On This Day: October 30, 1938 – “Radio Play Terrifies Nation”

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Conversation between Peter Bogdanovich and Orson Welles in This Is Orson Welles:

PB: I’ve often wondered if you had any idea, before you did it, that War of the Worlds was going to get that kind of response.
OW. The kind of response, yes – that was merrily anticipated by us all. The size of it, of course, was flabbergasting. Six minutes after we’d gone on the air, the switchboards in radio stations right across the country were lighting up like Christmas trees. Houses were emptying, churches were filling up; from Nashville to Minneapolis there was wailing in the street and the rending of garments. Twenty minutes in, and we had a control room full of very bewildered cops. They didn’t know who to arrest or for what, but they did lend a certain tone to the remainder of the broadcast. We began to realize, as we plowed on with the destruction of New Jersey, that the extent of our American lunatic fringe had been underestimated.
PB: You claimed innocence afterwards.
OW: There were headlines about lawsuits totaling some $12 million. Should I have pleaded guilty?
PB: What happened to the lawsuits?
OW: Most of them, as it turned out, existed in the fevered imagination of the newspapers. They’d been losing all that advertising to radio, so here, they reckoned, was a lovely chance to strike back. For a few days, I was a combination Benedict Arnold and John Wilkes Booth. But people were laughing much too hard, thank God – and pretty soon the papers had to quit.
PB: What about CBS?
OW: The day after the show, all you could find were sound mixers and elevator men. There wasn’t an executive in the building. During rehearsals they’d been rather edgy, but what was there to censor? We were told not to say “Langley Field”, because that was a real place, so we wrote in “Langham Field” – little things like that, so they couldn’t complain when the lid blew off. But as I say, we were surprised ourselves by the size and extent of it.
PB: Is it a true story that when Pearl Harbor was announced nobody believed it because –?
OW: Dead right. Particularly since I had a patriotic broadcast that morning and was interrupted in the middle of it. I was on the full network, reading from Walt Whitman about how beautiful America was, when they said Pearl Harbor’s attacked – now, doesn’t that sound like me trying to do that again? They interrupted the show to say that there had been an attack. Roosevelt sent me a wire about it. I’ve forgotten what – I don’t have it. Something like “crying wolf” and that kind of thing. Not the same day – he was too busy! – but about ten days later.
PB: Then the Martian broadcast didn’t really hurt you at all. Would you say it was lucky?
OW: Well, it put me in the movies. Was that lucky? I don’t know.

From Simon Callow’s Orson Welles: Volume 1: The Road to Xanadu:

Focusing on the device of an interrupted programme, he dared to attempt a verisimilitude that had rarely been essayed before. The apparent breakdowns in transmission, the desperate irruptions of dance music, the sadly tinkling piano were all held longer than would be thought possible. The actors too were galvanised into startlingly real and precisely observed performances. Frank Readick as Carl Phillips, the reporter on the spot who describes the invasion and then collapses dead at his mike, had listened over and over again to a recording on the explosion of the Hindenburg air balloon from a year or two before and exactly imitated the original commentator’s graduation from comfortable report through growing disbelief to naked horror. Using skills honed on The March of Time, the show became, until about its halfway point, a brilliantly effective transposition of the original novel, sharp enough to make even the most sceptical listener wonder, however idly, how Americans might react to the unprecedented event of an invasion, not from Mars, of course, but from Europe – from Germany or perhaps even from England.

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The vividness of the dramatisation stems from its imitation of the newscasts whose bulletins so frequently concerned events ominously gathering in Europe. Neither Koch nor Houseman nor Welles intended any serious parallel, of course; they were simply trying to liven up a dull book, using what was all around them, on the air and in the papers.

