Thursday, October 30, 2008

The 70th Anniversary of Orson Welles' "War of the Worlds" Radio Broadcast

Tonight is the 70th anniversary of the War of the Worlds broadcast of The Mercury Theatre of the Air, produced by the famous (or perhaps infamous) Orson Welles. It is quite possibly the most famous single broadcast of a radio programme of all time. Sadly, it is not famous for its high quality (although it is one of the greatest episodes of a radio show ever) or because it won awards (it didn't), but rather it is famous for the panic it caused across the United States. Quite simply, many people across the nation were convinced Martians were invading Earth.

The Mercury Theatre of the Air debuted on CBS in July of 1938. It brought John Houseman and Orson Welles' Mercury Theatre to radio. Its concept was simple, but unique in radio at the time--to bring classic material (books, plays, et. al.) to the air, performed by the Mercury Theatre troupe. The show had debuted with a performance of the novel Dracula and over the course of the next few weeks would adapt Treasure Island, A Tale of Two Cities, The Count of Monte Cristo, and other classics to radio. For their Halloween episode, the Mercury Theatre settled upon H. G. Wells' War of the Worlds. Howard Koch's script moved the the classic novella's action from Victorian London to the United States in 1938. Indeed, the Martians would begin their invasion in Grover Mills, New Jersey.

The script, officially titled "The Invasion from Mars," took a relatively unique approach in American radio at the time in that it played out as a series of newscasts reporting an invasion of Earth by Martian tripods. Although it was the first time an episode of a dramatic radio show took this form in United States, such an approach had been taken before. In 1926 Monsignor Ronald Knox produced a satirical radio show in the form of a newscast of a riot in London. Broadcast over the BBC, this radio show also caused a bit of a panic in London. It is perhaps for this reason that "The Invasion from Mars" included a disclaimer at the start of the programme, its middle, and at its end, along with many spread through the show created by local CBS affiliates around the country, stating categorically that it was simply a fictional radio drama. The show was announced in newspaper radio listings ahead of the fact of the broadcast. Even in the broadcast itself the year was given as 1939, a clear sign this was not an actual newscast (it was 1938, after all). Despite this, there were people who, at least for a time, honestly believed that Earth was being invaded by Mars.

The precise scale of the panic caused by Orson Welles' broadcast of "The Invasion from Mars" is difficult to judge today. That there was a panic there can be no doubt. The switchboards at CBS were jammed with calls from people concerned about the invasion. The New York Times itself would receive 832 calls. A month after the broadcast there had been an estimated 12,500 newspaper stories on the broadcast according to Professor Ronald Hand in the book Terror on the Air!: Horror Radio in America, 1931-1952 (including The New York Times, who featured it as the headlining story on their front page). Immediately following the end of the broadcast of "The Invasion from Mars," police arrived at the CBS studio in New York. They took both John Houseman and Orson Welles to one of the CBS offices for questioning. Neither man was ever arrested. After the police released Houseman and Welles, they faced a rather hostile crowd of reporters. They would eventually have to sneak out of the building through the back door to make it to a rehearsal of Danton's Death. The next morning CBS held a press conference where Orson Welles read what was a combination disclaimer and apology. The press conference was filmed for newsreels across the country.

While it is obvious that there was a panic, it is questionable if it was as large as the press made it out to be at the time. Stanley J. Baran and Dennis K. Davis in Mass Communication Theory: Foundations, Ferment, and Future make the suggestion that the scale of the panic was not as large as newspapers at the time made it out to be. They point out that many in the newspaper industry saw radio as a competitor and worried that the relatively new medium would put newspapers out of business. As a result, they were largely unsympathetic to CBS, John Houseman, and Orson Welles. It must be pointed out that in the Thirties, yellow journalism still persisted on a widespread scale in the press in the United States. Because of this many newspapers simply avoided the facts and took the chance to prove that radio could be a dangerous medium by exaggerating the overall scale of the panic. In their book Panic Attacks, Robert Bartholomew and Hilary Evans believe that thousands of people were indeed frightened for a time, but that ultimately reports of individuals acting on their fear of an invasion from Mars is both "scant" and "anecdotal." Indeed, it seems that while many people in many locations did call the police about the invasion, there is little evidence to suggest that they did anything more than call the police.

As to what ultimately caused the panic, that remains a question to this day. The broadcast is in many respects very convincing and could perhaps be taken as an actual newscast by the casual listener. In fact, it is on October 30, 1938 that we have some of the earliest evidence for the phenomenon then called "zapping" and now known as "channel surfing." Quite simply, as was typical on a Sunday night in 1938, many were listening to The Chase and Sanborn Hour (so named because it was sponsored by Chase and Sanborn Coffee) starring ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummy Charlie McCarthy on NBC Red. It was around fifteen minutes into The Chase and Sanborn Hour that the first comedy sketch with Edgar Bergen ended. With the start of a musical segment, many switched from NBC Red to CBS. For that reason they missed the first announcement that the broadcast was not a real newscast, but merely a dramatisation. Despite this, a lack of knowledge cannot be entirely credited with causing the panic. It must be pointed out that this was the first time in the United States that a dramatic radio show took the form of a newscast. The average radio listener was then simply not used to a newsflashes being used for dramatic effect.

