As the clock struck 8 p.m. in New York City on the night of October 30, 1938, Orson Welles stood on a podium inside a Madison Avenue radio studio. The baby-faced, 23-year-old theatrical star, who had graced the cover of Time magazine months earlier, prepared to direct 10 actors and a 27-piece orchestra for the Columbia Broadcasting System’s weekly “Mercury Theatre on the Air” program.
Millions of Americans, as they were every night, huddled around their radios, but relatively few of them were listening to CBS when it was announced that Welles and his fellow cast members were presenting an original dramatization of the 1898 H.G. Wells science-fiction novel “The War of the Worlds.” Instead, most of the country was tuned in to NBC’s popular “Chase and Sanborn Hour,” which featured ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummy, Charlie McCarthy. Channel surfing, however, was not a modern-day invention, and disoriented listeners who stumbled onto the “Mercury Theatre on the Air” without having heard the disclaimer at the top of the radio play were thrust into the middle of an hour-long drama that left some believing that the country was under attack.
The CBS program, penned by “Casablanca” screenwriter Howard Koch, opened serenely with the dulcet dance music of “Ramon Raquello and his orchestra.” Then, an actor portraying an announcer broke in with a fake news report that several explosions of incandescent gas had occurred on Mars. In quick succession came a series of increasingly alarming, suspense-building newsflashes that culminated with Martian spacecrafts crashing into a farm in Grovers Mill, New Jersey. For the rest of the hour, terror crackled over the airwaves. Breathless reporters detailed an extraterrestrial army of squid-like figures that killed thousands of earthlings with heat rays and black clouds of poison gas as they steamrolled into New York City. Welles and the rest of the cast impersonated astronomers, state militia officials and even the Secretary of the Interior, who cannily sounded like President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Human germs, rather than human armies, ultimately did in the mythical Martian invaders, and at the end of the hour the director wrapped up the radio drama by telling his audience, “This is Orson Welles, ladies and gentlemen, out of character to assure you that ‘The War of the Worlds’ has no further significance than as the holiday offering it was intended to be. The Mercury Theatre’s own radio version of dressing up in a sheet and jumping out of a bush and saying ‘boo!’”
The fright that Welles put into America, however, was much greater than he thought. Although the program included a reminder at intermission that it was a dramatization, thousands of anxious and confused listeners believed it to be real. They besieged police departments, newspapers and CBS with phone calls. In New Jersey, ground zero for the fictitious invasion, national guardsmen wanted to know where they should report for duty, and the Trenton police department fielded 2,000 calls in under two hours. In Providence, Rhode Island, hysterical callers begged the electric company to cut power to the city to keep it safe from the extraterrestrial invaders.
Fear and anxiety had become a way of life in the 1930s, and it took little to rattle jittery Americans. The Depression had emptied their wallets, the gathering crisis in Europe threatened to ignite into war and just weeks earlier the Hurricane of 1938 had roared ashore. Plus, the Hindenburg disaster, which had been broadcast over the airwaves just the year before, was still fresh in the country’s collective psyche.
The newspaper industry also felt unease from the increasing popularity of radio as an informational and advertising medium, and, seeing a chance to strike back at its growing rival, it gleefully collected the sporadic reports of individual confusion generated by “The War of the Worlds” and weaved them into a narrative of “mass hysteria.” Newspapers reported suicide attempts, heart attacks and exoduses from major metropolitan areas. The New York Daily News printed the feverish headline “Fake Radio ‘War’ Stirs Terror Through U.S.” along with the photograph of a “war victim,” a woman in a sling who had heard the reports of black gas clouds in Times Square and ran out from her midtown apartment into the street where she fell and broke her arm. Similar stories of woe were printed from coast to coast and unleashed a media frenzy.
With threats of lawsuits swirling in the press, CBS went into damage control. At a hastily called press conference, a doe-eyed Welles displayed his theatrical acumen and expressed his remorse and shock at the public reaction. “I can’t imagine an invasion from Mars would find ready acceptance,” he said when asked if he pranked the country. Decades later, however, Welles admitted, “The kind of response was merrily anticipated by us all. The size of it, of course, was flabbergasting.”
The Federal Communications Commission did not sanction CBS or Welles, and the radio dramatist quickly spun his Halloween trick into a treat. Thanks to what became known as the “panic broadcast,” the radio program signed Campbell’s Soup as a sponsor, and soon after, Welles inked a deal to direct “Citizen Kane,” named by the American Film Institute as the greatest movie of all time.