“We Interrupt Our Program of Dance Music To Bring You A Special Bulletin” The War Of The Worlds Broadcast

The War Of The Worlds broadcast was one of my blindspots up until about five years ago. I had driven up north with a friend for a day-trip and they were shocked to learn that I had never actually heard the broadcast. The drive home was a little over an hour so the broadcast filled the time perfectly. Listening as I drove, I could see why the listening public could have been scared out of their wits during the first parts of the show. The acting, the sound effects…I found it fantastic. If you want to listen to it now or have never listened to it before, you can find it on a lot of apps that stream audio, such as Spotify or Youtube. I bought a used copy of the CD of the broadcast in a 2nd & Charles for 99 cents. 

If you’re like me, the broadcast is one of those things you hear about but never really learned too much about.

So let’s do it. 

The War Of The Worlds came into this world as a story written and published by English writer H.G. Wells in 1898. By this time, Wells’ had already published the science fiction classics The Time Machine, The Island of Doctor Moreau, and The Invisible Man. In The War Of The Worlds, Wells’ tells a first-person account of an alien invasion of Great Britain, using the names of real cities as place markers, and then shifting away from using the first-person narrative partway through the story and we learn about the events through monologues from other survivors. 

Jump ahead about 30 years and cross over into the United States. 

The people living in the United States were collectively on-edge for multiple reasons. The Great Depression had started in 1929 and many Americans were still attempting to recover. Political conflicts were on the rise in Europe (World War II would start in 1939). The Hindenburg zeppelin crash in New Jersey on May 6, 1937, had been announced over radio waves by hysterical voices. The War Of The Worlds actor Frank Readick recalled listening to the recording of Herbert Morrison’s radio report of the disaster on repeat for his acting inspiration. 

Enter director/writer/producer/actor Orson Welles. 

Welles created First Person Singular, a series of weekly hour-long radio dramas (or “radio plays”) that premiered on Monday July 11, 1938, at 9PM EST, presenting an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. After nine weeks on the air, the title of the show changed to The Mercury Theatre On The Air. Their time slot also changed from Monday nights at 9PM EST to Sunday nights at 8PM EST. 

The 17th week of the show would fall on October 30, 1938 (Devil’s Night, if you’re from Michigan) and Welles wanted to do something special for their Halloween broadcast. 

“I had conceived the idea of doing a radio broadcast in such a manner that a crisis would actually seem to be happening and would be broadcast in such a dramatized form as to appear to be a real event taking place at that time, rather than a mere radio play.”

Orson Welles

During the press conference on Halloween morning, Welles said he didn’t believe he was the first to go about presenting stories in this manner, telling that other radio shows have done the same, but he does not name any specific shows. Turns out, the BBC had used a similar approach in 1926 with a radio broadcast about a riot in London entitled Broadcasting The Barricades.

Welles tossed around ideas of potential science fiction works with producers John Houseman and Paul Stewart before deciding to purchase the rights to H.G. Wells’ The War Of The Worlds. Houseman has since been openly skeptical if Welles had even read the book before deciding to make a radio play out of it. 

On Monday October 24, six days before their next broadcast was scheduled to air, they handed the book to show writer, Howard Koch (who later wrote the screenplay for Casablanca), and told him to start writing a script. And here Koch was worried that he couldn’t make his radio adaption as interesting to audiences and he was worried it’d be boring or played-out because aliens were “kid stuff”. 

Koch’s first draft of the script was done that Wednesday night. Instead of the invasion over Great Britain (as in the book), Koch wrote about the invasion starting in Grovers Mill, New Jersey, tailoring it to an American audience. Similarly to how Wells had done it in his novel, the first part of the play would be first-hand accounts of the invasion as it was happening and the second part would be Welles himself giving long, dramatic monologues, coupled with dramatic scenes, recalling the events of the invasion sometime in the future. 

As the editing process began, scenes that had mentioned passages of time (“Last night’s invasion”) and scenes with more theatrical, dramatic dialogue, were cut. The first draft had made it clear multiple times that the alien invasion had taken place over several days and not 40 minutes. Act I of the radio play became longer and pushed Act II backwards. Typically, during radio plays there would be a station break at the midpoint of the show, or about a half hour in, reiterating the show’s title and a moment for sponsored advertising time. Act I of The War Of The Worlds ended up being about 40 minutes long and Act II was just 20 minutes, but doing this also meant that the station break would come 40 minutes into the show rather than 30 minutes in.  

Koch turned in a script to CBS executives on Friday and the execs told them they had to “tone down the realism”. They also told them to change the names in the script and not use actual government titles to avoid any potential lawsuits so they changed titles such as “Columbia Broadcast Building” to just “Broadcast Building”, changed “New Jersey National Guard” to a generic “State Militia”, and so on. 

