Seventy-five years ago, radio was the king of entertainment and people took as gospel what they heard — even if what they heard was about a planetary invasion.
Local War of the Worlds performance
Walla Walla Community College's Drama Department will be performing "War of the Worlds" on Wednesday, Oct. 30 at 8 p.m. The play is based on the book by H.G. Wells. Tickets are $8 for adults and $6 for seniors and students, and are currently available at the WWCC Bookstore. For more information, visit the event's Facebook page.
To hear the 1938 “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast online, visit bit.ly/vI4qwv
In September 1938, Neville Chamberlain, Great Britain’s prime minister, met with Adolph Hitler in Munich and, via air waves, assured the world of “peace in our time.” High school students danced the “Big Apple” and Hollywood searched for the perfect Scarlett O’Hara. Every Sunday night, 34 percent of America’s radio audience enjoyed the antics of NBC’s Edgar Bergen and his dummy, Charlie McCarthy.
The producers of CBS’s “Mercury Theatre of the Air” felt their only chance to capture listeners would be when Bergen featured a guest performer. People might likely “dial” flip, much as they channel surf with television today.
For the Oct. 30, 1938, production, 23-year-old Orson Welles, the “mastermind” of Mercury Theatre, chose an adaptation of H.G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds.” In a commanding radio voice, Welles began: “We know now that in the early years of the 20th century, our Earth was being watched closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own.”
Before the listener had a chance to turn back the dial, there were several “news bulletins.”
One “professor” reported that several explosions of incandescent gas were occurring on Mars. A “scientist” not only confirmed this news, but added that a seismograph registered a shock of earthquake intensity within 20 miles of Princeton, N.J.
Now thousands of listeners kept their dials tuned to the Mercury Theatre. Suddenly they heard that “... a huge, flaming object fell on a farm near Grovers Mill, New Jersey, 22 miles from Trenton.”
Panic began to grip the nation that Halloween Eve. Try to imagine reactions to the next news item by these two men. As they drove to the site, their headlights revealed a large, yellowish-white cylinder 30 yards in diameter.
“What’s happening? Something’s crawling out of the cylinder!”
“I see two luminous disks peering out of a black hole, and something like a grey snake is wriggling in the shadows! There’s another! Look like tentacles!”
“The body’s as large as a bear and glistens like wet leather.”
“My God! That face!”
“Saliva is dripping from rimless lips that quiver and pulsate!”
Radio listeners heard the buzz of voices, and policemen requesting folks to move back. Suddenly, there was a humming sound as someone shouted, “A heat ray gun!”
Screams. The crash of a fallen microphone. Then silence.
Phone calls from listeners began to flood police headquarters, newspapers and radio stations. Folks jumped into their cars, not having a destination, many yelling out the windows.
“We’re being invaded by Mars!”
A flickering light became the beginning of an invasion in the minds of the radio audience. In the small community of Concrete, Wash., a power failure caused radios to go dead. Hysteria!
In the Walla Walla Valley, Dean Smith was a teenager in the Ross Smith family of Dayton in 1938. He remembers family members gathered around a radio. Was this really happening? Or was it somebody’s idea of a joke? He recalls they all agreed it must be fiction.
A Walla Walla resident, Sally Phipps, was the youngest — 5 years old — in the Howard Wilson family. She and her brother, then 8, remember when their parents shushed them in order to listen more carefully to the radio. Sally recalls hearing something about Martians.
Her father burst out, “It’s a hoax!” And indeed it was.
However, across the nation, people rushed into churches to pray. A woman ran screaming into an Indianapolis church, “New York’s destroyed! It’s the end of the world! Go back to your homes to die!”
Meanwhile, back in the CBS radio studios, an actor was ready to play the part of the Commander of the New Jersey State Militia. He immediately placed the area under martial law. Nobody questioned how 7,000 soldiers could be mobilized within minutes, or how suddenly a non-existent militia appeared.
Dozens of citizens responded in a positive manner. Volunteers at the San Francisco Army Headquarters wanted to know how they could help. Nurses and doctors offered their services. Hospitals treated people for shock, and places of worship were manned by ministers, priests and rabbis offering spiritual counseling.
Newspapers could be filled with stories about the effects this one radio program had on the public.
Lawsuits totaling $750,000 were filed, but network lawyers successfully argued that the show had been identified as drama at the beginning and throughout the episodes.
The next day Orson Welles’ picture appeared on the front page of The New York Times. His radio show gave Charlie snd Edgar a run for their money, and overnight Welles became known throughout the world.
Today you can hear the entire 1938 broadcast on the Internet, and wonder how gullible the public was 75 years ago.
Shirley Pope Waite is a Walla Walla writer and retired writing teacher. Her writings have appeared in over 150 publications and 27 books during the past 50 years.