What no one at all could have predicted was that anyone might have thought that an actual invasion from Mars was being reported. There was no attempt to conceal the fact that the listener was hearing a dramatisation of a novel, from the beginning of the programme, with its standard announcement (‘CBS present Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre on the Air in a radio play by Howard Koch suggested by the H.G. Wells novel The War of the Worlds‘) and the appropriately but conveniently chilling introduction from Welles, taken with only small modifications from the novella: ‘We know now that in the early years of the twentieth century this world was being watched closely by intelligences greater than man’s but as mortal as his own … [who] regarded this earth with envious eyes and slowly and surely drew their plans against us. In the thirty-eighth year of the twentieth century came the great disillusionment.’ Only towards the end of this introduction does Koch start the process of relocation. ‘It was near the end of October. Business was better. The war was over. More men were back at work. Sales were picking up. On this particular evening, October 30, the Crossley service estimated that 32 million people were listening in on radios …’ So the programme is clearly framed as a broadcast within a broadcast. Then comes the neatly devised sequence of weather report, musical interlude (from the non-existent Hotel Park Plaza in downtown New York), news flash about peculiar explosions, more music, more announcements, rambling interview with Professor Pierson, head of the Observatory at Princeton (a gruff and bumbling and highly recognisable Welles), followed by the brilliant on-the-spot reporting sequences.

It was at this point (8.12 p.m. according to Houseman) that the crucial event occurred which precipitated the subsequent panic. The programme that had freed up the slot which gave the Mercury access to the air waves at all was the massively popular Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy show, that most improbable of radio successes, featuring a ventriloquist and his anarchic dummy. Just under a quarter of an hour into the programme, the monocled dummy, his operator and the assembled zanies including Mortimer Snerd, Effie Klinker, Ersel Twing, Vera Vague and Professor Lionel Carp, were given a rest while a vocalist trilled. Immediately, and rather depressingly for the vocalist in question, a large proportion of the listeners would reach for their dials, and twiddle until they found something more congenial, usually returning to the dummy after a few minutes. On the night of 30 October 1938, 12 per cent of Bergen and McCarthy’s audience, twiddling away, suddenly found themselves listening, appalled, to a news report of an invasion, by now well under way, by Martians …

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By now a small but significant portion of the audience (with heavy concentration in the New Jersey area) were in a state of high hysteria. The Mercury audience had effectively doubled from its usual 3.6 per cent of the total audience (Bergen and McCarthy had a regular listenership of 34.7 per cent) to six million. Before the programme was even halfway through, the CBS switchboard was jammed with demands for verification, as were switchboards all over the country (Koch reports an operator who very properly replied to a question as to whether the world was coming to an end, ‘I’m sorry, we don’t have that information here.’) Other listeners assumed that the broadcast was the unvarnished truth needing no verification … The nature of radio, whose unique appeal to the audience’s imagination Welles and his collaborators had so brilliantly exploited in their earlier broadcasts, made the Martian broadcast horribly convincing …

Terrified listeners who had called CBS angrily threatened violence against Welles and the company on discovering that they were victims of what seemed to them to be a malicious hoax … Reporters besieged the building; when they could get through by telephone, they asked Welles or Houseman how they felt about the many deaths the broadcast had caused. Bewildered, frightened and genuinely remorseful, with no means of checking what the reporters were telling them, they could only protest the innocence of their intentions. Columbia was very nervous and steeled themselves for the legal actions which duly followed. They put out hourly disclaimers, affirming the fictional nature of the broadcast. The planned official midnight Hallowe’en broadcast, in which ghosts were to figure prominently, was cancelled …

Welles himself was palpably shaken by the furore he had unleashed.

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In a newsreel interview with assembled pressmen, he apologises, unshaven and boyish, for the distress unwittingly caused. He has the attitude of a repentant schoolboy, big-eyed, serious-mouthed, frightened and exhilarated at the same time: circumspect, but nervously ready to burst out laughing. He says, his voice nervously high-pitched and slightly adenoidal, that the only anxiety they had before the broadcast was that it might have been boring, his only thought as he came off the air that he hadn’t given a very good performance. It was planned simply as a Hallowe’en joke, he says, (‘I’d every hope people would be excited, just as they are in a melodrama’) and he certainly would never do anything like it again. He is charming, but shifty, not quite sure whether he’d got off without any more serious penalties.

