Friday, April 24, 2009

A Tale of Two Well(e)s

Before there was the internet, before there was satellite and cable TV, even before there were TV broadcasts at all the American family gathered in the living rooms of the country to be informed and entertained by a magical box that was the rage of the nation. Americans marveled at the radio, and most were not quite sure how the radio set really worked. Some who were more informed may very well have pondered the oddness of sitting in a room knowing that the ether around them was saturated with the strange waves that brought the radio to life. Regardless of the level of wonder one possessed one thing was for sure. Everyone loved the radio, with the possible exception of newspaper men.

Back in 1938 one of the most eagerly awaited radio shows of the week was the Chase and Sanborn Hour that aired at eight o’clock on Sunday evenings. This program featured, as many of the shows at that time did, interludes of band and dance music to entertain the listeners. What the Chase and Sanborn Hour had that the others did not was the duo of Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. The show was extremely popular and was far and away the champion of all Sunday evening broadcasts. One would think that a ventriloquist act would lose some of its magic over the radio, but it was popular.

On the evening of October 30th, 1938 countless families gathered around their radios at eight, like they had every Sunday night, to hear Mr. Bergen and his wooden friend. At about twelve minutes after the hour, Nelson Eddy came on the air for a musical performance. Today we may grab the remote and fly through the channels looking for something more interesting to enjoy while the interlude was on the air. The radio listeners of the day dial surfed, and a good many of them at that. Most ended up on CBS expecting to hear the Mercury Theater on the Air show. What they heard caught many of them about as off guard as people can be.

Ladies and Gentlemen, this is Carl Phillips again, at the Wilmuth Farm, Grover’s Mill, New Jersey. Well, I hardly know where to begin, to paint for you a word picture of the strange scene before my eyes, like something out of a modern Arabian Nights.

Well then, the listeners thought, what could be so important in New Jersey that would force the regularly scheduled program aside for a live news flash. Maybe we better leave the dial alone and find out what is up.

I just got here, I haven’t had a chance to look around yet. I guess that’s it. Yes, I guess that is the… thing, directly in front of me, half buried in a vast pit. Must have struck with terrific force.

Military airplane crash or possibly, worse yet, a secret weapon from Nazi Germany?

The ground is covered with splinters of a tree it must have struck on its way down. What can I see of the object itself doesn’t look very much like a meteor, at least not the meteors I’ve seen. It looks more like a huge cylinder.

What the unwitting audience had fallen for was a carefully and brilliantly organized hijacking of the radios of the country that night. The coup was the brainchild of Mercury Theater producer Orson Welles. His show had been consistently haunted with poor ratings because of Chase and Sanborn’s dominance. Tonight however, he would hold the dial surfers in his spell for the next hour and beyond.

The dramatization was of the science fiction novel “War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells. The story was followed very loosely, with the dialog, geography and technology updated to fit a 1938 audience (the original was first published in 1897). By the time that the fictional Martians started emerging from their cylinders and wielding their lethal heat ray an amazing amount of the listeners began to take it as an actual news story. Panic ensued across the country. A mass hysteria about the Martians advancing on New York threw the entire city into gridlock. The aliens were shooting down planes, vaporizing people and emitting a black poisonous gas that was instantly lethal. What was the use of going back to the other network to fact check these claims? It was far easier to panic and run.

Eventually, at one point in the show, CBS broadcast supervisor Davidson Taylor had received so many reports of the mayhem that he stormed into the studio and halted the play, much to the displeasure of Welles and partner John Houseman. They were to make an announcement immediately that the program was not live news, merely a dramatization of a classic book. The players were led to believe that there were thousands dead in the panic when in actuality nothing but a few bruised bodies, and more than a few bruised egos had been collected throughout the night.

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 version of dressing up in a sheet and jumping out of a bush and saying BOO!

Then it was over. People went home feeling very foolish indeed for having been so gullible. The public was outraged over the incident, but as is common with many pranks and practical jokes they regained their sense of humor and laughed at themselves. Orson Welles was tagged a irresponsible broadcaster, then an inexperienced young entertainer and finally a genius. He of course went on to create one of the greatest films of all time, “Citizen Kane”. Undoubtedly that night in New York was what launched the young man's occasionally brilliant career.

One would think that you could never pull this prank off again, but it has been attempted a few times. On Halloween 1968, WKBW radio in Buffalo, New York reworked the skit for their own use and put it on the air. A full twenty one days before the broadcast the station ran an announcement about the coming program every hour on the hour to avoid any panic. Still the Buffalo police fielded nearly four thousand phone calls resulting from panic over the show, and the Canadian National Guard sent troops to the Queenston, Peace and Rainbow Bridges to make sure the aliens did not cross.

Unfortunately another broadcast in another part of the world ended tragically. In February of 1944 a Ecuadorian radio station in Quito attempted the broadcast the play with no advanced warning. The play was being preformed in the El Comercio building that also housed the capital’s newspaper. That night the result was the same in one respect, thousands of citizens frightened out of their wits running around the city. Quickly the radio station announced that the show was a hoax, at which time the citizenry went directly to the El Comerico building and began to riot. By the time it was over the building was burnt to the ground and twenty radio station employees were killed.

Could we be fooled by this same hoax today? I think that we are far too advanced and informed to accept a story of this caliber without fact checking the information we would be receiving and immediately identifying it as a joke. We are the most sophisticated, technologically advanced people who have ever lived. We have the internet to call upon for these questions.

Those folks listening breathlessly to the horrors being witnessed in Grover’s Mills were the most sophisticated and technologically advanced people who had ever lived back in 1938. The radio was their internet, but very few took the time to turn that dial…

Italicized script denotes actual transcript of the 1938 Mercury Theater broadcast.

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