Harvard Square Observer: Why I Missed The War of the Worlds

Ernest Cassara


Note: Many years ago, when the famed humorist Art Buchwald was based in Paris, he decided to explain the Pilgrims and the first Thanksgiving to the French.  His mix of English and French terms so delighted his readers that it became his custom to repeat that column yearly.  In that spirit, I offer the following:


On the sixty-eighth anniversary of the greatest hoax in American history, we shall hear yet again a recounting of the stories that have become staples over the years.  In presenting his radio adaptation of H. G. Wells’ splendid science fiction novel, The War of the Worlds, on 30 October 1938, Orson Welles had intended a pre-Halloween joke.  But, if there were any doubt that radio (in that pre-TV age) was a powerful stimulant to the imagination, the hysterical reaction of the American public to the program disposed of it.
   
The script that Howard Koch wrote with the help of Welles, John Houseman, Ray Collins, and other members of the Mercury Theatre troupe, almost completely transformed the H. G. Wells story.  It was transferred from late Victorian England to 1939. Yes, 1939 - one year into the future - just one of the details panicked listeners missed. What had been in Wells’ book a retrospective account by a “writer on philosophical themes” - one of the few who had survived the destruction off London and much of Southwest England - was transformed into a series of breathless news bulletins of what seemed to be happening that very night.  A program of dance music from a New York hotel (a favorite type of program in radio’s pioneer days) was interrupted by the first bulletin.  The announcer told of the landing of a strange object in a Jersey town with the vaguely familiar name of Grovers Mill.  To those who had tuned in late, or were twiddling the dial to escape commercials on other stations, and had missed the introduction to the Mercury Theatre, what they heard was wholly believable. 

Shortly after the announcement of the landing, the “Intercontinental News” announcer interviewed an astronomer from nearby Princeton.  Professor Pierson provided weighty verisimilitude to the proceedings.  Even a radio devotee may have missed the fact that the professor sounded mighty like Orson Welles.  And, then, as the Martians emerged from the space craft and with their death ray and black gas wiped out the troops sent against them and  wreaked havoc all the way to the destruction of New York City, the “Secretary of the Interior” (sounding all the world like President FDR) appealed to the nation to remain steadfast.     
   
After the mighty, crashing chords of the first movement of Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto introduced the program and the announcer explained that the evening’s play was an adaptation of the H. G. Wells story, there was no interruption of the string of stories of disaster until the station break forty minutes later - long after the damage had been done.  By then policemen were at the New York studio to arrest Welles.
   
Each year on the anniversary we have been reminded of the folks who jammed the telephone lines to the police, newspapers, and radio stations, or fled into the streets with noses covered with wet handkerchiefs and towels against “poison gas” (a natural mistake in Jersey, after all).  Many took to the roads to flee the onslaught, or gathered in the churches to pray as the end approached.  Then, there was the now-famous but still-anonymous lady in Pittsburgh who was saved from suicide by poison by the timely return home of her husband, she sobbing, “I’d rather die this way than like that!”      

How many of the twenty-seven million homes that had radios were tuned to the Columbia Broadcasting System that night in October, of course, cannot be determined, but the front pages of the newspapers of the 31st were filled with stories of the hysteria that swept across the nation from coast to coast. 
   
Thumbing through the pages of the Globe and other Boston papers for the 31st and succeeding days, however, one is struck by the absence of stories of panic in Boston.  The columns are filled with reactions from as far west as Seattle, but are entirely mum on Boston and environs.  One can easily be misled into thinking that, with its Puritan heritage, strengthened over the years by the hard-headed common sense of later immigrant groups, the town was protected from such a display of foolishness.
 
But, alas, from personal experience, I know the explanation to be quite different.  As a teenage boy in September 1938 I lay every Sunday night on the parlor floor of our home in front of our Kellogg console radio - the same set that on week nights transported me into the worlds of Amos and Andy, Lum and Abner, and Just Plain Bill.  A radio bug, I thrilled to the bass baritone of twenty-three-year-old Orson Welles as he recreated the worlds of Jane Eyre, Sherlock Holmes, and Oliver Twist.  You can imagine my bitter disappointment when in October WEEI chose to drop Welles, in order to educate the citizenry with broadcasts of the New England Town Meeting of the Air from Faneuil Hall.  For several weeks such weighty questions as to whether Massachusetts should legalize horse racing, and whether pari-mutuel betting should be allowed at dog tracks in Suffolk County, were debated.  On that fateful October 30th, while the rest of the country was driven off its rocker, we latter-day Puritans weighed the merits of amending the Constitution to provide for biennial sessions of the General Court, as well as biennial budgets.
   
Actually, we Bostonians didn’t get to hear what all the fuss was about until forty years later, when the famous broadcast (which had been transcribed at the time) became available on LPs and cassettes.  Listening to the program again sixty-eight years later, I find it wholly believable that a listener twiddling the dial that night might be misled.  After all, we were used to a diet of breathless news bulletins interrupting programs to tell of Hitler’s threats in Europe - at that point the victim being Czechoslovakia.  (It was the same type of bulletin that interrupted our lazy Sunday afternoon not many years later to bring the news of the bombing of Pearl Harbor.) 
   
But had WEEI carried the program I am confident that I would not have been misled.  That historic night I would have known better.  To this thirteen-year-old aficionado there was no mistaking the resplendent voice of Orson Welles.
   
By the way, WEEI restored the Mercury Theatre to its Sunday night line up the following week.



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Harvard Square Commentary, October 23, 2006