…Later, Welles became more articulate about the incident. ‘The most terrifying thing,’ he told the Saturday Evening Post ‘is suddenly becoming aware that you are not alone. In this case the earth, thinking itself alone, suddenly became aware that another planet was prowling around.’ He had another theory, too: ‘the last two generations are softened up because they were deprived in their childhoods, through mistaken theories of education, of the tales of blood and horror which used to be part of the routine training of the young. Under the old system the child felt at home among ghosts and goblins, and did not grow up to be a push-over for sensational canards. But the ban on gruesome fairy tales, terrifying nursemaids and other standard sources of horror has left most of the population without any protection against fee-fi-fo-fum stuff.’ This second theory seems very personal: the need to embrace demons; the necessity of healthy terror and – presumably – guilt.

The War of the Worlds incident, though giving rise to an extraordinary event, and revealing some remarkable aspects of America in 1938, was one of the most purely fortuitous events of Welles’s career. His personal responsiblity for it is negligible, beyond having directed it with great flair. Houseman precisely analyses the skill of the production, especially its slow build-up of tension; but most of the people who had been frightened by it had only joined the programme a third of the way through, so they were never subject to that manipulation. Nor was Welles responsible for the adaptation. He later attempted to claim authorship for the script, but there is a great deal of entirely conclusive evidence on the contrary … There is, moreover, no evidence that the programme was planned as the devilishly clever Hallowe’en prank that it seemed to be. Describing the programme as a practical joke was an idea improvised on the spot as a sop to the panic released during the broadcast. Nor was there a conscious attempt to play on fears of a European invasion. The fact is that Welles had barely thought about the programme, being wholly occupied until the very last minute by his losing struggle with Danton’s Death.

Welles was praised for having his finger on the pulse of his times, and for being the conman of the century, able to make anybody believe anything. The truth is that he was more surprised than anyone at what had happened, and extremely irritated by it … For Welles in October 1938, the immediate result of the broadcast was notoreity. People who had never been to the theatre, who had never so much as read a review and who would never have dreamed of consciously tuning in to the Mercury Theatre of the Air, suddenly knew who he was. And not just in America: the news of the panic flashed round the world, where the incident was held up (particularly in Europe) as proof, if any were needed, of the ingrained idiocy of Americans. ‘America today hardly knows whether to laugh or to be angry,’ scoffed the London Times. ‘Here is a nation which, alone of the big nations, has deemed it unnecessary to rehearse for protection against attack from the air by fellow-beings on this earth and suddenly believes itself – and for little enough reason – faced with a more fearful attack from another world.’ It was left to the more popular end of the market to report on Welles himself: the Daily Express piece was headed HE’S A LAD. Recapitulating favourite yarns it hailed him as ‘America’s best villainous radio voice,’ whose ‘ha-ha’s and hee-hee’s are adored by millions.’ The Star (STORMY WELLES) offered a more sober assessment: ‘he has had a career almost as remarkable as his broadcast … making history at the Mercury Theatre, New York.’ The Evening News was also more interested in his theatrical reputation: ‘by his energetic direction and ruthless manhandling of the classics, he has made his theatre, the Mercury, the liveliest in New York … the broadcast has set the seal on his reputation as the enfant terrible of the New York stage.’ It had entirely done that, though its most important effects were to come.

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Check out the headline to the right of the “War of the Worlds” headline, a chilling reminder of the world into which “War of the Worlds” entered. People already felt doom in the collective atmosphere, and for good reason.