On Saturday night, the show was rehearsed along with the full sound-effects team. On Sunday afternoon, the orchestra arrived at the studio with a full dress-rehearsal scheduled for 6PM. 

On Sunday night, at 8PM EST, The Mercury Theatre On The Air began their presentation of The War Of The Worlds by H.G. Wells. 

At approximately 8:32PM, Houseman saw a CBS supervisor in the control room on the phone. They were being ordered to immediately stop the production and reiterate that everything they were talking about was completely fictional. They were only a couple of minutes from their scheduled station break so they just kept going through to their scheduled break. 

Listeners had heard live music from the fictitious Meridian Room at Park Plaza, they had heard about strange explosions on Mars, they had heard aliens coming from cylinder space crafts, and they had listened on as soldiers got evaporated by heat rays and choked on a mysterious cloud of black smoke- all before the station break reminding them, “You are listening to a CBS presentation of Orson Welles and The Mercury Theatre on the Air, in an original dramatization of The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells. The performance will continue after a brief intermission. This is the Columbia Broadcasting System.”

CBS was being bombarded with phone calls from people asking if what they were airing had been true. Phone lines as far as the state of Washington had short-circuited due to high volumes of callers trying to call their local radio stations, their local police stations, or calling friends and family, all trying to get answers if there was any validity to the “reported” alien invasion. 

Following the conclusion of the broadcast, CBS ran a bulletin at 10:30PM, 11:30PM, and at midnight that said: 

“For those listeners who tuned in to Orson Welles’s Mercury Theatre on the Air broadcast from 8 to 9 pm Eastern Standard Time tonight and did not realize that the program was merely a modernized adaptation of H. G. Wells’ famous novel War of the Worlds, we are repeating the fact which was made clear four times on the program, that, while the names of some American cities were used, as in all novels and dramatizations, the entire story and all of its incidents were fictitious.”

There is still debate over how many people were actually listening to The Mercury Theatre On The Air that night. There was a radio survey taken the night of October 30th and 5,000 homes were called and asked what radio show they were listening to, if any. Only 2% of 5,000 surveyed were listening to The Mercury Theatre while the rest were either listening to another show or nothing at all. By 1939, 28 million American households had radios. If you kept the rate of the 2% that were listening during the survey and applied that to 28 million potential listeners, it’s 560,000 people. 

OR there’s other sources that say there could have been up to 12 million people who tuned in. 

Kind of a wide range. 

There could have been people who tuned in late and missed the show’s introduction. The popular variety comedy show Chase and Sanborn Hour was also airing from 8PM-9PM on NBC. Listeners heard ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummy, Charlie McCarthy, at the beginning of the hour but when his act was followed by an unknown singer, some listeners lost interest and changed channels. By then, The Mercury Theatre was already 10-15 minutes into their presentation of The War Of The Worlds and those who had switched to CBS late had missed the show’s introduction and just started with music at the Meridian Room being interrupted by reports of odd occurrences in the sky. 

A lot of factors had to line up for someone to absolutely believe that there was actually an invasion occurring. If someone had never listened to The Mercury Theatre before, hadn’t read the announcement of the scheduled shows in the paper, had missed the very beginning of the show, had not know that The Mercury Theatre had switched from airing on Monday nights to Sunday nights, plus all of the script edits, and if you believed in aliens…there could have been a solid half hour of you panicking. 

The creatives behind The Mercury Theatre didn’t think the public would believe that aliens from Mars could invade Earth and create all of the devastation that they did within 40 minutes but, as history has repeatedly taught us, a lot of destruction can happen in 40 minutes or less. 

“Our actual broadcasting time, from the first mention of the meteorites to the fall of New York City, was less than forty minutes. During that time, men travelled long distances, large bodies of troops were mobilized, cabinet meetings were held, savage battles fought on land and in the air. And millions of people accepted it—emotionally if not logically.”

John Houseman

Newspaper headlines published on that Halloween morning were ripe with incredible headlines. Newspaper companies had been trying to compete with radio because they were losing money as a news outlet and were competing for advertising money. A lot of the lore of the panic was initially spread by them, as they were trying to show that radio was an “irresponsible” medium. The New York Times headline read “Radio Listeners in Panic, Taking War Drama as Fact”. The Detroit News headlined “War Skit on Radio Terrifies Nation”. The New York Daily News headline was “Fake Radio ‘War’ Stirs Terror Through U.S.” and they went as far as to include pictures of a “war” victim on the front page- a woman wearing a sling on her arm who had heard reports of the “black gas” in Times Square and fell while attempting to flee from her apartment and broke her arm. There were at least 12,500 articles published about the broadcast but that hype only lasted a few days before newspapers went back to reporting on the looming war in Europe.

