War of the Worlds

THIS DAY IN NEW YORK HISTORY

orson-wells-mtota-war-of-the-worlds.jpegExactly seventy years ago today, radio signals emanating from the twentieth floor of 485 Madison Avenue caused a panic. The occasion was the 8:00 p.m. broadcast of the CBS show Mercury Theater On Air, a special Halloween episode that featured an adaptation of H. G. Wells’s novel War of the Worlds (1898).

The broadcast was the brainchild of Orson Welles, who became famous as a result. The radio adaptation was written Howard Koch, who departed from Wells’s novel by setting the action not in England but in Grovers’s Mill, New Jersey. The conceit behind the radio play was to present the story as if it were actually happening in real time, and Welles used recordings of the Hindenburg disaster to inspire the cast and crew.

Events from the novel were presented as if they were news bulletins interrupting the regularly scheduled programming, with Welles first appearing in the guise of Professor Richard Pierson, “a famous astronomer.” Because many listeners tuned in late to the broadcast, they believed the fake bulletins to be real, causing a panic. A front-page article in The New York Times the next day described the furor:

The broadcast, which disrupted households, interrupted religious services, created traffic jams and clogged cqmmunications systems, was made by Orson Welles, who as the radio character, “‘The Shadow,” used to give “the creeps” to countless child listeners. This, time at least, a score of adults required medical treatment for shock and hysteria.

In Newark, in a single block at Heddon Terrace and Hawthorne Avenue, more than twenty families rushed·ont·of their houses with wet handkerchiefs and towels over their faces to flee from what they believed was to be a gas raid. Some began moving household furniture.

Wikipedia has a good account of the broadcast and its aftermath. A television film called The Night That Panicked America dramatized these events and was broadcast on Halloween night, 1975. A documentary called The Day That Panicked America was released in 2005.

war_spielberg_dvd.jpgIt is tempting now to read Welles and Koch’s adaptation as a meditation on world events, and the public’s response may well have been fueled by a sense of national unease at the increasing belligerence of Germany, which had annexed the Sudetenland on the first of the month, and Japan, which spent October invading Canton. Steven Spielberg’s effective 2005 adaptation of Wells’s novel seems, in retrospect, also to be a meditation on fears of invasion from abroad. Although Spielberg and screenwriter David Koepp follow Welles and Koch by setting the tale in New Jersey, the film is clearly marked by the events of 9/11. “Is it the terrorists?” 10-year-old Rachel Ferrier (Dakota
Fanning) screams, as she and her father, Ray (Tom Cruise), attempt to escape from Bayonne in a minivan.

You can stream or download the 1938 broadcast from the Internet Archive, which also has an interesting set of materials related to the Hindenburg.