Excerpt from my diary.
I am a senior in high school, and at a party. My friend Brett (who died in 2011 – God, I hate ghosts, I miss you Brett) decided to pull out his cassette tape of Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds”.:

Then we threw darts and sang the score of The Music Man. He said, “Hey! I have a tape of The Fantasticks!” And he went rummaging around for it but instead he found another tape – with a coo of delight. “Oh! I know! Want to hear War of the Worlds?” I’d heard of it, knew what it was about, knew it was Orson Welles, but had never heard it – so I said yes. Brett put the tape in (he loves it) – then he went around turning off all the lights in his room except for a tiny one on his bedside table.

Then he said, “Okay – get on the bed.”

Then he climbed on the bed beside me and we listened to it. We pretended it was real. We pretended that we were a married couple in the 1930s and just normally listening to the radio – and then THAT comes on. It was SO MUCH MORE FREAKY that way. I convinced myself that I totally believed it. It was really fun.

Then when they announced that it was a recording, we both started screaming and laughing and rolling around, going, “I can’t believe that!!!”

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Here is the original “War of the Worlds” broadcast, performed by Mercury Theater on the Air.

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10 Responses to On This Day: October 30, 1938 – “Radio Play Terrifies Nation”

  1. april says:

    Sheila, did you see “Me and Orson Welles,” a 2009 Linklater film that takes place a year or two before the WOTW broadcast? I had never even heard of it until last year’s Ebertfest, and after seeing it have no idea why it wasn’t a huge hit. It is as much a paean to the magic of theatre as a biopic, and succeeds on both counts. In it, Christian McKay portrays a very young Welles as charmer, egomaniac, and conman extraordinaire… the perfect combination not only to pull this off, but to be bold enough to try it in the first place. I think you’d really like it… PS – Don’t be put off by the fact that Zac Efron is the nominal lead; the film makes it clear that there is actually an actor lurking somewhere under all that pretty.

  2. sheila says:

    April – Yes! Fantastic film – I was so excited to hear of the topic, as well as the fact that Richard Linklater was directing. I loved it!

  3. Jaime says:

    When I finally heard Welles’s WAR OF THE WORLDS I was 1) astonished at the utter stones of Orson & co daring to pull that off in a time when broadcast media was still new and folks were nowhere near as media literate (like that’s no longer a problem these days) and having the understanding that that very lack of savvy in their audience would work in the piece’s favour
    and 2) how much more like a conventional radio drama the second part is – the protagonist is narrating his actions and describing his surroundings and the conceit of a live radio broadcast clearly no longer holds.
    Obviously, I was hearing it with more “experienced” and “educated” ears and I’m sure that by that point in 1938, no-one who was panicking was paying any attention. Still and all, a great fun piece of radio history and a great post, Sheila.

  4. peter says:

    i am so sorry brett died, because i “know” him from diary friday. of course i never knew him, but it breaks my heart as a “diary friday”-reader.

    • sheila says:

      Peter – thank you. It was a great shock. A sudden death. He was my friend since we were teens together. He was a wonderful person and much missed.

  5. Anthony Cinelli says:

    Sheila, so sorry for your loss, but what a marvelous way to memorialize Brett’s child-like wonderment and delectable imagination. How wonderful is the vivid account of your stumbling upon the recording, setting the stage and reinventing the illusion with the descriptive detail of a Thornton Wilder stage direction. I can almost envision this remarkable homage to Welles and that distinctly adolescent moment in American history as a brave, bold and thoroughly entertaining one act. I got the goosebump thing again, and really appreciated the walk down memory lane on this special day. Thank you for a thrilling post!

  6. sheila says:

    Tony – Thank you, friend!! Yes, you’re right in re: memorializing Brett. He was so special!

  7. Sheila, were you in RI in ’74, when they redid War of the Worlds in Rhode Island (substituting the names of local places, like the Jamestown Bridge), as an exercise in nostalgia? Being The Panic State, Rhode Islanders actually panicked. I remember being kind of proud of us, that we had the will to believe in something that silly.

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