As noted above, timing was an important factor in the success of The War of the Worlds broadcast.
The Mercury Theater on the Air on CBS ran opposite NBC’s The Chase & Sanborn Hour with Edgar Bergen. This was not simply the best-rated show on radio at the time, but an all-time ratings phenomenon. It was been estimated that as many as 70% of the households in America were tuned on some weeks. By contrast, The Mercury Theater was drawing rating of 3 and 4% at the time.
At the beginning of the show for October 30, 1938, Bergen had tried telling his announcer, Don Ameche, a story about staying overnight in a farmouse which was supposed to be haunted. (It was the day before Halloween). He gave up after continual interuptions by his dummies Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd.
Bergen’s show was a variety program, and that week’s fare was as varied as any. Later in the program Dorothy Lamour sang “Two Sleepy People”. Hillbilly comedienne Judy Canova, then in her fourth straight week on the show, did a comedy routine with Ameche in which she talked about having gone to a football game the day before where, obviously, she had understood nothing of what was going on. British actress Madeline Carroll played in a romantic sketch. Bergen read a letter Charlie had gotten “from” a popular ventriloquist’s dummy in Paris.
Unfortunately for NBC, the show also featured Nelson Eddy. The opera singer (who was the model for Dudley Do-Right) was then a regular member of the cast. Right after the opening comedy patter Eddy came on to sing a hearty ballad about “the brave men of Burgundy” and people around the country dove for their radio dials in hope of finding something–anything–else.
Some of them tuned to CBS just as actor Frank Readick was describing in horrified tones how the hatch on the first Martian rocket was beginning to screw open. In fact, it was merely a jar being opened slowly while it was held down low in a toilet bowl.
At the half hour an announcer broke in to state that listeners were hearing an adaptation of The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells. This was the 17th broadcast in the series, and no such announcement had been made before; the network was getting flooded with calls by people who wanted to know if the program could be real.
While the first half of the program had been done in a mock-news broadcast style, the second half was narrated by Orson Welles, playing an astronomer at Princeton who had been present when the first rocket ship had opened. The show ended with him writing in his study in Princeton after peace and order have been restored “after that last great day”.
The Mercury Theater somehow managed to wind up the show early, and the extra time was used to issue a reassuring disclaimer given by Welles that the broadcast had been meant all in fun. It should count as one of the great impromptu speeches of all time.
The panic had been real. As said before, CBS had been inundated by phone calls. In some places people fled to the countryside. In others, people turned up at police stations and military posts, volunteering to fight. The broadcast and its effect was the subject of banner front page headlines around the country on Monday.
There was really very little in the broadcast which should have induced belief. From the start, time was compressed so that events which were set hours apart took place within a couple of minutes of each other.
While the panic was a big one, it has managed to get a bit bigger with each retelling. In a book on Orson Welles French critic Andre Bazin says that people around the country committed suicide. It appears no one did. The stories may all stem from one story, frequently repeated, that a man in Pittsburg came home to find his wife about to take poison. People were being incenerated by Martians at that point in the broadcast and she said she’d rather die by her own hand than “like that”.
Numerous lawsuits were threatened. Some were filed. The only person known to have gotten compensation, though, was a man who wrote Welles and told him he had been saving up for a new pair of shoes, but had spent the money in getting out of town instead. Welles sent him shoes.
Many factors have been cited as having made the show so convincing for so many. There was a good deal of anxiety and pessimism in air just then. As was noted above, people had begun hearing war coverage on the radio for the first time within the past couple of months. Actors studied recordings of news broadcasts concerning the German invasion of Czechoslovakia so that they could imitate the tone and cadence of the reporters.
Mostly, though I suspect the biggest factor is the fact that some people will believe plenty much anything.
Mention was made before of a made-for-TV movie from the early 1980s. Starring Ed Flanders, it concerned some scientists who built their own atomic bomb and seized a boat in the harbor of Charlston, South Carolina. Despite the fact that numerous announcements were made that this was only a movie, people in the Charlston area were calling up the local TV station that night. It had apparently not occured to them to question why the TV network which was covering the crisis was one which had never been on the air before, or even why it was that the live news coverage was taking place in broad daylight even though it was night.