"War Of The Worlds" broadcast--75th anniversary

I’m surprised that nobody’s started a thread yet about this…

Today is the 75th anniversary of the Mercury Theater’s infamous broadcast of War of the Worlds.

(And no Google Doodle. I’m disappointed.)

I’ve always gotten a kick out of the whole story of The Night That Panicked America. Okay, some of the more sensationalistic stories about it (miscarriages, accidents, suicides) didn’t happen, but there were first-hand accounts from plenty of people who heard it and believed it, and even if “only” a million or two believed it was the truth…well, that’s nothing to sneeze at, is it?

(There were accounts of a couple of almost-suicides, though. A husband recounted coming home to find his wife about to off herself, shouting at him, “Better to go this way than at the hands of the Martians!” And none other than Stephen King recounted his aunt’s story of how she was prepared to do the same…but she was sensible about it; when telling him the whole story she told him that she wasn’t about to make the cuts until she actually saw the Martian tripods on the horizon.)

The whole thing was a “perfect storm” of circumstances…the uneasy atmosphere in the world at the time (due to the Depression and the rumblings of war in Europe), the older-than-you-think phenomenon of “channel surfing” (listeners started twiddling the dial once Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy’s opening act was over and so missed the part of WotW that stated it was a play), the fact that at the time, everyone trusted the media far more and so would never have thought there was any such thing as a fake news broadcast, and so on.

So…your thoughts on this piece of entertainment history?

the current episode of PBS American Experience is “War of the Worlds”.

some documentary about the broadcast and actors recreating the thoughts of people who wrote in letters. they presented how some recent history events set the nature of the response.

check your local listing for showings.

The whole thing is on Youtube, here:

Thanks for the “Heads Up” on this. I would have missed it. It being broadcast at 5am on my local PBS! :eek:

I watched it last night. Wells worth the effort. They really did a good job of explaining how the events of the times had set the stage for such widespread buy-in by the public.

I have Koch’s account The Panic Broadcast which is interesting and which contains the script. I saw most of the show last night (I taped it so I can watch the part I missed.)

I had not realized that Nelson Eddy’s singing is what drove people to the broadcast - but the Martians probably sounded good by comparison.
I also thought it interesting that people heard German when invaders were mentioned.

The program did not appear to have any commercial breaks, and the PBS show mentioned that Welles got a sponsor only later, as a result of the publicity generated by the panic.

Were unsponsored programs common in the early days of radio? How did CBS make money off of them?

Ulla, ulla, ulla, ulla!

My parents were living in NYC at the time, and that evening they happened to be visiting friends in New Jersey . . . in the same area where the Martians had landed. They drew the curtains and sat petrified in the dark until it was over.


Delightful interview with Orson and HG.

War of the Worlds Panic is a myth, apparently

Radiolab did a great episode on WotW, if can be found here.


They cover the original and several subsequent takes on it by broadcasters around the world.

watch it or record it or check ahead in the listing.

the network sent it out Tuesday night, your station might do 2 or 3 reruns.

Those that believed it really was happening may not have been as many assome reports said, and now we think “How could they have believed it? Why not change the channel?”

Let’s not assume this is only something that happened in the pre-TV era.

In 1983 I watched the TV movie Special Bulletin. It was made to look like an interruppted newscast, and was about domestic terrorism, with a nuclear device in Charleston, SC.

The next day, at work, a co-worker of mine was laughing because a friend of hers(whose mother lived in Charleston), had called her up during the broadcast of the movie, crying and sobbing, because of what she was seeing on TV.

On a slight tangent, I found myself on the Weybridge to Shepperton ferry this summer - you have to ring a bell for the (ferry)man:


I remember Special Bulletin.

(1) There were clear disclaimers that it was fictional at each and every commercial break as well as the start of the show.

(2) Like WOTW, it wasn’t quite right to the real world; Government Weather Bureau, Intercontinental News Service, Interior Secretary being “point man” (like a European country, where Interior Ministry=national police, not national parks :)), etc. in WOTW. In particular, Special Bulletin used a fictional television network newscast rather than whichever real network carried the show.

I now kick myself :smack: that I never asked my parents if they remembered that broadcast or any fallout from it.

They were teenagers (13 and 16) at the time, living in western Washington and Oregon. It would have been really interesting if they had remembered anything.

The Radiolab program was really good, although they have run it before.

The third time someone did a War of the Worlds broadcast (Venezuela, I think, in the 70’s) there was so much anger afterwards against the local radio station that did it that there was a riot and the radio station was set on fire. Some people in the radio station died in that fire. Creepy.

My mother was in Philadelphia at the time, she told me that she and a girlfriend wondered if the Martians were good-looking guys.

Pepper Mill actually grew up in Grover’s Mill, NJ. It’s a very tiny portion of the township of West Windsor. The Grover’s Mill Company, with its odd conical water towere/windmill that was supposedly mistaken for a Martian tripod still there. Today there’s a brass marker in the park closest to the mill commemmorating the broadcast, which Pepper Mill’s sister was instrumental in getting put there.


I’ve listened to recordings of the broadcast several times, and read the script (long before Koch’s book came out, the script appeared in a more scholarly study of the “panic” (which indicates that it wasn’t a “myth”, although it may not have been as widespread as it was made out to be). It’s hard to believe that anyone listening past the first 20 minutes or so would think this was real – even without the station break, the thing stops sounding like a live broadcast, and has the definite marks of a radio drama.

The story, as usually told (and recounted on last night’s WGBH special on the broadcast) is that people listened to the Charlie McCarthy broadcast until the song came on, then “channel surfed”, and therefore missed the opening. But I attended a lecture several years ago by SF writer Philip Klass/William Tenn, who swore that the broadcast he heard of the 1938 drama, which he heard from the beginning, lacked any introduction saying it was a play – so you didn’t have to be a Johnnie-come-lately to be taken in. It’s possible that he was mistaken in his recollections after all those years, but I’ve seen and heard TV and radio broadcasts, especially from associates, that have the openings absent.

I recommend the Nicholas Meyer TV movie from the 1970s about the Panic Broadcast. I think they give the entire play, with enough explanatiry material to ttell you about the situation.
Despite what they say, this certainly was not the first case of people mistaking a drama for a real broadcast – something simila, complete with its own "panic’ had happened in Great Britain years earlier. Two later dramatizations of War of the Worlds, both in South America, also produced reactions as people mistook it for the Real Thing.

And, yeah, I recall Special Bulletin, too, and the subsequent stories of people thinking it was for real (despite copious station breaks and disclaimers).

freddy the Pig writes:

There weren’t commercial breaks, but there were station breaks.

as for unsponsored shows, heck, they had at least one unsponsored TV show in the 1960s. I remember watching The Hathways, a sitcom on ABC about a husband and wife (Jack Weston and Peggy Cass) who adopted chimps as “children”. The announcer’s voiceover told you that it was “brought to you by the ABC Television Network”, something which stuck in my mind all these ytears. According to the Wikipedia article:


…so the practice extended beyond radio into TV, over twenty years later.

Mind. Blown.

It has been longer since The Night that Panicked America has aired than the time between the TV movie and the actual broadcast.

While there’s nothing new in the movie, and, of course, the movie is a fictionalized recounting of the story, it has an unexpected twist at the end. If you’re interested, skip ahead to 1:30:00.