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The War of the Worlds
8:15 PM, October 30th, 1938, the night before Halloween, millions of people worldwide crowded around their radios to listen to the Columbia Broadcasting System's 17th installment of Orson Welles and The Mercury Theater on the Air.
The broadcast for that night was to be an adaptation of H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds. It began simple enough with the announcer introducing Orson Welles and Welles beginning with an opening monologue from the book.
What happened next though was nothing short of historic. After the short introduction, the show changed into what seemed to be a routine broadcast of the time, live music from a club in New York City. This was interrupted repeatedly by breaking news of strange phenomena on the planet Mars. Those who tuned in late or were not paying attention thought they were listening to CBS' regular broadcast. Even some of those who were paying attention were duped into believing they were no longer listening to the regularly scheduled broadcast.
Reports of strange explosions on Mars and mysterious flaming objects flying through the sky interjected the music. These were followed by reports of, what scientists concluded, were meteors hitting the Earth. On the scene broadcasts in Grover's Mill, New Jersey, where one of these 'meteors' impacted, described an object that was definitely not a meteor and potentially of extraterrestrial origin.
It was soon discovered that these objects were Martian spacecraft and full of Martians and their machines bent on attacking the people of Earth. Over 1,500 were reported killed from the Martian's heat rays and gas weapons near Princeton, New Jersey.
The effect of all this was a hysteria like no other gripping the nation and the Atlantic seaboard in particular. Despite the radio listing stating that it was a dramatization and several announcements as such during the broadcast, thousands of people fled their homes to escape what they thought was certain death at the hands of the Martians. Telephone operators in the United States and Canada were flooded with calls to the police, newspapers, and radio stations begging for confirmation and information on how to survive the attacks.
People called to ask in which direction to flee the city? Was it safer in the basement or on the roof during a gas attack? People showed up at their local police stations barely dressed yet ready to be evacuated to safety. In the Welles broadcast 7,000 New Jersey National Guardsmen were mobilized, which prompted numerous calls from guardsmen asking where they should report.
Power distribution problems shortly before the broadcast amplified the terror in the New Jersey area where lights flickered and dimmed and caused problems with radio reception.
All over the US people huddled together in the streets wondering what they could do in the face of the terrible Martian threat. People in San Francisco thought New York was near destruction and the Martians would soon be heading west. A woman ran into a church in Indianapolis screaming, "New York destroyed; it's the end of the world. You might as well go home to die. I just heard it over the radio."
In the end the Martians... well, if you haven't heard the broadcast on one of the many anniversary broadcasts what are you waiting for?? Get out there and get a copy of the broadcast that caused a nation wide panic and find out for yourself.
I'll end this review with Orson Welles' ending monologue from The War of the Worlds broadcast because it sums up the entire broadcast better than anything I could write about it. After you read it I hope that you'll take the time to listen to this wonderful broadcast for the first or 101st time.
"This is Orson Welles ladies and gentlemen. Out of character, to assure you that the War of the Worlds has no further significance than as the holiday offering it was intended to be. The Mercury Theater's own radio version of dressing up in a sheet and jumping out of a bush and saying boo.
Starting now we couldn't soap all your windows and steal all your garden gates, by tomorrow night so we did the best next thing. We annihilated the world before your very ears and utterly destroyed the CBS. You will be relieved I hope to learn that we didn't mean it, and that both institutions are still open for business.
So goodbye everybody and remember please for the next day or so the terrible lesson you learned tonight. That grinning, glowing, globular invader of your living room is an inhabitant of the punkin patch and if your doorbell rings and nobody's there, that was no Martian, it's Halloween."
The Radio Spirit, Complete & Unedited version of The War of the Worlds starring Orson Welles runs 59:18 minutes on one CD and is available direct from Radio Spirit, Inc. through the link below.
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Reviewed by: Hauntmaster 7/13/2003
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