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Not many of you would know about it, let alone care for it, were it not for the fact that we are seeing a Milestone Anniversary of the highest order. As in the Diamond Anniversary of the acme of radio's power and intrusion being at risk of most extreme and dangerous perversion by inducing wholesale panic and hysterics across the country.

Otherwise known as the Mercury Theater on the Air's adaptation of H. G. Wells' 1898 science-fiction potboiler The War of the Worlds, adapted to the American taste and mindset by simulated "news bulletins" of a supposed Martian landing upon United States sovereign territory at Grovers Mill, New Jersey, an unincorporated community about eight mile from Trenton in West Windsor Township of Mercer County. The which, for some reason or another, became too realistic for listeners from Maine to California (and parts of Canada as well) to accept (despite its fact being clearly stated at the beginning of the programme) that it was a dramatisation.

Which, as is well known by now, caused wholesale hysterics in communities across the country as saw police and sheriffs' telephone lines flooded wholesale with calls, evening religious services disrupted, panicked crowds flooding into the streets seeking to fight off the presumed intergalactic menace--in short, pandamonium demonstrating how radio (and, by extension, television, come to think of it), and the power and intrusion wrought upon it, could be exploited and manipulated for the wrong purposes. And in the wrong hands. And at the wrong sort of time.

In any case, Kenosha boy Orson Welles, who led the Mercury Theater troupe, both on the Broadway stage and on the air, took culpability and liability for the whole misadventure becoming what it was and for its getting as out of hand as it did. Which eventually led the CBS network, which carried Mercury Theater on the Air, to save face through its Vice-President in Charge of Programming, by name W. B. Lewis, announcing that
In order that this may not happen again, the program department hereafter will not use the technique of a stimulated news broadcast within a dramatization when the circumstances of the broadcast could cause immediate alarm to numbers of listeners.
But not before the hysterics took the nation by storm; as a newspaper account of the reaction to the broadcast nationwide had it:
Last night's radio "war scare" shocked thousands of men, women and children in the big cities throughout the country. Newspaper offices, police stations and radio stations were besieged with calls from anxious relatives of New Jersey residents, and in some places anxious groups discussed the impending menace of a disastrous war.

Most of the listeners who sought more information were widely confused over the reports they had heard, and many were indignant when they learned that fiction was the cause of their alarm.

In San Francisco the general impression of listeners seemed to be that an overwhelming force had invaded the United States from the air, was in the process of destroying New York and threatening to move westward. "My God," roared one inquirer into a telephone, "where can I volunteer my services? We've got to stop this awful thing."

Newspaper offices and radio stations in Chicago were swamped with telephone calls about the "meteor" that had fallen in New Jersey. Some said they had relatives in the "stricken area" and asked if the casualty list was available.

In parts of St. Louis men and women clustered in the streets in residential areas to discuss what they should do in the face of the sudden war. One suburban resident drove fifteen miles to a newspaper office to verify the radio "report."

In New Orleans a general impression prevailed that New Jersey had been devastated by the "invaders," but fewer inquiries were received than in other cities.

In Baltimore a woman engaged passage on an airliner for New York, where her daughter is in school.

The Associated Press gathered the following reports of reaction to the broadcast:

At Fayetteville, N. C., people with relatives in the section of New Jersey where the mythical visitation had its locale went to a newspaper office in tears, seeking information.

A message from Providence, R. I., said: "Weeping and hysterical women swamped the switchboard of
The Providence Journal for details of the massacre and destruction at New York, and officials of the electric company received scores of calls urging them to turn off all lights so that the city would be safe from the enemy."

Mass hysteria mounted so high in some cases that people told the police and newspapers they "saw" the invasion.

The Boston Globe told of one woman who claimed she could "see the fire," and said she and many others in her neighborhood were "getting out of here."

Minneapolis and St. Paul police switchboards were deluged with calls from frightened people.

The Times-Dispatch in Richmond, Va., reported some of their telephone calls from people who said they were "praying."

