Monday, October 20, 2008

"We interrupt this program... " The True Story Of The Night Of The Martian Invasion

The year was 1938. Television was only a vision of the future in the United States and the world as most homes got their entertainment and news from radio.
3 out of 4 homes owned a radio and in this particular year over 5 million radios were sold as it's popularity grew.
People were glued to their sets in large numbers as early as 1932 as they listened to news updates on the hunt for the kidnappers of the baby boy belonging to Charles Lindbergh, a national hero, went on. Then listeners were stunned as they listened to the live broadcast of the arrival of the airship "The Hindenburg" which suddenly burst into flames as it docked in New Jersey.'
But things hit a fever pitch in September of 1938 as uneasy Americans listened to broadcast from Nazi Germany as the dark cloud of war loomed over the world.
All these events were a pressure cooker that was about to explode on the night of October 30th, 1938, the night the Martians invaded Earth.

Orson Wells was a radio actor that worked for the Mercury Theater Group, which put on a radio show each week. This particular week being the week of Halloween, he felt his audience might enjoy hearing a play based on the H.G. Wells novel "War Of The Worlds".
Wells thought it would be fun to put on the play as though it was a series of news flashes which would interrupt a fake orchestra broadcast that was also staged by the Mercury Theater Group.

Wells and the group put on plays several times over the radio but this new "real time" format of making it sound like actual news broadcast was a first and last of it's kind for several years to follow.
Wells changed the setting of the novel from England to the tiny town of Grovers Mill, NJ. which was picked by blindly sticking a pencil into a map. He also saw it was near NYC and decided to use real locations and landmarks in the broadcast which in turn would bring far to much realism to the unseen events that would unfold.

The broadcast stated with an open introduction in which they announced the name of the play and that it was being put on by the actors of the Mercury Theater. It was never meant to deceive any listeners.
What Wells didn't count on was the listeners that would tune in late and mistaken this play for a real invasion from another world.
This exact thing would begin to unfold as listeners who tuned into a rival and more popular broadcast on another station listened to the act of comedian Charles Mccarthy. After McCarthy gave his popular comedy routine a singer was introduced. Many listeners began to change the station in search of other entertainment. This is when many people came across Orson Wells and the Mercury Theater's broadcast of War Of The World.
These listeners would begin to listen in, 10 minutes after the play started and what they heard would start a wave of panic that would spread for several hours throughout the United States. What most people heard as they tuned in to CBS radio was an orchestra playing and then the music suddenly stop and a voice is then heard saying "We interrupt this program...".

As listeners sat stunned in front of their radios they listened to a reporter who spoke of a huge meteorite that fell from the sky and crashed into a farm in Grovers Mills, NJ.
Then horror struck the hearts of thousands of listeners as the reporter told of an opening that was forming in the meteorite and then the sound of explosions and screams began as he shouted in a panicked voice that it was no meteorite, but an alien ship from Mars.

These "news broadcast" continued as people spoke of huge three legged "tri-pod" alien ships that disbursed poisonous gas and destroyed everything and anyone that stood in their path as they made their way to NYC.
Thousands of people began to panic as they flooded radio stations, news papers and police stations with phone calls. Several people in the actual town of Grovers Mill, where the fictional alien attack was happening, armed themselves with guns and hunted the woods of the invaders. When several men came upon a huge water tower in the dark they mistakenly thought it was an alien "tri-pod" and fired upon it.

It was near the end of the broadcast when Wells got word of the panic and interrupted his own broadcast to tell people it was only a play and not to panic.
Days after the broadcast there was a public outcry for something to be done about the mock news flashed filled program. Wells and the theater group were not charged with anything but CBS and other broadcast stations were told never to use the words "we interrupt this program" for dramatic purposes ever again.

Below is a link to the ACTUAL broadcast of Orson Wells and the Mercury Theater Group's "War Of The Worlds". When you listen to it try to remember that this was 1938, long before television and in a world that was already on edge.


Adam James Nall said...

What an amaxing bit of radio theatre that must have been. I reather like well (Orson as well, but mainly H. G.), I studied him as part of a dissertation ('Authorial voicing in the modern novel').

Excellent post.



The Naughty Diva said...

Fabulous post! I really enjoyed reading it. I recall (maybe not the same panic, but the mistaken facts) that Blair Witch Project briefly caused a bit of confusion when people thought, before it was released, that it was real. Some things never change!!