn’t been any war declared anywhere, has there?’ And he said, ‘Haven’t you heard?’ And slowly he hands me the morning paper, the New York paper, and this is a moment I’ll never forget because there was the headline and it said that the Martians had invaded the United States and I looked further down and I saw my script!"
The morning after the broadcast, FCC chairman Frank P. McNich asked the Columbia Broadcasting System to furnish the commission with an electrical transcription of the broadcast: "I have this morning," he said, "requested the CBS by telegraph to forward to the commission at once, a copy of the script and also en electrical transcription of the War of the Worlds, which was broadcast last night and which the press indicates caused a widespread excitement, terror and fright. I shall request prompt consideration of this matter by the commission."
Senator Clyde L. Herring, Democrat of Iowa, publicly told the press that he planned to introduce to Congress a bill "controlling just such abuses as was heard over the radio last night . .. Radio has no more right to present programs like that than someone has in knocking on your door and screaming."
"His Martian invasion radio broadcast had brought him [Welles] International renown," recalled Joseph Cotton in his autobiography, Vanity Will Get You Nowhere, "including a comment from Hitler on the instability and hysterical nature of the American public . . . one of the remedies for this kind of air-wave hocus-pocus, by the way, was an official banning of the word ‘flash’ in all radio broadcasts except when used in genuine news programs."
"Mr. Hitler made a good deal of sport of it, you know," Welles pointed out. Hitler "actually spoke of it in the great Munich speech. And it’s supposed to show the kind of corrupt condition and decadent state of affairs in democracies, as War of the Worlds went over as well as it did."
Three-quarters of the nation’s station managers reported that their mail volume exceeded 100% of the normal number of letters received. Station WABC, Columbia’s key station in New York, was flooded with 1,770 pieces of mail concerning the subject with 1,086 favorable and 684 unfavorable. The Mercury Theater itself received 1,450 letters with only 9% condemning the program, and the FCC itself received 644 pieces of mail. So much interest came from the panicked reaction, that the periodical Schron printed a serialized version of War of the Worlds with a subhead, "The Story that Scared America" for issues of November 6, 13, 20 and 27, 1938.
Orson Welles was haunted by the broadcast for months after. Lawsuits piled up and legal actions were filed against CBS and Welles, totaling more than a millions dollars in claimed damages as a result of the presentation. They all failed in court while many didn’t even make it to trial. But H.G. Wells, the author of the novel, was unhappy about not being paid for rights to broadcast an adaptation of his novel. Wells felt he had been duped, but an exchange of letters between his New York agents and CBS led to payment as well as an apology. Almost two years later, on October 27, 1940, Wells and Welles had met for the first time. The meeting was photographed for the press and part of their conversation was broadcast over the airwaves.
About this time, sociologist Hadley Cantril compiled a study of the broadcast an the effect it had on the American public, entitled The Invasion from Mars. Cantril wanted to publish Koch’s script, and asked Welles to endorse the book, but Welles turned down the offer, claiming that Koch was not fully responsible for the script. Everyone else disagreed, however. Koch claimed that he wrote the first draft, and everyone involved from Paul Stewart, Ann Froelich and John Houseman contributed to the final product. It had been established that Welles did very little but rewrite on Sunday afternoon, just hours before broadcast. Nonetheless, Welles attempted to legally prevent Cantril from publishing the script under Koch’s name, but failed. Cantril, however, mentioned that, ‘Script idea and development by Orson Welles, assisted by John Houseman and Mercury Theater staff, and written by Howard Koch, under the direction of Mr. Welles."
On October 27, 1958, CBS broadcast a television special entitled The Night America Trembled, hosted by Edward R. Murrow. Again, Welles threatened suit for $375,000 to have his due as author but again he lost.
"I didn’t particularly like Orson," Arch Oboler said in an interview years later. "He is a great actor and a fine director, but he didn’t know how to give credit to the people around him who did the work. He had nothing to do with the writing of [the] H.G. Wells’ fame. He simply did not admit that in co-operative business – the entertainment business – that anybody does anything, including sweep the floor, but Orson Welles. During the war we had a series. I was given a network time-slot to do a series called Plays for Americans, where I turned to any in the writing industry and said, ‘write something for the war effort.’ He knew that I knew that he’s not a writer. Yet he sat at that table and played beautifully. He played the part so well that I thought I was with the Bard. But I knew darn well the minute I left that he’d call up Koch and say, ‘Hey, can you write this for me?’ "
The publicity from the Halloween broadcast supplied Welles’ program with a sponsor. Campbell Soups stopped sponsoring Hollywood Hotel weeks after the War of the Worlds, and suddenly The Mercury Theater on the Air became The Campbell Playhouse. At a whopping $7,500 per week budget, The Campbell Playhouse allowed room for Hollywood stars to make guest appearances.
