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War of the Worlds Was a Radio Classic

It was October 30th , 1938 and people were gathered around their radio as many families did then.  There was no TV then so radio was king. Little did we know how much of a king radio was until people were seated around the radio listening to “The Mercury Theatre on the Air”.  The performers were presenting “The War of the Worlds” on Halloween Eve over the CBS Radio Network. It was directed and narrated by Orson Wells and was an adaptation of H.G.Wells novel “The War of the Worlds” from 1898.  The program began with a weather report and an ordinary dance band remote featuring “Ramon Raquello and His Orchestra” which was actually the CBS orchestra.  That was interrupted by news flashes about strange explosions on Mars. The first 40 minutes of the hour long broadcast were presented as a series of simulated bulletins suggesting that there had been an actual alien invasion by Martians in progress.

Welles made his first appearance in the program as the (fictional) famous Princeton Astronomer/Professor Richard Pierson, who dismisses speculation about life on Mars. The news grew more frequent and increasingly ominous as a cylindrical meteorite landed in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey.  A crowd gathered at the site. Fictional reporter Carl Phillips  related the events. The meteorite opened to reveal a barely mobile Martian who incinerated the crowd with heat rays. Phillips’s shouted about incoming flames but was cut off in mid-sentence. Many listeners heard only this portion of the show before contacting neighbors or family to inquire about the broadcast. Many contacted others in turn, leading to rumors and fears. The show went on with the Martians obliterating the militia, and the studio returned, now describing the Martians as an invading army. Emergency response bulletins gave way to damage reports and evacuation instructions as millions of fictitious refugees clogged the roads. With nothing but the radio to refer to until their morning paper came out, the widespread chaos had begun, despite the repeated announcements during the show that it was a fictitious performance being aired.

In the aftermath of the reported panic, Wells and Mercury Theatre escaped punishment but not censure. CBS was believed to have promised to never again to use “we interrupt this program” for dramatic effect. However, many radio commercials to this day still start with the phrase “We interrupt this program”. Many listeners sued the network for “mental anguish” and “personal injury”. All suits were dismissed, except for a claim for a pair of black men’s shoes (size 9B) by a Massachusetts man, who spent his shoe money to escape the Martians. Wells insisted the man be paid and he was.

The War of the Worlds aired 75 years ago today and it is still being talked about.

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