Invasion 1938: Red Cylinders From The Sky


Grovers Mill, New Jersey. Devil’s Night 1938. This was the time and place where Orson Welles terrified a nation.

On the evening before Halloween, CBS’s Mercury Theater On The Air took storytelling to a whole new level. Using a format never experimented with before, that night’s presentation of War of the Worlds incited panic across America. Instead of presenting a straightforward radio drama of the type listeners were accustomed to, Orson Welles took an approach which was so realistic that the outcry following the show launched him to fame and fortune.

You see, dear readers, the first two thirds of the program were simulated newscasts. Not only that but these “newscasts” were interleaved with “real programming.”

Via Wikipedia:

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 was set in 1939, a year ahead of the broadcast. The program continues as a weather report, then as an ordinary music show (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 “famous astronomer” Professor Richard Pierson, who refutes speculation about life on Mars.

The news grow more frequent and increasingly ominous as a cylindrical meteorite lands in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey. A crowd gathers at the site and events are related by reporter “Carl Phillips.” The meteorite unscrews, revealing itself as a rocket machine, and onlookers catch a glimpse of a tentacled, pulsating, barely mobile Martian before it incinerates the crowd with “Heat-Rays.” Phillips’ 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.)

For those tuning in after the opening credits, the experience of the invasion from Mars was indistinguishable from reality. While stories of panic have been mostly disproved over the years, there can be no doubt that a frisson of fear blanketed the broadcast area, fueled by this compelling and revolutionary broadcast.

When I was told that we would be doing a page about it on Radio Heard Here, I was thrilled. I’ve made a yearly tradition out of listening to it over the Halloween weekend every year since I was a child. Nostalgia is often catered to by our industry’s creatives, and I would like to share some with you now. Hop on over to our War of the Worlds page on Radio Heard Here where you can click play and listen as the late, great Orson Welles announces the invasion of Grovers Mill, NJ.

In the words of Edward R. Murrow, “Good night and good luck!”

Photo courtesy of Wade Rockett, used under its Creative Commons license


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