“We interrupt this program …” The Radio Broadcast that Panicked America (UPDATED)


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UPDATE: On Tuesday, October 29th PBS will be broadcasting a special edition of “American Experience” to mark the anniversary of the radio broadcast of War of the Worlds: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/films/worlds/

By Niall McArdle

There was always something of the mischievous and daring little boy about Orson Welles. At sixteen, while on holiday in Ireland, he lied about his credentials and bluffed his way onto the stage at the Gate Theatre. At nineteen he was running his own theatre festival. He directed an all-black Macbeth and an anti-Fascist Julius Caesar, and was the director of an infamous theatre company.

Welles (second from right) in his production of 'Julius Caesar'
Welles (second from right) in his production of ‘Julius Caesar’

At twenty-seven, the boy-wonder of Hollywood, he secured an unheard-of deal at RKO: complete control over his first film, Citizen Kane. He declared the experience of making the film to that of an excited child playing with the world’s greatest train set. His genius was never questioned, least of all by himself (“there but for the grace of God, goes God” was a well-used joke about the enfant terrible), and he got away with a lot, on stage, over the air and in Hollywood.

There was always with Welles that knowing smirk set against a baby-face, the sense that beneath the somber timbre of his voice was an astonishment that he could be getting away with all sorts of nonsense while still managing to sound sincere.

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That wondrous voice was never put to better use four years before his Hollywood debut when Welles and a small troupe of actors convinced radio listeners that Martian invaders had landed in New Jersey. The Halloween eve radio broadcast of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds and the resulting panic has passed into legend as perhaps the greatest mass media stunt ever. 75 years later, it’s about to be celebrated again.

In Autumn 1938 the world was in the looming shadow of war. The Munich crisis had just passed, and though Europe had somehow avoided plunging into bloodshed, there was a definite sense that it was unavoidable. Radio was still in its heyday; millions of families gathered nightly around the wireless for entertainment, education, information, and – more and more – news about Hitler. “For the first time in history,” wrote Welles’ biographer Frank Brady, “the public could tune into their radios every night and hear, boot by boot, accustaion by accustaion, threat by threat, the rumblings that seemed inevitably leading to a world war.”

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Radio, Welles knew, was the perfect vehicle for a Halloween scare story, “the equivalent,” as he put it, “of dressing up in a sheet, jumping out of a bush and saying, ‘Boo!’” With John Houseman and a troop of actors from The Mercury Theatre (many of whom would also appear in Citizen Kane), he freely adapted the science-fiction tale as a series of news bulletins, gradually increasing in tone from bemused observation to all-out panic. Possibly inspired by a BBC production from 1926, and utilising the same “oh, the humanity” tone of the Hindenburg reports, Welles managed in less than an hour to send thousands out into the streets, some armed, looking for little green men from Mars.

Welles narrating 'War of the Worlds'
Welles narrating ‘War of the Worlds’

The broadcast started innocuously. CBS announced it was presenting an adaptation of H.G. Wells’ classic tale. Then there was musical interlude by “Ramon Raquello and His Orchestra” (the music was conducted by Bernard Hermann). Then there was a news flash mentioning strange explosions observed on Mars. Professor Richard Pierson (Welles) is interviewed about the possibility of life on the planet. There was more music, and then more news reports interrupting the concert to announce that something had crashed out of the sky in (fictional) Grover’s Mill, New Jersey.

Welles and co-author Howard Koch timed the script perfectly, knowing that many listeners would be turning the dial from NBC to CBS just as the announcement about explosions aired. Nobody turned the dial back to NBC. Now the drama unfolded in terrifying details: a ship of some sort in a field incinerating townsfolk, the reporter’s anguished bulletin suddenly cut off. Within minutes police stations, newspapers and radio affiliates were flooded with hysterical phone calls. One newspaper reported that “a white-faced man ran into the Hillside, New Jersey police station and asked for a gas mask. Police said he panted out a tale of “terrible people spraying liquid gas all over Jersey meadows.”

Wells and Welles. The author and the boy-wonder met sometime after the broadcast.
Wells and Welles. The author and the boy-wonder met sometime after the broadcast.

News of the attack spread fast, and people were fleeing New Jersey, heading south to Philadelphia or north to New York. At Princeton “a score of university students were phoned by their parents and told to come home.” People were demanding gas masks from the police. In Indianapolis, a woman ran screaming into a church that the world was coming to an end. Nobody quite knew what had occurred. Some thought a meteor had hit New Jersey, killing thousands. In some places it was believed a whole planet had collided with Earth. Others believed it was being bombed. In Pittsburgh  a man discovered his wife clutching a bottle of poison: “I’d rather die this way than like that.” There were heart attacks and cases of shock in hospitals across the country, and “nurses and physicians were among the telephone callers everywhere. They were ready to offer their assistance to the injured and the maimed.”

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After an hour the show ended with an assurance that it had all just been fictional, and for the rest of the evening CBS had to repeat that to calm listeners’ nerves. The next day, Welles made a sheepish apology, but look closely and you can sense his delight.

Others were less amused. The FCC banned the use of “we interrupt this program” as a dramatic device. Heywood Broun, mindful of the worsening situation in Europe, wrote “Jitters have come home to roost. We just have gone through a laboratory demonstration of the fact that the peace of Munich hangs heavy over our heads, like a thundercloud.”

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Since then there have been other attempts at a broadcast, tailored and updated to the radio station’s locale. Most have engendered mild doses of panic. None is as tragic as the broadcast in 1949 in Quito, Ecuador. It followed Welles’ model of a series of urgent news bulletins, with Ecuadorian place names. People reacted with panic and fear at first, but when they learned it was a piece of fiction, they were irate: they stormed the radio station, setting it on fire, killing people trapped inside.

The full text of the broadcast is here. Or, if you prefer, you can close your eyes, imagine it is 1938 and you are sitting by a wireless, and enjoy it here:

 

 

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