On This Date: October 30th

Oct 30, 1938:

Welles scares nation

http://www.history.com/flash/VideoPlayer.swf?vid=96534472301

Orson Welles causes a nationwide panic with his broadcast of “War of the Worlds”—a realistic radio dramatization of a Martian invasion of Earth.

Orson Welles was only 23 years old when his Mercury Theater company decided to update H.G. Wells’ 19th-century science fiction novel War of the Worlds for national radio. Despite his age, Welles had been in radio for several years, most notably as the voice of “The Shadow” in the hit mystery program of the same name. “War of the Worlds” was not planned as a radio hoax, and Welles had little idea of the havoc it would cause.

Orson Welles

The show began on Sunday, October 30, at 8 p.m. A voice announced: “The Columbia Broadcasting System and its affiliated stations present Orson Welles and the Mercury Theater on the air in ‘War of the Worlds’ by H.G. Wells.”

Sunday evening in 1938 was prime-time in the golden age of radio, and millions of Americans had their radios turned on. But most of these Americans were listening to ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummy “Charlie McCarthy” on NBC and only turned to CBS at 8:12 p.m. after the comedy sketch ended and a little-known singer went on. By then, the story of the Martian invasion was well underway.

Welles introduced his radio play with a spoken introduction, followed by an announcer reading a weather report. Then, seemingly abandoning the storyline, the announcer took listeners to “the Meridian Room in the Hotel Park Plaza in downtown New York, where you will be entertained by the music of Ramon Raquello and his orchestra.” Putrid dance music played for some time, and then the scare began. An announcer broke in to report that “Professor Farrell of the Mount Jenning Observatory” had detected explosions on the planet Mars. Then the dance music came back on, followed by another interruption in which listeners were informed that a large meteor had crashed into a farmer’s field in Grovers Mills, New Jersey.

photo of Herman Mankiewicz, Orson Welles, and ...

Soon, an announcer was at the crash site describing a Martian emerging from a large metallic cylinder. “Good heavens,” he declared, “something’s wriggling out of the shadow like a gray snake. Now here’s another and another one and another one. They look like tentacles to me … I can see the thing’s body now. It’s large, large as a bear. It glistens like wet leather. But that face, it… it … ladies and gentlemen, it’s indescribable. I can hardly force myself to keep looking at it, it’s so awful. The eyes are black and gleam like a serpent. The mouth is kind of V-shaped with saliva dripping from its rimless lips that seem to quiver and pulsate.”

The Martians mounted walking war machines and fired “heat-ray” weapons at the puny humans gathered around the crash site. They annihilated a force of 7,000 National Guardsman, and after being attacked by artillery and bombers the Martians released a poisonous gas into the air. Soon “Martian cylinders” landed in Chicago and St. Louis. The radio play was extremely realistic, with Welles employing sophisticated sound effects and his actors doing an excellent job portraying terrified announcers and other characters. An announcer reported that widespread panic had broken out in the vicinity of the landing sites, with thousands desperately trying to flee. In fact, that was not far from the truth.

British author H. G. Wells' 1895 novel The Tim...

Perhaps as many as a million radio listeners believed that a real Martian invasion was underway. Panic broke out across the country. In New Jersey, terrified civilians jammed highways seeking to escape the alien marauders. People begged police for gas masks to save them from the toxic gas and asked electric companies to turn off the power so that the Martians wouldn’t see their lights. One woman ran into an Indianapolis church where evening services were being held and yelled, “New York has been destroyed! It’s the end of the world! Go home and prepare to die!”

When news of the real-life panic leaked into the CBS studio, Welles went on the air as himself to remind listeners that it was just fiction. There were rumors that the show caused suicides, but none were ever confirmed.

The Federal Communications Commission investigated the program but found no law was broken. Networks did agree to be more cautious in their programming in the future. Orson Welles feared that the controversy generated by “War of the Worlds” would ruin his career. In fact, the publicity helped land him a contract with a Hollywood studio, and in 1941 he directed, wrote, produced, and starred in Citizen Kane—a movie that many have called the greatest American film ever made.

Also on This Day

 
American Revolution
Naval committee established by Congress, 1775
Automotive
The World’s Columbian Exposition closes in Chicago, 1893
Civil War
Union General Ormsby MacKnight Mitchel dies, 1862
Cold War
Eisenhower approves NSC 162/2, 1953
Crime
Oakland, California, enacts anti-drug law, 1890
Disaster
Perfect storm hits North Atlantic, 1991
General Interest
Queen of American high society dies, 1908
Juan Carlos assumes power in Spain, 1975
Quebec separatists narrowly defeated, 1995
Hollywood
Henry “The Fonz” Winkler is born, 1945
Literary
Sense and Sensibility is published, 1811
Music
Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring premieres at the Library of Congress, 1944
Old West
The city of Helena, Montana, is founded after miners discover gold, 1864
Presidential
John Adams is born, 1735
Sports
Muhammad Ali wins the Rumble in the Jungle, 1974
Vietnam War
Marines repel attack near Da Nang., 1965
Heavy monsoon rains hit Vietnam, 1970
World War I
Ottoman Empire signs treaty with Allies , 1918
World War II
FDR approves Lend-Lease aid to the USSR, 1941

This Week in History, Oct 30 – Nov 5

Oct 30, 1938
Welles scares nation
Oct 31, 1517
Martin Luther posts 95 theses
Nov 01, 1512
Sistine Chapel ceiling opens to public
Nov 02, 1947
Spruce Goose flies
Nov 03, 1964
D.C. residents cast first presidential votes
Nov 04, 1956
Soviets put brutal end to Hungarian revolution
Nov 05, 1994
George Foreman becomes oldest heavyweight champ

One thought on “On This Date: October 30th

  1. Pingback: Disturbances observed on the Planet Mars « Beyond the stars astrology

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