Trivia Minute October 30, 2015

206: Orson Welles’ Broadcast of “The War of the Worlds”

by Marcus Michelson
Photo of Orson Welles meeting with reporters in an effort to explain that no one connected with the War of the Worlds radio broadcast had any idea the show would cause panic. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)
Photo of Orson Welles meeting with reporters in an effort to explain that no one connected with the War of the Worlds radio broadcast had any idea the show would cause panic. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

On this date in 1938, the village of Grover’s Mill, New Jersey, was ground zero for an invasion by Martians in the radio drama “The War of the Worlds,” directed by and starring Orson Welles.

Here are some things you may not have known about “The War of the Worlds,” and the reaction to its broadcast.

The program was an episode of the anthology series “The Mercury Theatre on the Air,” on CBS Radio. It was an adaptation of H.G. Wells’ novel, reset in the United States of 1938. The first 40 minutes of the program was presented in a news bulletin format. The show was normally broadcast without commercial interruption, which added to the sense of realism.

Four announcements were made during the broadcast, reminding the audience that the program was a work of fiction. Three more announcements were made after the program aired.

As the program was winding down, police, responding to public concern, rushed into the control room and tried to stop the show. The CBS telephone switchboard was flooded with callers. Newspaper reporters began to descend on the building. Welles, who rushed to join an all-night rehearsal for the Mercury Theatre’s stage production of “Danton’s Death,” learned about the commotion from a cast mate, who told him that the supposed panic caused by the broadcast had made the news ticker in Times Square.

The panic, which was said to have caused countless suicides, rioting in the streets, and human stampedes was massively exaggerated. Only two percent of radio listeners surveyed that night listened to the program, and stations in several large markets, such as Boston, had preempted the program. John Houseman, who produced “The War of the Worlds,” said the cast was surprised to see life going on as usual in New York. Media historians Jefferson Pooley and Michael Socolow said, “The supposed panic was so tiny as to be practically immeasurable on the night of the broadcast. Almost nobody was fooled.” Others have said the fact that people called the police and newspapers was an indication that they were not panicking, but behaving quite rationally.

Contrary to claims, there were no hospital admissions for shock in Newark, New Jersey and no increase of hospital admissions in New York City. There are no records of successful suicides that can be connected to the broadcast.

Welles later played up the supposed panic, finding it useful to add to his personal legend. He went on to make “Citizen Kane” in 1941, “The Magnificent Ambersons” in 1942 and “Touch of Evil” in 1958. He died of a heart attack in 1985 at the age of 70.

Our question, what was the last film in which Orson Welles appeared?

Today is International Orthopedic Nurses Day. It’s unofficially National Candy Corn Day and National Breadstick Day. It’s the birthday of former U.S. president John Adams, writer Ezra Pound, soccer great Diego Maradona, and actor Henry Winkler.

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