THE INFAMOUS "WAR OF THE WORLDS" BROADCAST OF ORSON WELLES' "MERCURY THEATER OF THE AIR" SUPPOSEDLY PANICKED AMERICA!
On the evening of October 30, 1938, a war-jittery U.S. became the fall guy for one of the most uproarious pranks every committed on them. The Mercury Theater of the Air went on with the opening announcement that they would be presenting a dramatization of the famous H.G. Wells novel "THE WAR OF THE WORLDS" followed by an introductory monologue by show-runner/director/star Orson Welles. After this, the show segued into what sounded like a music broadcast from the Meridian Room of the Park Plaza Hotel with Ramon Rocquello and his Orchestra performing a selection of dance music. Various news bulletins (false ones, of course) began interrupting the programme reporting the appearance of explosions on the surface of the planet Mars and interviews with noted Professor Pearson (played by Orson) about what they could mean. Announcements followed stating strange objects were falling from the sky; most notably (for our purposes ... and Orson's) landing on a farm at Grover's Mill, New Jersey. Reporter Carl Phillips (former SHADOW Frank Readick doing his best Herb Morrison "Hindenburg reporter" impression) did the blow by blow on the scene reporting as Martian cylinders emerged from the crater and fried everyone with heat rays.
Unfortunately for many listeners, they didn't hear the beginning of the programme because . . . well, frankly, Orson's MERCURY THEATER show wasn't very high in the ratings and not a lot of people listened to it. The vast majority of the Sunday night listening audience tuned into THE CHASE AND SANBORN HOUR starring ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummy Charlie McCarthy. After Bergen & McCarthy's opening comedy routine, a male singer came on and that's when most everyone switched to another station . . . and caught the already-in-progress WAR OF THE WORLDS broadcast with it's faux news flashes. The legend, of course, is that America was so scared they began heading for the hills. In truth, the majority of those listening didn't panic but the phone lines WERE jammed with frantic calls to loved ones as well as calls to beleaguered CBS studios who were putting on the MERCURY THEATER broadcast. Tales of mass panic, car crashes, suicides and accidental deaths caused by the radio broadcast were largely apocryphal; however the media fallout the next morning was considerable for Orson, his Mercury Theater and the CBS network as reporters puffed up the urban legend aspect of death and destruction caused by Welles and his Halloween pranksters. Welles gave a press conference appearing (apparently) contrite looking like an unshaven Christian martyr and parlayed the instant worldwide notoriety into a sweet movie deal from RKO to make CITIZEN KANE. The panic broadcast has gone down in history of probably the most famous radio programme ever broadcast and three quarters of a century later it's still a really fun listen. For perfect Halloween listening, I've provided the entire original radio broadcast in a youtube video below. Also below (for as long as it lasts) is a video of the recent episode of the PBS documentary series AMERICAN EXPERIENCE dealing with the WAR OF THE WORLDS broadcast; it can also be viewed (by clicking here) at the actual PBS site.