October 30, 1938
The radio dramatization of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds is broadcast
Contrary to popular belief today, the radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds was not presented as factual news or a hoax. Advertisements ran prior to the performance and during intermission an announcer told audiences “You are listening to a CBS presentation of Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre of the Air, in an original dramatization of The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells. The performance will continue after a brief intermission.” In total, four announcements were made during the reading informing the audience the material was fiction.
Orson Welles performing The War of the Worlds
It is possible, however, some may not have known of the radio play was not an actual news broadcast. Most families had been tuned into rival radio station NBC to listen to ventriloquist Eddie Bergen (yes, a ventriloquist and his dummy on the radio) before switching to CBS after the first mentioning of the show being fictitious. Newspaper reports of the “mass hysteria” the following day, however, only referenced unnamed, unverifiable victims. Examples of such reports are “A woman in Pittsburgh tried suicide, saying ‘I’d rather die this way than like that’” and “One woman said she had collided with furniture in her haste to get into the streets, blackening both her eyes.”
One example of the headlines written in the wake of the broadcast
It has been speculated the exaggerated reports by the printed press were an effort to discredit radio as a major source of news. Essentially, it was an attempt for newspapers to stay ahead of their new rival the radio.
Narrator Orson Welles, who was just 23 at the time of the broadcast, saw significant publicity from the misadventure, allowing him to leave behind a legacy which includes Citizen Kane, Touch of Evil, and The Transformers: The Movie. Though he was accused of inciting a panic and was genuinely afraid the play had ended his career, he later quipped “I didn’t go to jail; I went to Hollywood instead.”
- Hoover, Ben. “Remembering Orson Welles.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette [Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania]. May 2, 2015
- Memmott, Mark. “75 Years Ago, ‘War Of The Worlds’ Started A Panic. Or Did It?” NPR. October 30, 2013. Accessed: October 30, 2018. https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2013/10/30/241797346/75-years-ago-war-of-the-worlds-started-a-panic-or-did-it
- “Welles scares nation.” History. Accessed: October 30, 2018. https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/welles-scares-nation
- “Encore.” The Evening Sun [Baltimore, Maryland]. November 3, 1938.
- “Thousands Flee Homes, Pray, or Faint as Fictitious Radio Program Relates Invasion by Martian Hordes.” The Amarillo Globe-Times [Amarillo, Texas]. October 31, 1938