Wednesday, October 30, 2013


October 30, 2013


New York City (JFK+50) 75 years ago on the eve of Halloween, October 30, 1938, thousands of listeners tuned in to the CBS Radio Mercury Theater and soon came to believe they were listening to an actual news broadcast of the landing of an invading army from the planet Mars.

1927 Illustration
   by Frank R. Paul 

The title of the radio play, "War of the Worlds", was based on the 1898 novel by H.G. Welles.**

The play, directed by Orson Welles,*** was broadcast from the CBS Studios on Madison Avenue here in New York City.  

Many of the listeners, who had tuned in after the program begun, missed the following introduction...

"We know now that in the early years of the 20th century, the world was being watched by intelligences greater than man's and yet as mortal as his own.  Across an immense, ethereal gulf, minds that to our minds as ours are to the beasts in the jungle, intellects vast, cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes and surely drew their plans against us.

In the 39th year of the 20th century  came the great disillusionment.  It was near the end of October.  Business was better.  The war scare was over.  More men were back at work.  

On this particular evening, October 30, the Crosley service estimated that 32 million people were listening in on radios."

"War of the Worlds" Recording
Photo by PhantomS (1998)

As listeners tuned in during the broadcast, they heard news bulletins about the Martian landing and since there were no commercial interruptions, it gave them the impression that this was all really happening.

Mr. Welles prepared his actors for the play by having them listen to Herb Morrison's recorded radio broadcast of the Hindenberg disaster.  That was the effect the director wanted and achieved for the play.

During the drama, a Martian "machine" landed near Grover's Mill, New Jersey (no such place existed in the real world), where the "on the scene" reporter gave this graphic description:

"Something's wriggling out of the shadow like a gray snake.  I can see the thing's body now.  It's large as a bear.  It glistens like wet leather.  I can hardly force myself to keep looking at it...."

Some listeners, it has been said, were so terrified that they jumped in their cars and fled in panic.

Unfortunately some listeners also turned off their radios before Orson Welles came on the air at the end of the drama and said...

"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 Theater's own radio version of dressing up in a sheet and jumping out of a bush and saying boo.

We couldn't soap all your windows...(so) we did the next best thing.  We annihilated the world before your very ears.

You will be learn that we didn't mean it.

So goodbye 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, its Halloween."

      "Martian Landing Site" Marker
                         Van Ness Park
 West Windsor Township, New Jersey

*lyrics from the 1958 #1 hit 'Purple People Eater' by Sheb Wooley.

**H.G. Welles (1866-1946) was born in Bromley, Kent, England and graduated from the Royal College of Science.  Welles' novels include The Time Machine and The Invisible Man.

H.G. Welles at Sandgate

***Orson Welles (1915-1985) was born in Kenosha, WI.  He was awarded a scholarship at Harvard but decided to travel and attend the Art Institute of Chicago.

During the 1930s, Welles was part of the Federal Theater Project
and co-wrote produced, directed and starred in the 1941 movie Citizen Kane. 

Orson Welles in Citizen Kane