Friday, October 31, 2008

Early boomers may have heard stories about the 1938 broadcast from parents and grandparents. The broadcast is famous, of course, because a number of people who heard it actually believed the U.S. was being invaded by Martians.

It was 1938, after all, and as the Great Depression hung on, forces of war were gathering in Europe, Americans were nervous about invasion. Those who listened to the entire broadcast should have heard the disclaimer at the beginning, and the way it started: the narrator (Welles) set the story in 1939, a year later, when “business was better. The war scare was over.”

But lots of people didn’t tune until the program was well underway, and they heard ordinary dance music interrupted by what sounded like news bulletins, until the fake news took over. Nothing like this had been done before. The Welles group--the Mercury Theatre of the Air--transposed the story to the United States, and used the names of real towns, cities and states.

Historians dispute how many Americans actually panicked and tried to flee, etc., though comedian and writer Steve Allen wrote vividly about his aunt in Chicago being swept up in it when he was a child and she was taking care of him.

The "panic" made Orson Welles famous, but there were people who were definitely not amused. One of them was President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who complained to Welles a few years later that it was his fault that some Americans
refused to believe that Japanese airplanes had suddenly attacked and destroyed much of the American fleet at Pearl Harbor. They thought it was another radio hoax.

Someone else who was upset was the author of the original novel, H.G. Welles. Though when he actually met Orson Welles a few years later in Texas they seemed to get along, when he first heard about this broadcast he was livid. He was insulted that his novel had been turned into a "Halloween prank."

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