October 30. The night before Halloween. Depending on your level of film geekness, this date either means absolutely nothing to you or is one of the seminal dates in film lore. Although, in true ironic fashion befitting the subject, it wasn’t a film at all that caused this date to be important. Something happened sixty three years ago this evening that did change the course of cinema. For October 30, 1938 was the night the Mercury Theatre players entered CBS’s radio booths and performed their now infamous rendition of “The War of the Worlds”, and Hollywood finally took notice of twenty three year old Orson Welles.
What you might not know about this story is how less than popular the Mercury Theatre Radio Show was in 1938. After the first season of Mercury Theatre on the New York stages, CBS was anxious to get them and Welles on the air. Confident in his abilities, the powers that be at the network put Welles up against The Chase and Sanborn Show, which was at the time the #1 show from coast to coast. Never heard of Chase and Sanbornr That’s okay, for you should have heard of the stars of the show… Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. Now, why a ventriloquist and his dummy would be the most popular entertainers on radio, I have no honest explanations. It must have truly been a different world back then. The only time anyone else scheduled against the Chase and Sanborn Show would have a chance at attracting listeners was shortly after Edgar Bergen would introduce that week’s guest performer. If that performer was not as interesting as the show sponsors had hoped, listeners would channel surf around the dial for a few moments until the guy with the funny voices came back on.
That final Sunday evening in October 1938 appeared to be no different. Along with show staff writer Howard Koch, Welles spent weeks fine tuning the script for this, the seventeenth show of the weekly series which intended to dramatize popular fiction for a mass audience, insisting that the musical interludes between the “newsflashes” be even longer in duration that initially planned. Finally, at eight o’clock, the announced was cued…
“The Columbia Broadcasting System and its affiliated stations present Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre on the air in ‘The War of the Worlds’ by H.G. Wells.”
By fate or sheer chance, shortly after the start of the hour Bergen had introduced some singer whose identity has been lost to time that didn’t keep a lot of listeners interested. Millions of people were checking out what else was on when, over at CBS, an announcer was interrupting a broadcast from the Meridien Room of New York’s Hotel Park Plaza, where Ramon Raquello and his Orchestra were performing. The news report pertained to a series of mysterious explosions on the surface of Mars noted by scientists at various observation towers, which to one scientist was reminiscent of “like a jet of blue flame shot out of a gun”. The audience was then returned to the music, where the music would be interrupted just a moment later by an interview from an observation booth at Princeton, where the world famous astronomer Professor Pierson (the only role played by Welles himself this evening) failed to explain to the audience why the gas emissions from our neighboring planet were happening, even though Pierson assures us there is no chance of life on Mars. Special bulletins would continue to interrupt the musical program, until eventually Pierson is heard giving his notes about how the Martian invaders were eventually vanquished not by the military machine of man but the microbes in the air from which we humans have over many millions of years become immune to.
At the end of the show, our world was slowly beginning to gear up again. Manhattan has been destroyed and was starting to be rebuilt. To the estimated thrity two million listeners that night, many of whom may have missed not only the initial broadcast identification but Welles’ denoument at the end, panic had set in. The mid-show reports of the streets of New York running rampant with hysterical masses did become a reality by the end of the broadcast. Police stations and press outlets around the country were deluged with reports from citizens reporting they had indeed had seen Invaders from Mars.
So enormous was the impact of the broadcast, Welles found himself the next morning as the top story in the New York Times. Although reports of mass suicides caused by the broadcast were reported, no one died although one man was supposed to have walked into his kitchen to discover his wife about to swallow some poison as she listened to the radio. A number of hospitals were filled with people suffering from broken legs and miscarriages blamed on the broadcast. The Federal Communications Commission threatened to investigate the broadcast, and scores of greedy screws sued Welles and CBS, including a gentleman who claims that the stress of listening to this particular show had brought a return of his stuttering problem recently cured through analysis and wanted $2,000 to return to therapy. In the end, all the cases were dismissed and Welles formerly obscure show found a major sponsor in Campbell’s Soup, before RKO studio president George Shaefer, who had been brought in to revitalize the company earlier in October, began courting Welles in early 1939, based on the War of the Worlds broadcast and Welles’ subsequent popularity.
If you have never heard the show, there are a number of radio stations across America who will be broadcasting the show either this evening or tomorrow. Growing up in Los Angeles, I know that KNX-AM plays it every year. Although I am now in New York, I’ll be doing what I can to be listening to it tonight.