Mass hysteria over a radio broadcast celebrates its 75th anniversary today that was directed by the radio icon/actor and director Orson Welles. PBS presented a fascinating special last night on the American Experience series entitled “War of the Worlds.” The special probed into what actually started the hype; which was actually a Halloween treat for radio listeners, and explained the mood America had at the time, and included actual interviews of people who went through their personal drama. There was also criticism from those who did not understand why many Americans believed that Martians were taking over the Earth – a nation that could be so “gullible” and “stupid.”
Welles formulated his radio idea from the H.G. Wells 1898 novel, The War of the Worlds, a science fiction story of two brothers from London who realize Martians have come to invade Earth and create havoc. The PBS special also showed actual photos of Welles putting together the script and his idea of using news bulletins as part of the show. He even went to the legal department at CBS to make sure defamation would not happen. The prodigy was 23 at the time of his soon-to-be famous project.
PBS explained in the series that Welles’ performance was the most famous radio broadcast ever done which took place at the CBS Radio Theatre. It was a Sunday evening on October 30, 1938; when most American families at the time had their dinner and ready to listen to the radio, the great communicator at the time. Welles did his live radio program as series dramas he created called “The Mercury Theatre on the Air” Sundays at 8.
Americans during that time were also in a state of anxiety and fear; due to a series of disasters – the Great Depression, high unemployment, bank failures, news bulletins of possible war in Europe, Hitler barking his agenda, and the 1937 Hindenburg zeppelin (from Germany) crash that occurred in New Jersey.
The documentary stated most people at the time listened to the radio broadcast Sunday nights of a comedy show with Edgar Bergman and a ventriloquist so they missed the beginning of the Welles’ show; which warned listeners first it was a play. By the time folks switched their dial to the program, the panic had begun.
The impact from the radio show was tremendous. The descriptions Welles gave of the aliens, with their beams of light and the obscure hammock from New Jersey, with actors playing their roles to intensify the audience, only made matters worse for many listeners. There was an actor in the drama that impersonated President Franklin D. Roosevelt so well listeners actually thought it was him.
Families were calling their relatives, police stations nationwide were swamped with calls, others packed their suitcases, got into their cars and jammed the highways; and an actual power failure that occurred in the state of Washington sent people running for the hills.
At 11 p.m. the CBS broadcast (again) finally announced the radio drama was a play – in other words, a Halloween prank.
Upset and angry listeners sent thousands of letters to the broadcast. Americans wanted Welles’ head and his reputation was on the line. Clips were shown of Welles apologizing to the American public. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) accused CBS of radio abuse and wanted punishment; they began an investigation. Many sued Welles and CBS for wrongdoing.
In 1940 a meeting was held between Welles and H.G. Wells. Wikipedia describes the event as this –
A meeting between H.G. Wells and Orson Welles was broadcast on Radio KTSA San Antonio, a CBS affiliate, on October 28, 1940. Wells expressed a lack of understanding of the apparent panic and suggested it may have been only pretense, like the American version of Halloween, for fun. The two men and their radio interviewer joked with embarrassment about the matter.
However the War of the Worlds radio broadcast made Orson Welles an international star. The radio drama was the turning point of his illustrious career. Hollywood approached him and Welles signed a contract with RKO Pictures. On May 1, 1941 at age 25, he released “Citizen Kane,” now considered by many critics the “best American film ever made.” Welles wrote and produced the film; he starred as the main character.
Five weeks after their investigation, the FCC did not punish CBS. Those who sued Welles and CBS got nothing in return; except from this cited in Wikipedia –
Many listeners sued the network for "mental anguish" and "personal injury". All suits were dismissed, except for a claim for a pair of black men's shoes (size 9B) by a Massachusetts man, who spent his shoe money to escape the Martians. Welles insisted the man be paid.
View the reaction on the video below.