The War of the Worlds (radio drama)

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The War of the Worlds
GenreRadio drama
Running time60 minutes
Home stationCBS Radio
AnnouncerDan Seymour
Director(s)Orson Welles
Producer(s)John Houseman
Orson Welles
Exec. producer(s)Davidson Taylor (for CBS)
Narrated byOrson Welles
Recording studioColumbia Broadcasting Building, 485 Madison Avenue, New York
Air datessince October 30, 1938 (1938-10-30)
Opening themePiano Concerto No. 1, by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
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The War of the Worlds
GenreRadio drama
Running time60 minutes
Home stationCBS Radio
AnnouncerDan Seymour
Director(s)Orson Welles
Producer(s)John Houseman
Orson Welles
Exec. producer(s)Davidson Taylor (for CBS)
Narrated byOrson Welles
Recording studioColumbia Broadcasting Building, 485 Madison Avenue, New York
Air datessince October 30, 1938 (1938-10-30)
Opening themePiano Concerto No. 1, by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

The War of the Worlds is an episode of the American radio drama anthology series The Mercury Theatre on the Air. It was performed as a Halloween episode of the series on October 30, 1938, and aired over the Columbia Broadcasting System radio network. Directed and narrated by actor and future filmmaker Orson Welles, the episode was an adaptation of H. G. Wells's novel The War of the Worlds (1898).

The first two thirds of the 60-minute broadcast were presented as a series of simulated news bulletins, which suggested to many listeners that an actual alien invasion by Martians was currently in progress. Compounding the issue was the fact that, the Mercury Theatre on the Air was a sustaining show (it ran without commercial breaks), adding to the program's realism. Although there were sensationalist accounts in the press about a supposed panic in response to the broadcast, the precise extent of listener response has been debated.

In the days following the adaptation, however, there was widespread outrage and panic by certain listeners, who had believed the events described in the program were real.[1] The program's news-bulletin format was described as cruelly deceptive by some newspapers and public figures, leading to an outcry against the perpetrators of the broadcast. The episode secured Welles's fame.



Orson Welles in 1937 (age 21), photographed by Carl Van Vechten

H. G. Wells's original novel relates the story of an alien invasion of Earth. The radio play's story was adapted by and written primarily by Howard Koch and Anne Froelick with input from Welles and the rest of the Mercury Theatre on the Air staff. The setting was switched from 19th-century England to contemporary Grover's Mill, an unincorporated village in West Windsor Township, New Jersey in the United States of America. The program's format was a (simulated) live newscast of developing events. To this end, Welles played recordings of Herbert Morrison's radio reports of the Hindenburg disaster for actor Frank Readick and the rest of the cast, to demonstrate the mood he wanted.

The broadcast employed techniques similar to those of The March of Time, the CBS news documentary and dramatization radio series.[2] Welles was a member of the program's regular cast, having first performed on The March of Time in March 1935.[3] The Mercury Theatre on the Air and The March of Time shared many cast members, as well as sound effects chief Ora D. Nichols.

The first two thirds of the 60 minute play was a contemporary retelling of events of the novel, presented as news bulletins. This approach was not new. Ronald Knox's satirical newscast of a riot overtaking London over the British Broadcasting Company in 1926 had a similar approach (and created much the same effect on its audience). Welles had been influenced by the Archibald MacLeish dramas The Fall of the City and Air Raid, the former of which had used Welles himself in the role of a live radio news reporter. However, the approach had never been taken with as much continued verisimilitude, and the innovative format has been cited[by whom?] as a key factor in the confusion that followed.

Though realistic, the play does use timeskips, at one point going from the start of a battle to its final casualty count within a minute.

A 2005 BBC report suggested, that Welles may have been influenced by that 1926 broadcast by Ronald Knox on BBC Radio. Knox's hoax broadcast mixed breathless reporting of a revolution sweeping across London with dance music and sound effects of destruction. Knox's broadcast caused a minor panic among listeners, who did not know that the program was fictional.[citation needed]

Plot summary

The program, broadcast from the 20th floor at 485 Madison Avenue in New York City, starts with an introduction from the novel, describing the intentions of the aliens and noting that the adaptation is set in 1939, a year ahead of the actual broadcast date.[4] The program continues with a weather report and an ordinary dance band remote featuring "Ramon Raquello and His Orchestra" (actually the CBS orchestra under the direction of Bernard Herrmann) that is interrupted by news flashes about strange explosions on Mars. Welles makes his first appearance as the (fictional) famous astronomer and Princeton professor Richard Pierson, who dismisses speculation about life on Mars.

