Seventy years ago today, Orson Welles scared the daylights of a nation, convincing millions of radio listeners that invaders from Mars were taking over the planet.
One of the most famous broadcasts in radio history, “The War of the Worlds” was a radio adaptation of the popular H.G. Wells’ science-fiction novel for the “Mercury Theater of the Air.” To dramatize the story, Welles had writer Howard Koch take the story of aliens coming to Earth and script it as live coverage of the alien invasion. The story did air warnings that it was a fictional account four times before, during and after the program, but many listeners never heard them.
The reason for this is the popular “Chase and Sanborn Hour” featuring Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy aired the same time as “Mercury Theater.” Listeners tuned in to hear the opening banter between Bergen and McCarthy and channel surfed over to “Mercury Theater” during a musical number of “Chase and Sanborn.” The timing was just right so that audiences tuning in heard the Wells dramatization, saying that alien invaders were attacking our planet.
Chaos ensued. Many listeners started panicking almost immediately, especially when they heard on the broadcast that the governor of New Jersey had declared martial law and that the National Guard had been mobilized.
Dozens of citizens of the real-life Grover’s Mill fled the town.
Thousands of those frightened in New York called the police, the fire department, and the Daily News to find out what was happening. Even officials in the New York City Department of Health called The News to find out what they could do to help the victims.
Hundreds of local churches were flooded with people rushing inside to pray, while other citizens left New York. One New Yorker heard the show and bolted from her apartment. She fell in a panic while running down the hallway and broke her arm.
“War of the Worlds” scared listeners throughout the rest of the country as well, with similar phone calls, fleeing, and praying. One Pittsburgh man came home to find his wife about to take poison. She told him, “I’d rather die this way than like that.”
At the end of the program, listeners – those who hadn’t fled their homes in terror, that is – heard this announcement:
“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 Theatre’s own radio version of dressing up in a sheet and jumping out of a bush and saying ‘Boo!’ ”
Welles continued. “We couldn’t soap all your windows and steal all your garden gates by tomorrow night. . . so we did the best next thing. We annihilated the world before your very ears, and utterly destroyed the C. B. S. You will be relieved, I hope, to learn that we didn’t mean it, and that both institutions are still open for business.
He told listeners to remember “the terrible lesson you learned tonight. That grinning, glowing, 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.”
The Federal Communications Commission decided not to fine CBS or Welles for the stunt, although the U.S. government did tell radio stations not to air shows with fake news flashes.
Welles, then just 23, suffered no repercussions from the controversy. In fact, he became a star after this brouhaha, and went on to make “Citizen Kane,” considered to be the greatest film of all time,
But not everybody appreciated Welles’ joke on the audience. Farmer Cora Sayler, a lifelong resident of Grover’s Mill, told the News in 1981: “The thing you have to remember is that country people don’t like to be taken in by the city slickers. And that’s what most of them think Welles did, make fools out of them.”
If you’ve never listened to the original broadcast, you can visit the Mercury Theater On the Air web site to listen to or download the original program. The copyright on many old time radio shows expired several years ago, making it legal to download and distribute the programs via MP3.