Orson Welles caused a nationwide panic when he broadcasted his “War of the Worlds” radio play on Sunday night, October 30, 1938. It was so realistic, listeners who tuned in late after 8 PM thought they were hearing news accounts of an actual Martian invasion! Welles was only 23 years old when his Mercury Theater Company decided to present a modernized version of H.G. Wells’ classic science fiction novel. He was already internationally famous in radio as the deep baritone voice of “The Shadow,” a hit mystery program.
Sunday evenings in the 1930’s were prime-time in radio’s golden age of listeners (no television yet), and millions of Americans had theirs tuned in. The program began innocently enough, with peppy dance music, supposedly from the Hotel Park Plaza in New York City. But then an announcer broke in to report that a college professor watching at an observatory had detected strange explosions on the red planet Mars. This was followed by another yet interruption in which listeners were told a large meteor had crashed into a farm in Grovers Mills, NJ near Princeton!
Soon, an excited announcer claimed to be at the crash site, describing in great detail a metallic, cylindrical spaceship with a hideous Martian emerging!!
The Martian war machine then fired a “heat-ray” disintegrating 7,000 National Guardsman! Next they reported other “Martian cylinders” landing in Chicago, Buffalo and St. Louis! Oh my God! The radio actors were VERY good at their job, portraying terrified announcers and using plenty of creepy alien sound effects. Announcers reported widespread panic had broken out in all major US cities, with thousands desperately trying to flee the invasion.
In fact, that was exactly what was happening. The country was already on edge, with news of Hitler’s Nazis threatening yet another world war. As many as a million radio listeners believed that a Real Martian Invasion was actually occurring. Panic broke out across the country with terrified civilians jamming the highways to escape, begging police for gas masks. When news of the real-life panic reached the CBS Radio Studio in New York, Welles was shocked. He personally went on the air to remind listeners that it was just a radio play, none of it was real.
That night, politicians wanted his head and the police wanted him arrested. They stormed the CBS studio in Manhattan. The next day (Halloween by chance), a bewildered-looking Orson Welles held a quick press conference, stating he never had any intention of deceiving people or inciting a panic. He was just trying to put on a good show for his audience. In fact, the ego-centric Welles soaked up the attention.
The publicity helped land him a lucrative contract in Hollywood, where two years later he directed, wrote, produced, and starred in the Oscar winning movie Citizen Kane.