The news grows more frequent and increasingly ominous as a cylindrical meteorite lands in Grover's Mill, New Jersey. A crowd gathers at the site. Reporter Carl Phillips (Readick) relates the events. The meteorite unscrews, revealing itself as a rocket machine. Onlookers catch a glimpse of a tentacled, pulsating, barely mobile Martian inside before it incinerates the crowd with Heat-Rays. Phillips's shouts about incoming flames are cut off in mid-sentence. (Later surveys indicate that many listeners heard only this portion of the show before contacting neighbors or family to inquire about the broadcast. Many contacted others in turn, leading to rumors and confusion.)

Regular programming breaks down as the studio struggles with casualty updates, firefighting developments and the like. A shaken Pierson speculates about Martian technology. The New Jersey state militia declares martial law and attacks the cylinder; a message from their field headquarters lectures about the overwhelming force of properly equipped infantry and the helplessness of the Martians in Earth's gravity until a tripod alien fighting machine rears up from the pit.

The Martians obliterate the militia, and the studio returns, now describing the Martians as an invading army. Emergency response bulletins give way to damage reports and evacuation instructions as millions of refugees clog the roads. Three Martian tripods from the cylinder destroy power stations and uproot bridges and railroads, reinforced by three others from a second cylinder as gas explosions continue. An unnamed Secretary of the Interior (Kenny Delmar) advises the nation. (The secretary was originally intended to be a portrayal of Franklin D. Roosevelt, then President, but CBS insisted this detail, among others, be changed. Welles directed Delmar to nonetheless imitate Roosevelt's voice.)

A live connection is established to a field artillery battery. Its gun crew reports damaging one machine and a release of black smoke/poison gas before fading into the sound of coughing. The lead plane of a wing of bombers broadcasts its approach and remains on the air as their engines are burned by the Heat-Ray and the plane dives on the invaders. Radio operators go active and fall silent, most right after reporting the approach of the black smoke. The bombers destroyed one machine, but cylinders are falling all across the country.

This section ends famously: A news reporter, broadcasting from atop the CBS building, describes the Martian invasion of New York City – "five great machines" wading across the Hudson River, poison smoke drifting over the city, people running and diving into the East River "like rats", others "falling like flies" – until he, too, succumbs to the poison gas. Finally, a despairing ham radio operator is heard calling, "2X2L calling CQ. Isn't there anyone on the air? Isn't there anyone on the air? Isn't there... anyone?"

After an intermission for station identification, in which announcer Dan Seymour mentions that the show is fiction, the last third is a monologue and dialogue. Welles returns as Professor Pierson, describing the aftermath of the attacks. The story ends, as does the novel, with the Martians falling victim to earthly pathogenic germs, to which they have no immunity.

After the play, Welles informally breaks character to remind listeners that the broadcast was a Halloween concoction, the equivalent, as he puts it, "of dressing up in a sheet, jumping out of a bush and saying, 'Boo!'". Popular mythology holds this "disclaimer" was hastily added to the broadcast at the insistence of CBS executives as they became aware of panic inspired by the program; in fact, it had appeared in Koch's working script for the play.[5]

Public reaction

The New York Times headline from October 31, 1938

Some listeners heard only a portion of the broadcast and, in the atmosphere of tension and anxiety prior to World War II, took it to be an actual news broadcast.[1] Newspapers reported that panic ensued, with people across the Northeastern United States and Canada fleeing their homes. Some people called CBS, newspapers or the police in confusion over the realism of the news bulletins.[6][7]

Future Tonight Show host Jack Paar had announcing duties that night for Cleveland CBS affiliate WGAR. As panicked listeners called the studio, Paar attempted to calm them on the phone and on air by saying, "The world is not coming to an end. Trust me. When have I ever lied to you?" When the listeners started charging Paar with "covering up the truth", he called WGAR's station manager for help. Oblivious to the situation, the manager advised Paar to calm down, saying it was "all a tempest in a teapot."[8]

In Concrete, Washington, phone lines and electricity went out due to a short-circuit at the Superior Portland Cement Company's substation. Residents were unable to call neighbors, family or friends to calm their fears. Reporters who heard of the coincidental blackout sent the story over the news-wire, and soon Concrete was known worldwide.[9]

