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75th Anniversary of the “War of the Worlds” | October 21, 2013 By Todd Nebel On this 75th anniversary of the famous Mercury Theatre on the Air “War Of The Worlds” broadcast, we take a brief look back at what transpired that night of October 30th, 1938. America then was a unsettled place as we were finding our way out of the Great Depression despite 10 million Americans still unemployed.  In Europe, Americans watched anxiously as Nazi Germany’s leader, Adolph Hitler made strides and received concessions from other neighboring countries in hopes of avoiding war. We knew the madman had his eventual sights on world domination and there was the real possibility that we might get involved if he went too far.   A young man named Orson Welles was too busy acting on radio and the stage to worry about such things. Welles began acting on radio in the mid 1930’s on “The March Of Time”, then moved into the starring role as Lamont Cranston “The Shadow” by 1937. One year later, and with a growing respect by his peers for his work in stage theatre, Welles left his role on “The Shadow”.  By the summer of 1938, CBS awarded Welles his own radio program as Producer, Director, and with a cast of his choosing for a program called the “Mercury Theatre On The Air”. The only downside (and it was a big one) was that the program was scheduled directly opposite NBC’s hottest new program “The Chase and Sanborn Hour” starring Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy.   When Mercury began its run, it was without a sponsor and most importantly, without an audience in comparison to Bergen and McCarthy’s. By an 11 to 1 margin, America sought the escapism of comedy over the hour long dramas which Welles and his cast members offered each week. The quality certainly wasn’t lacking starting with a superb cast consisting of Agnes Moorehead, Joseph Cotton, Kenny Delmar, Ray Collins, and Karl Swenson among others. Leading up to it’s now famous October 30th broadcast, such ambitious dramas as “Julius Caesar”, “Dracula”, “Jane Eyre” and “Around The World In 80 Days" were presented. Another daring choice was “The War Of The Worlds” by H. G. Wells. Originally a story written 40 years earlier concerning a Martian invasion in the English Countryside, the play had to be almost entirely rewritten for radio and in just 6 days time! This immense undertaking fell on the shoulders of writer Howard Koch with the help of the show’s editor John Houseman.  Orson Welles wanted the first rough draft of the play completed by Wednesday, October 26th following the previous Sunday night broadcast. But when the first cast rehearsal of the script occurred that evening, Welles and the troupe felt it to be dull. Constant editing was then done on the script, with Welles requesting longer periods of band music at the start of the show to slowly build up the suspense of the play. The cast also intensified news bulletins to bring more life to the drama. CBS executives eventually ok’d the script except for one important change. They asked that the title of the “President of the United States” (played by Kenny Delmar) be changed to “The Secretary of the Interior”.  In retrospect, this really didn’t matter to those who missed the opening credits of the show, because once they heard Delmar THEY KNEW they were listening to President Roosevelt anyhow! Welles and his staff continued making changes right up to the time of broadcast. Most Americans tuned into Bergen and McCarthy that Sunday evening, but several million listeners tuned to the Mercury broadcast or switched over after guests were announced on Bergen and McCarthy. Thus, it’s estimated that at least a million listeners had missed the opening disclaimer or it simply didn’t register with them that H.G. Wells “War of the Worlds” was to be presented. What they did hear though were opening news reports and interspersed musical  interludes describing the Martians Landing at Grover’s Mill, New Jersey! What now ensued was utter chaos for the million or more who believed that a Martian or possibly even a German invasion of the United States was now happening. Many fled their homes, while others took refuge in basements, cellars and closets and even a few contemplated or attempted suicide.  By the half hour mark of the broadcast, Davidson Taylor, who supervised the broadcast for CBS, was told that accidents and suicide attempts were taking place across the country. Urgently, the main office at CBS wanted a disclaimer announcement to be made during the broadcast. This announcement came but not until the 45 minute mark of the show. But, by then the damage had already been done.  All the while, Orson Welles and his cast were oblivious to what was happening outside of the studio. Their first inkling came when the announcement request came in and near the end of the broadcast as they saw uniformed policeman inside the control room. Welles ended the program by saying that this was the Mercury Theatre’s way of “dressing up in sheet, jumping out of a bush, and saying boo for Halloween “. Immediately following, Welles and the cast were rushed downstairs and into a back office while the staff gathered up scripts and recordings of the show and put them into a safe.  Reporters converged on the cast and some cast members soon came away feeling they were responsible for riots and deaths across America. After the cast was released in early morning, and once the real details came in, it turned out no suicides had taken place but many accidents had occurred as people rushed to flee. Lawsuits totaling one million dollars came to CBS and many personally blamed the 23 year old director of the Mercury Theatre, Orson Welles for what happened.  However, the head of CBS William S. Paley stood by Welles despite the clamoring that more regulations and oversight of such broadcasts occur in the future.  Only two weeks after the famous broadcast, the Mercury Theatre picked up Campbell’s Soups as its sponsor and Orson Welles reputation continued to grow. And, two years later, this man who was responsible for the most famous radio broadcast of all time, was now responsible for the most famous motion picture of all time – “Citizen Kane”.  Welles continued to make movies and broadcast radio shows throughout the 1940’s and 1950’s. His career slowed down before his death in 1985 but his reputation as radio’s “boy genius” continues today thanks to “The War Of The Worlds”.