THIS DAY IN NEW YORK HISTORY
Exactly 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