Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Is That a Martian?

The two most famous radio broadcasts of the 1930s—and, arguably, in radio history—are Herbert Morrison relating the crash of the dirigible Hindenburg in 1937 and the Mercury Players’ dramatization of “The War of the Worlds” 75 years ago today.

Orson Welles once claimed “The War of the Worlds” catapulted him to Hollywood. It certainly didn’t catapult him to fame. Welles had been known for his broadcasts as The Shadow not too much earlier. But inducing fright didn’t exactly make him anonymous.

His ersatz Martian invasion proved the power of radio—and of the imagination. Front pages of newspapers all across North America told of the concern and panic across the continent of people who thought it all was real. We’re not talking a handful of crackpots. So many calls were made to newspapers that the Associated Press took the unusual step of sending out this advisory at 8:48 p.m. that evening: “Note to editors: Queries to newspapers from radio listeners throughout the United States tonight, regarding a reported meteor fall which killed a number of New Jerseyites, are the result of a studio dramatization. The A.P.”

There are a multitude of newspaper stories to pick from to give you an indication of what the atmosphere was like that evening. But here’s an A.P. dispatch as printed on the front page of the Montreal Gazette the next morning. A snippet from the Utica Daily Press has been added.

New York, Oct. 30 —(AP)— Hysteria among radio listeners throughout the nation and actual panicky evacuations from sections of the metropolitan area resulted from a too-realistic radio broadcast last night describing a fictitious and devastating visitation of strange men from Mars.
Excited and weeping persons all over the country swamped newspaper and police telephone switchboards with, the question: “Is it true?”
It was purely a figment of H. G. Wells’ imagination with some extra flourishes of radio dramatization by Orson Welles. It was broadcast by the Columbia Broadcasting System.
But the anxiety was immeasurable.
The broadcast was an adaptation of Wells’ “War of the Worlds”, in which meteors and gas from Mars menace the earth.
New York police were unable to contact the CBS studios by telephone, so swamped was its switchboard, and a radio car was sent there for information.
A woman ran into a church in Indianapolis, screaming: “New York destroyed; it’s the end of the world. You might as well go home to die. I just heard it on the radio.” Services were dismissed immediately.
Five boys at Brevard (N.C.) college fainted and panic gripped the campus for a half hour with many students fighting for telephones to inform their parents to come and get them.
In Utica, scores of persons called The Press asking “Is it true?” what they said about New Jersey. There were sighs of relief when they were assured it wasn’t so.
One man prevailed upon the management of a local theater to page his wife so he could tell her about the “catastrophe” which had struck New Jersey where all her relatives live.
At Fayetteville, N. C, people with relatives in the section of New Jersey where the mythical visitation had its locale, went to a newspaper office in tears seeking information.
A message from Providence, R. I., said:
“Weeping and hysterical women swamped the switch-board of the Providence Journal for details of the massacre and destruction at New York and officials of the electric company received scores of calls urging them to turn off all lights so that the city would be safe from the enemy.”
The New York bureau of The Canadian Press received queries relayed from Canadian listeners who wondered what it was all about.
In various parts of the United States mass hysteria mounted so high in some cases that people told police and newspapers they “saw” the invasion.
The Boston Globe told of one woman who “claimed she could “see the fire” and said she and many others in her neighborhood were “getting out of here.”
Minneapolis and St. Paul police switchboards were deluged with calls.
In Atlanta, there was worry that “the end of the world” had arrived.
It finally got so bad in New Jersey that the state police put reassuring messages on the state teletype, instructing their officers what it was all about.
And all this despite the fact that the radio play was interrupted four times for the announcement: “This is purely a fictional play.”
Newspaper switchboard operators quit saying, “hello.” They merely plugged in and said: “It’s just a radio show.”
The Times-Dispatch in Richmond, Va., reported some of their calls came from people who said they were “praying.”
The Kansas City bureau of the Associated Press received queries on the “meteors” from Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, Beaumont, Tex., and St. Joseph, Mo., in addition to having its local switchboard flooded with calls.
