With Halloween approaching, Orson Welles thought it would be fitting if his CBS radio drama anthology series The Mercury Theater On The Air did something spooky for its October 30, 1938 broadcast. So, Welles and his team decided to perform an adaptation of H. G. Wells’ classic alien invasion tale The War Of The Worlds. The idea was that the events of Wells’ novel would be retold as a radio broadcast that has interrupted “regularly scheduled programming.” Little did Welles know that his broadcast would cause an uproar.
As I’m sure you’re aware, The War Of The World caused a bit of a panic amongst the people who heard the show. Now, there are a couple of myths about the radio drama. Contrary to popular reports, Welles introduced the show as a work of fiction, and even included an epilogue in which he informs the audience at home that “We annihilated the world before your very ears, and utterly destroyed the C. B. S. You will be relieved, I hope, to learn that we didn’t mean it, and that both institutions are still open for business.” Also, 45 minutes into the broadcast, the play stopped for a station identification to remind listeners that this was a work of fiction.
That said, Welles must have known that his broadcast would cause a stir. After all, Mercury Theater aired in the same time slot as NBC’s very popular comedy/variety show The Chase and Sanborn Hour. Welles was very aware that about 12 to 15 minutes into the show’s broadcast, the show’s first comedy sketch ended and musical numbers began. He also knew that a fair amount of Chase and Sanborn listeners began to circle around the dial right at that moment, and thus he scheduled the early reports of the alien invasion for the 12 minute mark. So, if you were passing around the radio dial at that moment and came across CBS, you’d hear some pleasant dance music suddenly interrupted by a radio announcer reporting that “a meteorite, fell on a farm in the neighborhood of Grovers Mill, New Jersey.”
As the fictional Martians began their attack on New Jersey, real Americans began to panic. Largely, people began calling the police or local media. In an amazing coincidence, the little town of Concrete, Washington suffered a power outage during the broadcast. In the ensuing days, many newspapers would report that massive amounts of people fled their homes in terror after hearing the broadcast. However, it seems that outside of Concrete, there really weren’t that many cases of people panicking in the streets. According to one report, “some 6 million heard the CBS broadcast; 1.7 million believed it to be true, and 1.2 million were ‘genuinely frightened’” By comparison, it was said that 30 million people had kept their radio tuned to Chase and Sanborn.
A few listeners sued CBS for “mental anguish” and “personal injury,” but all of the suits were dismissed except for one: A Massachusetts man who made claim for a pair of black men’s shoes (size 9B) because he spent his shoe money while trying to escape the Martians. Although that suit would have been dismissed, Welles insisted that that man be payed. All this attention actually worked out wonderfully for Welles and the Mercury Theater, as many people began to listen to the show regularly and Campbell’s Soup soon became the show’s sponsor. In 1988, to mark the 50th anniversary of the broadcast, the New Jersey Township of West Windsor, where Grover’s Mill is located, unveiled a bronze monument honoring the site of the Martian landing.
Tonight, as you prepare for Halloween, why not mark the anniversary of the invasion by the saucer men from Mars with a Flying Saucer. It’s a nice blended cocktail that’s like a nutty, vodka-free version of the White Russian.
- 1 ounce Amaretto
- 1 ounce Kahlua
- 3 ounces cream
- 3 ounces ice
Combine ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth (approximately 10-20 seconds) and pour into a highball glass.
Tomorrow: “On Halloween night, the Great Pumpkin rises from his pumpkin patch and flies through the air with his bag of toys to all the children.”