Mercury Theatre’s 1938 Broadcast of “War of the Worlds”

By Gary P Jackson

October 30, 1938 Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre Players made history by broadcasting an adaptation of H.G. Wells’ story of an alien invasion of earth, the War of the Worlds.

The events that happened during and after the broadcast are, in many ways, more interesting than the play itself. As people tuned in to listen to CBS radio, many thought they were listening to live events and actual news, rather than a play.

Mercury Theatre on the Air an unsponsored show, with a small audience, ran at the same time as the very popular Chase and Sanborn Hour on NBC. About 15 minutes into Chase and Sanborn, the first comic sketch ended and a musical number began. The band wasn’t a particularly popular one, and many listeners started turning the dial. It has been said Welles knew NBC’s show schedule, and scheduled the first report from “Grover’s Mill” at the 12-minute mark to heighten the audience’s confusion.

You see, at the beginning of the broadcast, there was a disclaimer that listeners were being treated to a play. Welles knew his core audience would get it, he also knew he would have a lot of people tune in late. The play is presented as any radio show of the time, and has musical numbers and other entertainment. As the play progresses, there are “breaking news stories” that interrupt the fictional radio show.

This, of course, is delicious entertainment …. now. Back in the day this show caused widespread panic. Outright fear. Though the play is about alien invaders, Martians, it’s been reported that many listeners thought it was the Germans who were invading America.

There are all sorts of stories of panic among the listeners. Nothing like this had ever been done, and a whole lot of people thought what they were hearing was the truth. There were lawsuits and censures, but Welles’ show went on.

The resulting uproar made Welles famous, and even got his show a sponsor, the Campbell Soup Company. Mercury Theatre on the Air was renamed The Campbell Playhouse.

Though no hard data exists, it has been estimated six million heard the broadcast. Out of that number, 1.7 million believed it to be true, and 1.2 million were “genuinely frightened.” NBC’s audience, BTW was an estimated 30 million.

The 1938 broadcast of War of the Worlds has become a Halloween tradition. It takes us back to a simpler, more innocent time. It reminds us what it’s like to be truly frieghtened.

Here is that broadcast. Grab some eats and a drink, turn down the lights and enjoy.

Happy Halloween.

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