One telephone informant said he had loaded all his children into his car, had filled it with gasoline, and was going somewhere.
“Where is it safe?” he wanted to know.
Residents of Jersey City, N. J., telephoned their police frantically, asking where they could get gas masks. In both Jersey City and Newark, hundreds of citizens ran out into the streets.
Atlanta reported that listeners throughout the Southeast “had it that a planet struck in New Jersey, with monsters and almost everything, and anywhere from 40 to 7,000 people reported killed.” Editors said responsible people, known to them, were among the anxious information seekers.
In Birmingham, Ala., people gathered in groups and prayed, and Memphis had its full quota of weeping women calling in to learn the facts.
After an introductory explanation by Welles at 8 p. m., (EST), an announcer gave a commonplace weather forecast. Then, in standard fashion, came the words: “We take you to the ____ hotel where we will hear the music of, etc.”
After a few bars of dance music there came “a bulletin from the International Radio News Bureau” saying there had been a gas explosion in New Jersey.
After that the bulletins came more and more rapidly with “Professor Pierson,” played by Welles, explaining about the attack by Mars and the little men who were pouring out of their meteor-like airplanes.
For some time Mars warriors drove everything before them. Mere armies and navies were wiped out right and left and the real radio audience was as frightened at the actors pretended to be. But then the little men acquired a lot of germs to which we men-of-the-world are virtually impervious. So the little men died and everybody lived happily ever after.
In later broadcasts, the Columbia system announced:
“For the listeners who tuned in to Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater of the Air broadcast from 8 to 9 p.m., Eastern Standard Time, tonight, and did not realize that the programme was merely a radio adaptation of H.G. Wells’ famous novel ‘The War of the Worlds,’ we are repeating the fact, made clear four times on the programme, that the entire content of the play was entirely fictitious.”
The Columbia System later issued a formal statement which said in part:
“Naturally, it was neither Columbia nor the Mercury Theater’s intention to mislead anyone, and when it became evident that part of the audience had been disturbed by the performance, five announcements were made over the network later in the evening to reassure those listeners.”
The action revolved around what might happen if monsters from Mars boarded flying machines which resembled meteors and called upon the earth with malice aforethought.
The whole thing was done realistically and in present tense. Before it reached its climax, late tuner-inners were pretty upset.
Right in the centre of the warfare—with every trunkline on the switchboard lighted—sat L.W. Smith and S.M. Zimmerman of the Fire and Police Dispatchers’ Office, Trenton, Mercer County, N.J.
They were answering all kinds of calls, local and long distance, assuring everybody concerned that Trenton was as calm as could be expected. It seems that the first arrivals from Mars had just landed at a hypothetical city called Grover’s Mill which sounded to listeners like Groveville, another community in Mercer County.

Afterwards, CBS apologised. Welles apologised. One Louisiana Democrat said he’d introduce a bill to control “just such abuses as was heard over the radio tonight.” The FCC vowed the next morning to do something. And the Harvard Astronomical Observatory issued a statement assuring people there was no life on Mars.

Not everyone was afraid. The New York Post related how hundreds of people jammed roads around Princeton as they tried to find the meteor to ogle it for themselves.

The following morning, CBS station WABC in New York, which had scheduled “Spooks Inc.,” for a midnight broadcast the next night, cancelled it and substituted a program of dance music which couldn’t scare anybody. And CBS rejected requests from people to rebroadcast the show. New Yorkers had to content themselves with a truncated transcript in the Post. But a line-check must have been made that evening as there are various places you can go on-line to listen to it.

Radio recovered from the controversy. It carried on, bringing World War Two into living rooms, along with comedy, music and even Orson Welles. Then came television. Today, radio brings loud-mouthed talk show hosts, auto-tuned singers and commercial after commercial after commercial. I’ll take a little panic instead, thanks.

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