Within one month, newspapers had published 12,500 articles about the broadcast and its impact. Adolf Hitler cited the panic, as Richard J. Hand writes, as "evidence of the decadence and corrupt condition of democracy."[10]


Radio Digest reprinted the script of The War of the Worlds — "as a commentary on the nervous state of our nation after the Pact of Munich" — prefaced by an editorial cartoon by Les Callan of The Toronto Star (February 1939)

Later studies indicate that many missed the repeated notices about the broadcast being fictional, partly because The Mercury Theatre on the Air, an unsponsored cultural program with a relatively small audience, ran at the same time as the NBC Red Network's popular Chase and Sanborn Hour. About 15 minutes into Chase and Sanborn, the first comic sketch ended and a musical number began, and many listeners began tuning around the dial at that point. According to the American Experience program The Battle Over Citizen Kane, Welles knew the schedule of Chase and Sanborn and scheduled the first report from Grover's Mill at the 12-minute mark to heighten the audience's confusion. As a result, some listeners happened upon the CBS broadcast at the point the Martians emerge from their spacecraft. Because the broadcast was unsponsored, Welles and company could schedule breaks at will rather than structuring them around necessary advertisements. As a result, the only notices that the broadcast was fictional came at the start of the broadcast and about 40 and 55 minutes into it.

A study by the Radio Project discovered that some who panicked presumed that Germans, not Martians, had invaded.[11]

"The shadow of war was constantly in and on the air. People were on edge", wrote Welles biographer Frank Brady:

For the entire month prior to The War of the Worlds, radio had kept the American public alert to the ominous happenings throughout the world. The Munich crisis was at its height. Adolf Hitler, in his address to the annual Nazi party congress at Nuremberg in September, called for the autonomy of the Sudetenland, an area on the Czech border regions populated by three million Sudeten Germans, as they were called. Hitler ranted and lied over German radio … For the first time in history, the public could tune into their radios every night and hear, boot by boot, accusation by accusation, threat by threat, the rumblings that seemed inevitably leading to a world war.[12]


Later studies suggested the panic was less widespread than newspapers had indicated at the time. During this period, many newspaper publishers were concerned that radio, a new medium, would render them obsolete. In that time of yellow journalism, print journalists took the opportunity to suggest that radio was dangerous by embellishing the story of the panic that ensued.[13]

Hand cites studies by unnamed historians who "calculate[d] that some 6 million heard the CBS broadcast; 1.7 million believed it to be true, and 1.2 million were 'genuinely frightened'". NBC's audience, by contrast, was an estimated 30 million.[10]

Robert E. Bartholomew grants that hundreds of thousands were frightened but calls evidence of people taking action based on their fear "scant" and "anecdotal".[14] Indeed, contemporary news articles indicate that police were swamped with hundreds of calls in numerous locations, but stories of people doing anything more than calling authorities mostly involve only small groups. Such stories were often reported by people who were panicking themselves.[11]


In the aftermath of the reported panic, CBS responded to public outcry by pointing to reminders throughout the broadcast that it was a performance. Welles and Mercury Theatre escaped punishment but not censure; CBS is believed to have had to promise never again to use "we interrupt this program" for dramatic effect.[citation needed] However, many radio commercials to this day do start with the phrase "We interrupt this program". The notoriety of the broadcast led the Campbell Soup Company to sponsor the show; The Mercury Theatre on the Air was renamed The Campbell Playhouse.

Many listeners sued the network for "mental anguish" and "personal injury". All suits were dismissed, except for a claim for a pair of black men's shoes (size 9B) by a Massachusetts man, who spent his shoe money to escape the Martians. Welles insisted the man be paid.[15]

A meeting between H.G. Wells and Orson Welles was broadcast on Radio KTSA San Antonio, a CBS affiliate, on October 28, 1940. Wells expressed a lack of understanding of the apparent panic and suggested it may have been only pretense, like the American version of Halloween, for fun. The two men and their radio interviewer joked with embarrassment about the matter.


Title page of the original typescript for The War of the Worlds, on the cover of the Sotheby's auction catalog (December 14, 1988)

On December 14, 1988, the original radio script for The War of the Worlds was sold at auction at Sotheby's in New York by author Howard Koch. The typescript bears the handwritten deletions and additions of Orson Welles and producer John Houseman. It was thought to have been the only copy of the script known to survive.