The Associated Press released a slew of reports from all over the country: 

-Woman Tries Suicide: Pittsburgh – A man returned home in the midst of the broadcast and found his wife a bottle of poison in her hand screaming: “I’d rather die this way than like that.”

-It’s a Massacre: Providence, R. I. – Weeping and hysterical women swamped the switchboard of the Providence Journal for details of the “massacre.” 

-Church Lets Out: Indianapolis – A woman ran into a church screaming: “New York destroyed; it’s just the end of the world. You might as well go home to die. I just heard it on the radio.” Services were dismissed immediately.

-“Where is it Safe?”: Kansas City – One telephone informant said he had loaded all his children into his car, had filled it with gasoline, and was going somewhere. “Where is it safe?” he wanted to know. 

Also that morning, Welles was running on about three hours of sleep after an all-night rehearsal for Danton’s Death, the stage play Welles had been working on as well as working with The Mercury Theatre. Welles was turned around to do a press conference bright and early for damage control outside of the CBS building. 

Circled by reporters, Welles read a prepared statement to the press: 

“Despite my deep regret over any misapprehension that our broadcast might have created among some listeners, I am even more bewildered over this misunderstanding in the light of an analysis of the broadcast itself. It seems to me that they’re our four factors, which should have in any event maintained the illusion of fiction in the broadcast.

The first was that the broadcast was performed as if occurring in the future, and as if it were then related by a survivor of a past occurrence. The date of this fanciful invasion of this planet by Martians was clearly given as 1939 and was so announced at the outset of the broadcast.

The second element was the fact that the broadcast took place at our weekly Mercury Theatre period and had been so announced in all the papers. For seventeen consecutive weeks we have been broadcasting radio sixteen of these seventeen broadcasts have been fiction and have been presented as such. Only one in the series was a true story, the broadcast of Hell on Ice by Commander Ellsberg, and was identified as a true story in the framework of radio drama.

The third element was the fact that at the very outset of the broadcast, and twice during its enactment, listeners were told that this was a play that it was an adaptation of an old novel by H. G. Wells. Furthermore, at the conclusion, a detailed statement to this effect was made.

The fourth factor seems to me to have been the most pertinent of all. That is the familiarity of the fable, within the American idiom, of Mars and the Martians.”

Orson Welles

Sooooo, “Sorry, not sorry,” pretty much. 

The Federal Communication Commissions investigated the program but no laws were actually broken, so they just kind of wagged their finger and told networks not to take things to such an “extreme” and be more cautious with their presentations. 

During the press conference, a reporter asked Welles if, “Knowing what happened, would you do the show over again?” to which he responded, “I won’t say I won’t follow this technique again, as it is a legitimate dramatic form.”

The found footage subgenre seems to be a love it or hate area of movies. Italian director Ruggero Deodato came in with a bang with 1980’s pioneering found footage horror Cannibal Holocaust. A stomach churning tale of a documentary crew that went missing in the Amazon rainforest, Cannibal Holocaust took what Welles’ did with The War Of The Worlds and turned it up to 11.  Upon the film’s release, Italian courts seized the film and went after Deodato with charges of obscenity. The courts believed that Deodato had filmed the actual mutilations of the actors and were preparing to charge him with murder. To boost believability of the film, Deodato had the actors sign contracts saying that they would “disappear” for a year or so after the release. When the actors “reappeared” in front of a judge, the charges were dropped. 

Typically, one could lump found footage in as strictly a thing that horror movies do, there are some found footage science fiction movies. 2008’s Cloverfield tells the story of friends out partying in New York City when aliens attack. Cloverfield was successful enough to spawn two sequels, 10 Cloverfield Lane and The Cloverfield Paradox, however, the sequels are not presented as found footage. 2011’s Apollo 18 tells the story of NASA’s cancelled Apollo 18 mission as if they had actually taken off to the moon and encountered spider-like creatures on the moon. In real life, the Apollo 18 mission (as well as the Apollo 19 and 20 missions) were cancelled due to budgetary reasons. 

Following the success (and notoriety) of The War Of The Worlds broadcast, Campbell’s Soup signed on to sponsor The Mercury Theatre and it became The Campbell Playhouse in December 1938. Welles continued working the show for the next two years. Welles then landed in Hollywood where he directed and played the title role in what many call the greatest movie ever made- Citizen Kane

The War Of The Worlds saw two theatrical releases- the first in 1953 from Paramount Pictures and one in 2005 directed by Steven Speilberg. The title has also found life in numerous direct-to-video movie releases, music, video games, a board game, and loads of spoofs in movies and television shows including Tim Burtons’ Mars Attacks!, Scary Movie 4, and The Simpsons episode Treehouse of Horror XVII. 

“We now return you to the music of Ramon Raquello playing for you in the Meridian Room of the Park Plaza Hotel situated in downtown New York.”

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