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Television & Radio | AROUND THE DIAL

65 years later, invasion continues

Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre troupe broadcast 'War of the Worlds' in 1938 as a prank, illustrating the medium's influence.

October 31, 2003|Steve Carney | Special to The Times

Fiendish pranks by mischievous youths are to be expected on Devil's Night, Halloween Eve. But 65 years ago today, the nation awoke with a hangover from the massive practical joke orchestrated the night before by one brilliant 23-year-old.

As Orson Welles said at the end of his classic "War of the Worlds" broadcast on Oct. 30, 1938, "We annihilated the world before your very ears, and utterly destroyed CBS. You'll be relieved, I hope, to learn we didn't mean it, and that both institutions are still open for business."

What started as an adaptation of the classic science-fiction novel by H.G. Wells ended as perhaps the most famous radio broadcast in history. The story of a Martian invasion at Grover's Mill, N.J., which spurred panic among thousands who believed it was real, dramatized the potential of the relatively new medium -- both as innovative entertainer and powerful persuader.

"It's amazing how many people know about it, even though it's been 65 years since it happened," said Alex Lubertozzi, co-editor of "The Complete War of the Worlds" (Sourcebooks, 2001), which examines the broadcast and its aftermath. "Most people have never even heard it, but they know about it."

Continuing a three-decade tradition, KNX-AM (1070) will air the broadcast tonight at 9 as part of its nightly "KNX Drama Hour."

In planning for the original broadcast, Welles and his Mercury Theatre on the Air wanted to use radio to its fullest, assimilating the sounds and style of breaking news coverage to their entertainment offering.

"He used that technique, and I think it really took people off-guard," as such a manipulation had never been done before, Lubertozzi said. "Orson Welles, he made it seem realistic and used the technology as best he could."

For example, the actor who played the on-the-scene reporter, Frank Readick, studied the broadcast from the previous year of the Hindenburg airship disaster, to give his own description of the Martian attack urgency and verisimilitude. Welles thought some people might be fooled but didn't expect the widespread panic that ensued.

The Mercury Theatre on the Air had been on the air only three months, and its presentations of literary classics such as "Treasure Isand" and "A Tale of Two Cities" were continually drubbed in the ratings by the troupe's competitors on NBC, ventriloquist Edger Bergen and his dapper dummy Charlie McCarthy.

That show owned about 35% of the national audience, compared to 4% for the Mercury Theatre, according to the ratings. But on that particular Sunday night, after Bergen and McCarthy finished their preliminary jokes and crooner Nelson Eddy launched into song, an estimated 4 million listeners began channel surfing and landed on the CBS broadcast -- what sounded like a reporter doing a live remote at the scene of a strange meteor crash. These folks had tuned in too late to hear Welles' introduction of "The War of the Worlds," and by the first station break, 40 minutes into the hourlong broadcast, many had fled in terror and missed the reiteration that the show was merely a radio play.

Of the program's nationwide audience of 6 million people, about 1.2 million panicked, believing the invasion was true, according to a study published in 1940 by Princeton University professor Hadley Cantril.

"They had no reason to suspect it wasn't real," Lubertozzi said. "They sort of just believed it: 'CBS wouldn't report this if it really wasn't happening.' "

So listeners, particularly in the New Jersey and New York area, ran into the streets and jammed police switchboards, asking for evacuation advice or insisting they could see the blanket of poison gas being unleashed. Others gathered in churches to pray and await the end of the world. Callers outside the affected area asked local authorities for casualty lists, to find out if their loved ones were among the dead. And thousands more around the country wondered when the invasion force would reach them.

It's easy, with 21st century hindsight, to dismiss the fear that Welles wrought as the hysterical reaction of rubes and dolts. Even people at the time ridiculed the panic-stricken. But the terror was genuine among those who believed the broadcast, and it was fueled by both current events and the quality of the performance.

Even now, 65 years after the Mercury players first sent their words and sounds out over the airwaves, the screeching of the Martian heat ray as it immolated the crowd around the spaceship, the shrieks of the victims, the horror in the commentator's voice, and the sudden dead air of his silenced microphone, can still elicit chills.

"They heard it, and they got scared," Lubertozzi said. "It seemed real to them."

More than a few people at the time believed life could exist on Mars, a theory popularized by distinguished American astronomer Percival Lowell, who helped discover Pluto and, who in 1908, wrote "Mars as the Abode of Life."

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