"The police came in after the broadcast and seized whatever copies they could find as evidence, I suppose", Koch told The New York Times. "There was a question that we had done something that might have criminal implications." Expected to bring between $25,000 and $35,000,[16] the script sold for $143,000 — setting a record for an article of entertainment memorabilia.[17] "I had a private offer of $60,000", Koch said after selling the 46-page script, which had been in his file cabinet for years. "They advised me to take the gamble. I guess it was the right gamble."[18]

A second surviving War of the Worlds radio script — Welles's own directorial copy, given to an associate for safekeeping — was auctioned June 2, 1994, at Christie's in New York. Estimated to bring $15,000 to $20,000, the script was sold for $32,200.[19] The successful bidder was filmmaker Steven Spielberg, whose collection also includes one of the three balsa "Rosebud" sleds from Citizen Kane. Spielberg adapted The War of the Worlds for a feature film in 2005.[20][21]

The New Jersey Township of West Windsor, where Grover's Mill is located, commemorated the 50th anniversary of the broadcast in 1988 with four days of festivities including art and planetarium shows, a panel discussion, a parade, burial of a time capsule, a dinner dance, film festivals devoted to H. G. Wells and Orson Welles, and the dedication of a bronze monument to the fictional Martian landings. Howard Koch, an author of the original radio script, attended the 49th anniversary celebration as an honored guest.[22]


On January 27, 2003, the Mercury Theatre broadcast of The War of the Worlds was made part of the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress.[23]

Re-airings and adaptations

Since the original Mercury Theatre broadcast, there have been many re-airings, remakes, reenactments and new dramatizations of the original. Many American radio stations, particularly those that regularly air old time radio programs, re-air the original program as a Halloween tradition.


Monument in Van Nest Park, Grover's Mill, New Jersey, memorializing the fictional Martian landing site (October 1988)

It is sometimes said the news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was received with skepticism by the American public, as a consequence of the radio performance.[33] In the 1943 film Air Force, when the attack is reported on the radio a character asks if they have Orson Welles tuned in.[34]

The plot of the 1994 TV movie Without Warning centers around Earth being hit by three meteor fragments. The filmmakers acknowledged their debt to The War of the Worlds, and the film was first broadcast on CBS TV on the 56th anniversary of the radio broadcast. It was broadcast with a disclaimer identifying it as fictional, as the 1983 TV movie Special Bulletin had been. NBC placed disclaimers in an October 1999 TV movie dramatizing possible effects of the Y2K bug though it was unlikely to be confused with reality.

In 2005, Danish radio station P2 announced a plan to broadcast a remake of The War of the Worlds on September 3 of that year. As the broadcast was about to start, an announcer interrupted the show to report a fake story about a biological terrorist attack on Copenhagen.[citation needed]

References in fiction

Current ownership

The estate of scriptwriter Howard Koch owns the rights to the radio broadcast.[36][37]

