When a subdued Orson Welles stood before the press on October 31st, 1938, it may have been the greatest performance of his career. He appeared appropriately shocked and chagrined that the listening public had been "inadvertently" tricked into believing that the Mercury Theater's Halloween offering had been, in actuality, a Martian invasion come to life.
Welles had made a reputation for himself as a war-monger and a risk-taking producer of politically charged theater. Very few of his Mercury Theater stage plays from 1936 to 1938 did not include a maniacal dictator or a commentary on the pursuit of power and the dangers of the rise of fascism. In particular, Welles was critical of America's isolationist policies, and wanted Roosevelt to take a more active role in what was occurring in Europe.
His most recent stunt, however, was very different. Welles' updating of the H.G. Wells novel, The War of the Worlds, was not unlike any of the other works that Welles routinely rearranged (often at the last minute) to insert his various political views. What was different about this particular adaptation was the way in which it was performed.
It started like every other Mercury Theater broadcast. After the theme, Welles came on and made some introductory remarks about the radio drama that was to unfold. An announcer faded in, mentioning some weather conditions, and then it was off to the dance hall with Ramon Raquello and his orchestra. This program of dance music ran through two numbers before another announcer interrupted to report that a series of explosions was seen on the surface of the planet Mars.
Telling the story in this fashion was just one of the ways Welles and his crew helped to modernize the Victorian classic. News flashes interrupting programs was nothing new to listeners; between the Hindenburg disaster of 1937 and Hitler's increasing aggression in Europe, it was fairly common.
What was noteworthy about the broadcast was the timing. Welles set up the gag at the beginning of the show: We're doing a fake radio broadcast. The problem was, most of the folks listening to the radio weren't listening to the Mercury Theater. They were instead, inexplicably, listening to Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy on the Chase and Sanborn Hour, a variety show, with musical acts wedged between the skits with the ventriloquist dummy. Chase and Sanborn was already in progress when the Mercury Theater started. More people, it seemed, were interested in Edger Bergen than popular music. And so when the first musical number was announced, millions of people on the Eastern seaboard spun their dials, listening for something else to distract them for a few minutes. They found it on CBS.
Roughly 12 minutes into the broadcast, at about the same time Edgar Bergen was wetting his whistle offstage, Carl Phillips was announcing that he was at the crash site in Grover's Mill, New Jersey. Police sirens and a crowd of people could be heard as he interviewed the farmer, Mr. Wilmuth, who described the crash as he had witnessed it.
All at once, things started happening very quickly. The cylinder opened. Something horrible crawled out, described by our panicked reporter. Fire. An explosion. And then, radio silence. Welles held the silence for only six seconds, but it seemed like an eternity to the entranced listeners.
The reports piled up faster and faster. Death totals. Militia. Martial law. Panic in the streets. With twenty minutes to go in the program, the broadcast changed gears and became a straight radio drama, and of course, all was explained at the end by an impish Welles. By then, of course, no one was around to hear it.
Reports came from all over the country. Folks in rural areas, and farmers in New Jersey, took up arms against the Martian aggressors and kept a vigil outside. A water tower, mistaken for a tripod, was winged in combat. Cars were crashed. People rioted. Astonishingly no one was killed. (The reports of suicides were actually leading questions from reporters trying to milk a reaction out of Welles, and have now become part of the myth.) Some people were injured, but the biggest singular wound was to the gullible public's ego.
The program had no sooner ended when police crashed into the studios and confiscated everything. The reporters followed, and the entire Mercury Theater troupe was grilled by authorities and the press for hours while civilization slowly restored itself. CBS executives scrambled to respond; the phone lines were jammed. Everyone was outraged, calling for Welles' head on a pike. What had started out as a novel twist on a standard radio play, and precocious prank on Welles' part, had backfired spectacularly.
For days and days, the controversy raged. The FCC got involved and promised a review of the broadcast. Welles had covered his bases, however, announcing the play in several different breaks in the show. CBS promised not to re-air the program. Even Welles apologized for making such a mess of things. He told the New York Times: "I don't think we will choose anything like this again." He hesitated about presenting it, he disclosed, because "it was our thought that perhaps people might be bored or annoyed at hearing a tale so improbable."
Experts in the media lauded the performance as showing how unprepared we were for any crisis, and how stupid we as a nation had become. Soon thereafter, the incident became fodder for jokes, cartoons, and humorous editorials. Everyone was talking about it. Letters poured in from all over the country, either congratulating or condemning the young Welles. New York Times drama critic Alexander Wolcott sent Welles a telegram: "This only goes to prove, my beamish boy, that all the intelligent people were listening to the dummy and that all the dummies were listening to you."
Welles came out of the controversy more popular and powerful than ever. He was quickly approached by Hollywood, where he would go on to fame as the auteur of Citizen Kane, another project infused with meaning and a cautionary tale of the path to power.
The incident was swept over by the FCC, who found no fault with the program, and while people within the organization threatened to impose a system of ratings for radio shows, nothing ultimately came of the incident.
Except that we never forgot about it.
The War of the Worlds hoax sticks out for us because it's the first time (but far from the last) that we had the wool pulled over our eyes as a nation. Were we ever that stupid? How could something like this have happened in the 20th century? Good question. Hadley Cantril, author of the 1940 book Invasion from Mars, offers this explanation:
Particularly since the depression of 1929, a number of people have begun to wonder whether or not they will ever regain any sense of economic security. The complexity of modern finance and government, the discrepancies shown in the economic and political proposals of the various 'experts,' the felt threat of fascism, communism, prolonged unemployment among millions of Americans -- these together with a thousand and one other characteristics of modern living -- create an environment which the average individual is completely unable to interpret.
Welles himself confessed to the crime in 1955, although it may have been in part his hindsight at the incident that colored these remarks:
We weren't as innocent as we meant to be when we did the Martian broadcast. We were fed up with the way in which everything that came over this new magic box, the radio, was being swallowed. . . . So, in a way, our broadcast was an assault on the credibility of that machine. We wanted people to understand that they shouldn't take any opinion predigested, and they shouldn't swallow everything that came through the tap, whether it was radio or not.
Given the number of different media outlets available today, and the sheer volume of information that is launched through the ether at us every day, in some ways it seems Welles paved the way for modern journalism. His commentary was supposed to be a gentle reminder that we are not alone on this world, and that we weren't prepared for an attack by a foreign power. Instead, he showed with alacrity the influential and sometimes misleadingly dangerous effects of mass media on the general public.