The Kansas City bureau of The Associated Press received inquiries on the "meteors" from Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, Beaumont, Texas, and St. Joseph, Mo., in addition to having its local switchboards flooded with calls. 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.

Atlanta reported that listeners throughout the Southeast "had it that a planet struck in New Jersey, with monsters and almost everything and anywhere from 40 to 7,000 people reported killed." Editors said responsible persons, known to them, were among the anxious information seekers.

In Birmingham, Ala., people gathered in groups and prayed, and Memphis had its full quota of weeping women calling in to learn the facts.

In Indianapolis a woman ran into a church screaming: "New York destroyed; it's the end of the world. You might as well go home to die. I just heard it on the radio." Services were dismissed immediately.

Five students at Brevard College, N. C., fainted and panic gripped the campus for a half hour with many students fighting for telephones to ask their parents to come and get them.

A man in Pittsburgh said he returned home in the midst of the broadcast and found his wife in the bathroom, a bottle of poison in her hand, and screaming: "I'd rather die this way than like that."

He calmed her, listened to the broadcast and then rushed to a telephone to get an explanation.

Officials of station CFRB, Toronto, said they never had had so many inquiries regarding a single broadcast, the Canadian Press reported.
Even police authorities in New York City and New Jersey had to issue the following respective reports through their teletype systems clarifying the situation:
  • "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."
  • "Note to all receivers--WABC broadcast as drama re this section being attacked by residents of Mars. Imaginary affair."
So what exactly was to blame for making the scenario all the worse, you might ask?

For one, a sudden change of act on The Chase and Sanborn Hour over the NBC Red Network, then the king of Sunday-night radio per the Hooper ratings service and in the same time slot as Mercury Theater on the Air, the latter struggling to find attention: Just five minutes into that evening's Chase and Sanborn Hour broadcast, the usual Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy routine was cut short to give resident crooner Nelson Eddy more time than usual, prompting listeners en masse to scan the radio dial to hear what else might be on instead of a consumptive-sounding crooner ... and by chance, they caught the War of the Worlds broadcast, which was well underway to the extent of the first "bulletins" having just been presented, and yet all the while unaware that it was a dramatisation, until the half-hour break, when the following announcement was made (emphasis added):
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.
Then, with the presentation shifting away from the mock news bulletins to a more dramatic such for the concluding act, Orson Welles "himself" gives the following denoument:
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! Starting now, we couldn't soap all your windows and steal all your garden gates by tomorrow night. . . so we did the best next thing. We annihilated the world before your very ears, and utterly destroyed the C. B. S. You will be relieved, I hope, to learn that we didn't mean it, and that both institutions are still open for business. So goodbye everybody, and remember the terrible lesson you learned tonight. That grinning, glowing, globular invader of your living room is an inhabitant of the pumpkin patch, and if your doorbell rings and nobody's there, that was no Martian. . .it's Hallowe'en.
Which didn't stop a batallion of New York City's finest from entering CBS Studio One in Manhattan within moments thereof, seizing all copies of the script and asking questions of the actors involved. (Welles, for his part, did offer an Appy Polly Loggy at a news conference soon afterwards, acknowledging that the whole thing got too out of control and that he had reservations about deploying that particular approach in the final broadcast.)

And the way conservative prolefeeders of the worst sort see in the power and intrusion of the airwaves the potential for "winning over hearts and minds" (howbeit largely poor, undereducated and easily-influenced) to articles of faith as may actually be detrimental to national and sovereign interest, the question worth asking is: "Have we learned anything from October 30, 1938?"

(A footnote: Within a few weeks of the infamous broadcast, the Campbell Soup Company picked up sponsorship, and The Mercury Theater on the Air became The Campbell Playhouse, with the same troupe led by Mr. Welles.)

"Another small house is finished in the next block"
(to Engrishfy the closing remarks on every episode of the "slice-of-life"
radio series Vic and Sade through the years)


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