See also


  1. ^ a b Brinkley, Alan (2010). "Chapter 23 - The Great Depression". The Unfinished Nation. p. 615. ISBN 978-0-07-338552-5.
  2. ^ Fielding, Raymond, The March of Time, 1935–1951. New York: Oxford University Press 1978 hardcover ISBN 0-19-502212-2 page 13
  3. ^ Welles, Orson, and Peter Bogdanovich, edited by Jonathan Rosenbaum, This is Orson Welles. New York: HarperCollins Publishers 1992 ISBN 0-06-016616-9 hardcover, pages 74, 333
  4. ^ In the intro, Welles says, "In the thirty-ninth year of the twentieth century came the great disillusionment."
  5. ^ Howard Koch, The Panic Broadcast, 1970.
  6. ^ "Radio Listeners in Panic, Taking War Drama as Fact" (reprint). New York Times. 1938-10-31. "In Newark, in a single block at Heddon Terrace and Hawthorne Avenue, more than twenty families rushed out of their houses with wet handkerchiefs and towels over their faces to flee from what they believed was to be a gas raid. Some began moving household furniture. Throughout New York families left their homes, some to flee to near-by parks. Thousands of persons called the police, newspapers and radio stations here and in other cities of the United States and Canada seeking advice on protective measures against the raids."
  7. ^ Campbell, W. Joseph. (2010). Getting it wrong : ten of the greatest misreported stories in American Journalism. Berkeley: University of California Press. p. 39. ISBN 978-0-520-26209-6.
  8. ^ Bloomfield, Gary (2004). Duty, Honor, Applause: America's Entertainers in World War II, Part 810. Globe Pequot. ISBN 1-59228-550-3 978-1-59228-550-1. Page 37. Accessed 08-22-09.
  9. ^ KIRO listeners responsible for most famous War of the Worlds panic Accessed 10-31-11.
  10. ^ a b Hand, Richard J. (2006). Terror on the Air!: Horror Radio in America, 1931–1952. Jefferson, North Carolina: Macfarland & Company. p. 7. ISBN 0-7864-2367-6.
  11. ^ a b Campbell, W. Joseph. (2010). Getting it wrong : ten of the greatest misreported stories in American Journalism. Berkeley: University of California Press. pp. 26–44. ISBN 978-0-520-26209-6.
  12. ^ Brady, Frank, Citizen Welles: A Biography of Orson Welles. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1989 ISBN 0-385-26759-2 pp. 164–165
  13. ^ Mass Communication Theory: Foundations, Ferment, and Future, by Stanley J. Baran, Dennis K. Davis
  14. ^ a b Bartholomew, Robert E. (2001). Little Green Men, Meowing Nuns and Head-Hunting Panics: A Study of Mass Psychogenic Illness and Social Delusion. Jefferson, North Carolina: Macfarland & Company. pp. 217ff.. ISBN 0-7864-0997-5.
  15. ^ Schroeder, Andreas (2005). Scams!. True stories from the Edge (2nd ed.). Annick Press. p. 43. ISBN 1-55037-852-X.
  16. ^ Reif, Rita, "Auctions"; The New York Times, October 21, 1988
  17. ^ Reif, Rita, "Antiques: Books Tell Tales of Art and Money"; The New York Times, July 2, 1989
  18. ^ Armstrong, Kiley, "War of the Worlds Script Fetches $143,000"; Associated Press, December 15, 1988
  19. ^ Sale 7565 / Lot 149, Orson Welles. Typescript radioplay The War of the Worlds. Christie's, June 2, 1994
  20. ^ Millar, John, "Cruising for a Summer Hit; The Aliens Have Landed"; Sunday Mail (Scotland), June 26, 2005
  21. ^ "Orson Welles War of the Worlds script inspired Steven Spielberg's movie"; Wellesnet, The Orson Welles Web Resource, November 4, 2006
  22. ^ War of the Worlds – News Stories, Township of West Windsor, Mercer County, New Jersey; Delany, Don, "West Windsor Celebrates 'The War of the Worlds'" (PDF), Mercer Business, October 1988, pp. 14–17
  23. ^ The National Recording Registry 2002, National Recording Preservation Board (Library of Congress); retrieved June 17, 2012
  24. ^ "War of the Worlds". Radio Lab. Season 4. Episode 3. March 7, 2008. "In 1949, when Radio Quito decided to translate the Orson Welles stunt for an Ecuadorian audience, no one knew that the result would be a riot that would burn down the radio station and kill at least 7 people."
  25. ^ "War Of The Worlds radio broadcast, Quito (1949)". Retrieved 2008-04-24.
  26. ^ "Grammy Awards and Nominations for 1989". Tribune Company. 1989. Archived from the original on 2007-07-04.,0,3713019.htmlstory. Retrieved 2007-07-31.
  27. ^ "War of the Worlds & The Lost World". The Play's the Thing. 2009-08-31.
  28. ^ "XM to Host Live 'War of the Worlds' Re-Enactment With Glenn Beck on Oct. 30. - Free Online Library". Retrieved 2012-11-07.
  29. ^ "Világok harca". 2010-06-01.
  30. ^ Rawson, Christopher (2010-10-29). "Bricolage re-creates on-spot 'War of the Worlds' radio play". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
  31. ^ Terauds, John, "Ensemble aces Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds". Toronto Star, March 31, 2011
  32. ^ Martians, UConn. "Martians Invade UConn in ‘War of the Worlds’ on Campus Radio". Retrieved 8 November 2012.
  33. ^ Rich, Frank (2005-06-19). "Two Top Guns Shoot Blanks". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-09-30.
  34. ^ "Memorable quotes for Air Force (1943)". Imdb.
  35. ^ "Hey Arnold!: "Arnold's Halloween"". IMDb. Retrieved 2007-11-10.
  36. ^ "Science Fiction on Radio". Retrieved 2012-11-07.
  37. ^ "Image View". Retrieved 2012-11-07.


Further reading

External links