This was compounded by the fact that in the Northeast, at least, individuals would visit their neighbours to ask what was happening. As a result stories of the invasion from Mars would be repeated and would start to take shape as rumours, which would then spread making the panic all the worse. Some persist as urban legends to this day. It must also be pointed out that at the time World War II was already brewing in Europe and many Americans had very real anxieties as to an oncoming war. "The Invasion of Mars" perhaps fed into these anxieties, which may have made individuals more inclined to believe that Martians were invading Earth. Of course, critic for The New Yorker and radio personality Alexander Woollcott had a different theory on the cause of the panic. The next day he sent Welles a telegram which simply read, "This only goes to prove, my beamish boy, that the intelligent people were all listening to a dummy, and all the dummies were listening to you." Orson Welles would post the telegram on the door to his office.

While the exact causes of the panic which ensued following the War of the Worlds broadcast may never be known, it did have some very real consequences. Sadly for CBS, Orson Welles' lawyer, Arnold Weissberger, had written into his contract that the network, not Welles, would be held responsible for anything questionable Welles did on The Mercury Theatre of the Air. It has been estimated that around $1 million were claimed in lawsuits following in the wake of the broadcast. CBS may well have won every case, given that the programme had been announced ahead of time in newspapers and the three disclaimers that aired on the show itself. Even if CBS had lost every case, they were hardly hurting from money because of "The Invasion from Mars." The Campbell Soup Company, which had previously turned down sponsorship of The Mercury Theatre of the Air, volunteered to be the show's sponsor following the broadcast. The listenership of the show also jumped nearly 100% following the airing of "The Invasion of Mars."

While CBS may have been relatively unharmed by lawsuits, they would be hurt in other ways. Following an investigation into the matter, the Federal Communications Commission called CBS into account for failing to monitor their broadcasts for the incident. Since the time of the War of the Worlds broadcast, both radio and television networks have made sure during any dramatic broadcast taking the form of a newscast to have plentiful disclaimers that it is simply a fictional programme. During both the telefilms Special Bulletin in 1983 and the 1994 telefilm, Without Warning in 1994, which took the form of newscasts, many disclaimers telling viewers that this was a fictional account were aired.

In the years since it first aired, Orson Welles' War of the Worlds broadcast has become legendary. It has been remade several times, including by Buffalo radio station WKBW in 1968 (who updated it again), Denver station KHOW in 1987, and Washington, D.C. station WBIG-FM in 1997 (which also updated it). On October 30, 1988, the 50th anniversary of the broadcast, PBS aired its own remake. The first dramatisation of the panic itself, "The Night America Trembled," appeared on Studio One in 1957. In 1975 ABC would air a TV movie based on the panic, The Night That Panicked America. There have been many pop culture references to the War of the Worlds broadcast, from the novel version of 2001: a Space Odyssey to the movie The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension to an episode of the TV series War of the Worlds scheduled to coincide with the broadcast's 50th anniversary (on which it was naturally expressed that the United States government paid Orson Welles to make the broadcast to cover up a Martian reconnaissance mission who would begin on all out invasion in 1953--fifteen years later, when the movie version of War of the Worlds was released).

While it is best known for the panic it inspired, the lasting influence of "The Invasion from Mars" is probably not due to that notoriety, but due to the fact that it is a very good radio show. "The Invasion from Mars" has been widely available since the Sixties. It is to be found on both CDs and in MP3 format today. I remember listening to it exactly twenty years ago on this date with my friends (the majority of whom are fans of Old Time Radio like I am). We noted that we could understand how it could have caused a panic. "The Invasion from Mars" is very convincing. That having been said, it is also very dramatic and entertaining--one of the best radio shows I have ever heard. If it is still remembered today, then much of it is due to the quality of "The Invasion of the Mars" as it is the panic it inspired.


Tale of Two Cities Musical said...

I thought you might be interested in another “Tale of Two Cities Musical” that is wending it's way to Broadway (Perhaps via Boston). This one has a distinctively low budget so far but a very singable score and an engaging book. You might want to check out some of the songs.
Bob Littlefield

Toby O'B said...

Good job, Merc! I'm always impressed by the time and effort you take in writing these things up. Especially when it comes to those most specialized topics like Chatty Cathy a few weeks ago.

Ultimately, stories about Welles and his radio panic and his amazing 'Citizen Kane' always depress me because he eventually lost the chance to continue making such amazing productions.

Terence Towles Canote said...

One has to wonder if between The War of the Worlds broadcast and Citizen Kane if Welles didn't seriously hurt his career to the point it was affected for decades. With "The Invasion from Mars" he was blamed for causing a panic. With Citizen Kane, he was blamed for slurring William Randolph Hearst (which he wasn't--Kane was a combination of many, many industrialists and tycoons).