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 thought they were hearing news accounts of an actual Martian invasion! Welles was only 23 when his Mercury Theater Co. decided to present a modernized version of H.G. Wells’ classic sci fi novel. He was already famous in radio as the deep voice of “The Shadow,” a hit mystery program.
Sunday evenings in the 1930’s were prime-time in radio’s golden age (no TV yet), and millions of Americans had theirs tuned in. It began innocently enough, with dance music, supposedly from the Hotel Park Plaza in New York. But then an announcer broke in to report that a professor watching at an observatory had detected strange explosions on 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 was at the crash site, describing in great detail a metallic, cylindrical spaceship with a hideous Martian emerging!!
The Martian war machine fired a “heat-ray” disintegrating 7,000 National Guardsman! Next they reported other “Martian cylinders” landing in Chicago and St. Louis! OMG. The radio actors were very good at their job, portraying terrified announcers and using plenty of creepy sound effects. Announcers reported widespread panic had broken out in all major US cities, with thousands desperately trying to flee.
In fact, that was exactly what was happening. 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, begging police for gas masks. When news of the real-life panic reached the CBS Radio studio in New York, Welles personally went on the air to remind listeners that it was just a play, none of it was real.
Politicians wanted his head and the police wanted him arrested. The next day (Halloween by chance), a bewildered-looking Orson Welles held a press conference stating he never had any intention of deceiving people or inciting a panic. In fact, the publicity helped land him a contract in Hollywood, where two years later he directed, wrote, produced, and starred in the Oscar winning movie Citizen Kane.