Tuesday, October 30, 2007

October 30:

1938 : Welles scares nation

Orson Welles causes a nationwide panic with his broadcast of "War of
the Worlds"--a realistic radio dramatization of a Martian invasion of

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.

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.

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.

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.


1908 : Queen of American high society dies

1975 : Juan Carlos assumes power in Spain

1995 : Quebec separatists narrowly defeated


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