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IT WAS October 30, 1938. Ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his wooden pal Charlie McCarthy had just finished their opening bit on the Chase & Sanborn Hour, which owned Sunday radio evenings, 8 p.m. Then Nelson Eddy, that eternally collegiate baritone, began singing “Song of the Vagabonds” and listeners a’plenty spun their radio dials to find something else.
Ramon Raquello and his orchestra captured more than a few listeners, only to have this soothing musical interlude interrupted by a series of terrifying news flashes: Strange explosions on Mars. A cylindrical meteorite landing in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey. A Martian emerging and incinerating people with heat rays! A Martian invasion!!
Of course, as announced in the first minutes of The Mercury Theatre on the Air, Orson Welles explained that this was a radio recreation of H.G. Well’s 1898 The War of the Worlds. The next day, Monday, October 31, 1938, The New York Times reported: “Radio Listeners in Panic—War Drama Taken as Fact!” The article’s subheads read, “Many Flee Homes to Escape ‘Gas Raid from Mars.’” and “Phone Calls Swamp Police at Broadcast of Wells Fantasy.”
Celebrating this confluence of fact and fiction, I offer tidbits of this report gleaned from The H.G. Wells Scrapbook; articles, essays, letters, anecdotes, illustrations, photographs and memorabilia about the prophetic genius of the twentieth century, edited by Peter Haining, Clarkson N. Potter, 1978.
The New York Times reported that the broadcast “which disrupted households, interrupted religious services, created traffic jams, and clogged communications systems, was made by Orson Wells, who as the radio character, ‘The Shadow,’ used to give ‘the creeps’ to countless child listeners. This time at least a score of adults required medical treatment for shock or hysteria.”
A man from the Bronx was quoted as saying, “ ‘I didn’t tune in until it was half over, but … when the Secretary of the Interior was introduced, I was convinced it was the McCoy. I ran out into the street with scores of others, and found people running in all directions.”
When the man learned the broadcast was a Halloween prank, he said, “… it was a crummy thing to do.”
In retrospect, scholars studying effects of the broadcast differ about its impact. C.E. Hooper, the era’s Nielson ratings, had performed a telephone poll of the evening’s radio audience. It gave the Chase & Sanborn Hour a commanding 98 percent.
By contrast, in his 1940 book The Invasion from Mars, Princeton professor Hadley Cantril calculated that perhaps six million listeners heard the Welles broadcast, more than twice as many as estimated at the time.
Cantril said his sample, unlike Hooper’s, included people who didn’t have a telephone. Strange as it may seem today, this was a significant point: In 1940, for example, only 37 percent of U.S. homes had telephones. By contrast, radios were in more than 65 percent of rural homes and 90 percent of urban residences.
A tidbit: At the time of the broadcast, The Mercury Theatre on the Air was a “sustaining program” (i.e., without sponsorship). It became The Campbell Playhouse on December 9, 1938. No fools at Campbell.
Another tidbit comes from October 28, 1940, when both Orson Welles and English author H.G. Wells were in San Antonio, Texas, for speaking engagements. Local radio station KTSA hosted an interview with the pair meeting for the first time. When asked about the Martian matter by moderator Charles C. Shaw, Wells said, “Are you sure there was such a panic in America or wasn’t it your Halloween fun?”
Welles concurred, likening it to “the same kind of excitement that we extract from a practical joke in which somebody puts a sheet over his head and says ‘Boo!’ I don’t think anyone believes that that individual is a ghost, but we do scream and yell and rush down the hall.”
The New York Times certainly took part in the rush. Its article included a “MESSAGE FROM THE POLICE: To all receivers: Station WABC informs us that the broadcast just concluded over that station was a dramatization of a play. No cause for alarm.”
But the article also contained a great quote from a person calling a bus dispatcher in New Jersey: “… the world is coming to an end and I have a lot to do.”
Happy Halloween! ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2017