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History's Headlines: 75 years ago, Lehigh Valley and the nation panicked over 'martian attack'

By Frank Whelan, Historian, news@wfmz.com
Published On: Oct 19 2013 12:46:46 PM CDT
Updated On: Oct 21 2013 06:17:30 PM CDT

History's Headlines: War of the Worlds

In 1938 John Houseman was a young radio actor with a long career ahead of him in stage, film and television. But on Sunday, Oct. 30 of that year, as a member of the Orson Welles Mercury Theater of the Air players, Houseman had the worst moment of his career.

Shortly after the end of the broadcast of the dramatization of H.G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds,” based on a fictional invasion of earth by Mars, he came to realize that something had gone horribly wrong. The public had believed the story was real.
Picking up a violently ringing phone, Houseman heard the voice of a man who said he was the mayor of a Midwestern city.

“Choking with fury,” Houseman later recalled, “he reported mobs in the streets of his city, women and children huddled in churches, violence and looting. If, as he had now learned, the whole thing was nothing but a crummy joke – then he, personally, was on his way to New York to punch somebody in the nose.”

Without responding Houseman gingerly put down the receiver and joined the rest of the cast, including Orson Welles, as they were hustled out of the CBS studio by security guards. Along with shaking the nation to its foundations, they had managed to prove in a way that no one had before the power of the relatively new medium of radio and made both broadcast and national history.

The Lehigh Valley was not immune to the reaction of the rest of the country. Shortly after the program ended, the telephone switchboards at local newspapers and police stations were swamped by calls on what was normally the deadest night of the week. “Something terrible is happening in New Jersey,” said one excited woman’s voice. “I just heard it on the radio.” She wanted to know how many people the Martians had killed.

With that first call the floodgates were open and hundreds began calling. The Martians were heading for Bethlehem Steel, said one caller. Another said they had seen the shadow of the huge Martian fighting machine setting South Mountain on fire. A third reported they were burning railroad bridges and had wiped out a National Guard unit.

Later historians would cull newspapers and other sources for reports of the “invasion.” One man in Pittsburgh came home from work to find his wife with a bottle of poison in her hand. “I’d rather die this way than like that,” she said, pointing to the radio.

In Newark, N. J., 20 families, with towels over their faces to keep from breathing prison gas, rushed into the street. Along Riverside Drive in New York hundreds of people milled about outside, telling everyone they met that the government had ordered them north. Some claimed they had even heard President Franklin Roosevelt’s voice on the radio.

In a touch of unintentional humor one woman called a bus company asking for schedule information. When she thought the clerk was taking too long, she said, ‘Hurry, please, the world is coming to an end and I have a lot to do.”

It may seem hard to believe today that people could get so worked up over a radio program. Perhaps the best explanation involves a combination of the state of the world 75 years ago and the theatrical genius of Orson Welles.

For most of its early history in the United States, radio had been an entertainment and advertising medium. News was an afterthought. In fact, it had only been a month before the “War of the World’s” broadcast that radio executives decided to cover a major world event- the attempt by Nazi Germany to take over Czechoslovakia that nearly provoked war in Europe. They did this in the unique way of breaking into programs with special news bulletins. This was very much in the minds of the public.

H.G. Wells’ short story, on which the radio broadcast was based, was written in the 1890s and set in a rural English town. The Mercury Theater’s writers were having a terrible time trying to adapt this tale of the Victorian era to the age of radio. “Those old Martians are a lot of nonsense,” they told Houseman. “It’s all too silly! We’re going to make fools of ourselves! Absolute idiots!”

Houseman recalls that he began working with the writers and gradually got a script in shape. When Welles read it he generally liked it, particularly the addition of the news bulletins added by writer Howard Koch, who later became a major movie and theater script writer. Welles, who in 1938 was also the radio voice of Lamont Cranston, aka “The Shadow,” a popular mystery program of the same name, knew what would hold a radio audience.

But it was also the luck of program scheduling that turned this radio drama into history. “War of the Worlds” just happened to have the same time slot as the Chase & Sanborn Hour, a variety show sponsored by the coffee maker. Its stars were ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his sidekick dummy Charlie McCarthy, perhaps one of the most popular acts on the radio. But after 15 minutes they left the air and were replaced by a new singer.

It is believed that at that moment millions of radio listeners decided to turn the dial. This apparently landed a good many of them right in the middle of one of the “news bulletins,” totally missing the introduction to the drama. It was done so skillfully that it convinced the nation that it was under attack.

After “War of the Worlds,” Hollywood offered Welles a contract out of which came the classic “Citizen Kane,” in which he starred. But to this day there are those who claim he never again equaled the night he scared a nation.