The Halloween broadcast coupled with a new Hollywood connection helped secure Welles a Hollywood contract with RKO-Radio Pictures, one of the smaller of the film industry "majors," and one of the least financially stable. Howard Koch on the other hand, found security at Warner Bros. where he launched a screen writing career, eventually winning an Academy Award in 1942 for Casablanca.
What’s really amusing about the broadcast is how many bloopers were made, most over-looked by the listeners. For instance, during the actual broadcast the time of the events was off by an hour. The Mercury Theater on the Air was broadcast from 8 to 9 p.m., EST, but the fictional events in the broadcast started at 9 p.m. and continued for days. (Even if residence of Central Standard Time heard the drama, they should have observed a two-hour difference between their clocks and the drama.) The fictional time was even given, and had anyone actually been paying attention they would have wondered if the station or their wristwatch were off by an hour. Also during the broadcast, one of the fictional characters makes a reference that today (the day of the invasion) was October 20th instead of October 30th. This somehow went unobserved during the rehearsals and the "live" on-the-air performance.
Thankfully, contrary to what has been printed in some books, no one died as a result of the War of the Worlds broadcast. One woman, however, reportedly gave birth prematurely following the broadcast, but whether the broadcast had anything to do with the interference of the birth process will probably never be known.
In 1953 George Pal produced an Academy-Award winning film version of the H.G. Wells novel, and he decided to have a couple references to the broadcast. During the atom bomb sequence in which scientists attempted to thwart the alien crafts by dropping the most powerful of bombs, hoping to penetrate their shields, real-life radio announcer Paul frees played what else but a radio reporter describing the events and actions to an unseen radio audience. The bomb was dropped – to no effect – and the Martians attack. The wire is cut and Paul Frees (much like the reporter on the 1938 broadcast) is off the air prematurely.
In 1955, producer Walter Wanger started post-production of the science-fiction classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Among the correspondence between Wanger and Orson Welles, was the possibility of Welles supplying the opening tag:
I am Orson Welles. A few years ago, people were frightened by my ‘War of the Worlds’ broadcast which, I must say, seems pretty tame considering what has happened to our world since. When I think of the A-bombs, the H-bombs, the fall-outs, the changing climates, the unprecedented number of earthquakes, cyclones, tornadoes, and the floods that have occurred all over the world; and the space ships, the ‘flying saucers,’ the supersonic flights, and more flaming volcanoes than ever, surely even Nature is behaving strangely, and no phenomenon seems impossible today. Strange things are happening all around us, some visible, and some not. I’m not sure that Dr. Bennell didn’t recognize what he was about to encounter when he was called back to Santa Mira, that small town in California, which surely, was the last place he would expect to discover what he did. But there is no doubt our world was in danger!
In the 1960s, Jay Ward parodied the War of the Worlds broadcast on the premiere episodes of The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, with a Welles-look-alike telling a radio audience that the U.F.O. landing was "not a practical joke."
Since the 1938 broadcast, many versions of the script have been re-enacted at radio conventions and over radio stations across the country. In 1961, a West Coast version of the panic broadcast was dramatized over the air, with the events taking place in and around San Francisco. The Western New York area performed a modernized version on Halloween night, 1968 with one major noticeable exception – the Martians win the battle.
In 1987, Woody Allen’s Radio Days spoofed the Welles panic broadcast. On October 30, 1988, the BBC presented a 50th anniversary radio documentary featuring rare news excerpts and a rare retrospective by John Houseman, who passed away six months later. The day after, Jason Robards appeared in another 50th anniversary special broadcast over NPR.
In conclusion, the War of the Worlds panic broadcast, regardless of how minor the pockets of panic were back in 1938, is still remembered as the most influential of radio broadcasts in the history of American Broadcasting. I have often suspected that over the past decades many individuals trying to grab front-page headlines attempt similar stunts, assuming that over-night success will be a recurrence of Orson Welles’ success. History’s major events do have a way of repeating itself. And I predict that within the next fifty or hundred years, with network broadcasting always an evolving medium, a recurrence of similar proportions will result (purposely or not purposely), reminding us that sometimes we take the news media for granted – with barely a grain of salt. Hopefully the next time aliens invade the Earth we’ll be more cautious and not jump to conclusions. Remember, that "if your doorbell rings and nobody’s there . . . that was no Martian – it’s Halloween."
Martin Grams, Jr. is the author of numerous books about old-time radio and network broadcasting, including Inner Sanctum Mysteries: Behind the Creaking Door, Invitation to Learning and The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. This article copyrighted and reprinted with permission from the author.