By Rich Heldenfels
Akron Beacon Journal (MCT)
---- — AKRON, Ohio — On Oct. 31, 1938, the Akron Beacon Journal devoted a big chunk of its front page to three stories about a radio broadcast the night before.
There was other news on that page. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was trying to prevent a railroad workers strike. A Utah man executed by firing squad was wired up to show “the action of the human heart pierced by bullets.” Men had lined up to serve as jurors in a Hollywood trial of fan dancer Sally Rand, apparently in the hope she would perform in court.
But the radio show was something else. In Akron alone, it was blamed for fainting spells, heart attacks and hundreds of calls to the Beacon Journal as part of a wave of “hysteria which swept the city, breaking up church meetings and frightening thousands.”
Elsewhere, the reaction was similar. On Oct. 30 those 75 years ago, showman Orson Welles had flipped out significant portions of America with his radio play “The War of the Worlds.”
Welles, 23, had not yet shaken up cinema history with “Citizen Kane” but had already established a reputation as a wunderkind in theater and radio. As part of Welles’ Mercury Theatre radio programs, writer Howard Koch adapted “War,” a then-40-year-old tale by H.G. Wells in which Martians invaded England and were stopped only when an Earth bacteria infected them. For the radio version, the location was changed to America, with the names of real towns, including the invasion site of Grovers Mill, N.J. Mercury producer John Houseman further told Koch to present the story as a series of news bulletins, heightening the tension and the realism.
That device had been used before. The names of politicians, reporters and experts in the news reports were fictional. The broadcast began with the announcement that it was a radio play, and other notices would come. But some listeners were at first tuned to a show featuring ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummy, Charlie McCarthy. Restless with that program’s content, they switched over to the Welles program in progress, missing the opening.
Besides, the show itself felt real, full of urgency and fear.
As a result, many people sitting by their radios, already jittery about the clouds of war forming over Europe, believed that Martians had invaded not only New Jersey, but also the rest of the nation. An Akron police officer later recalled a man’s frantic claim that a spaceship had landed in his yard and “three or four little men climbed out.”
Police were dispatched and, the Beacon Journal dryly noted, “Officers found no evidence that a spaceship had landed.”
Jack Paar later said he was working as a radio announcer in Cleveland the night that “War” aired. While his account in his memoir “I Kid You Not” is wrong on some details, Paar nonetheless said the switchboard lit up and he tried “telling the alarmed listeners that the invasion was fictional.
“I also broke into the program to announce this,” Paar said, “but the calls kept pouring in, many of the panicky callers charging that I was covering up the truth.”
Then the true truth was known, when Welles firmly told the audience this was all just a Halloween tale “jumping out of a bush and saying ‘Boo!’” Police investigated, the Federal Communications Commission examined it, and officials including both Akron’s mayor and its police chief complained. Commentators weighed in, Welles expressed surprise and later regret, and an academic study tried to figure out who believed the broadcast and why. Koch wrote that a Grovers Mill farmer began charging hundreds of Martian-seeking tourists a fee to park at his place.
Then there were jokes. Welles claimed he received a letter from commentator Alexander Woolcott declaring that when War aired, “all the intelligent listeners (were) tuned in on Charlie McCarthy.”
While there were later screen adaptations of H.G. Wells’ story, the radio version achieved its own status apart from Wells’ words. Koch, revisiting Grovers Mill decades later, found that some lots were being advertised “as the historical site of the Martian invasion.” Dramatizations of the radio events have included 1957’s “The Night America Trembled” and 1975’s “The Night That Panicked America.”
And PBS’ “American Experience” documentary series will present an hourlong look at the radio “War” at 9 p.m. EDT Tuesday. (It might amuse some people staring along the line between the real and the contrived that “American Experience” includes re-enactments of reactions to the broadcast.)
Welles’ production is often held up as an example of art faking reality, a companion to the 19th-century Cardiff Giant, a stone statue passed off as an ancient and petrified man, and the viral video of a girl catching fire while twerking, which proved to be a Jimmy Kimmel prank.
To be sure, in the years since 1938, some have questioned whether what came to be known as “the panic broadcast” was really as widespread a sensation as it seemed. “The Invasion From Mars,” a 1940 “study in the psychology of panic” around the broadcast, has been criticized for its analysis and methods, the latter leaning heavily on interviews with people “selected because they were known to have been upset by the broadcast.”
Even with that tilt, the study found some skeptical listeners. And a 2011 analysis for the Radio Journal by Joy Elizabeth Hayes and Kathleen Battles argued forcefully that “War” provided a demonstration not of panic but of “a kind of social networking.”
Surprised and even frightened by the broadcast, people tapped into their “social networks” of families and friends, as well as “social authorities and mass media” for information — hence the calls to newspapers, radio stations and police, continuing a conversation begun by “War.”