KERRY HUBARTT COLUMN: 1938 Halloween Eve panic in the streets was greatly exaggerated

Kerry Hubartt

Tuesday marks the 80th anniversary of the much-ballyhooed radio broadcast of H.G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds,” which has been said to have caused a national panic throughout the country because the live radio drama made listeners believe an alien invasion was actually taking place.

“The War of the Worlds” was performed on Oct. 30, 1938, as the Halloween Eve episode of the American radio drama anthology series “The Mercury Theatre on the Air,” and broadcast live over the Columbia Broadcasting System radio network.

Actor Orson Welles directed and narrated the hour-long production, which has become a piece of American folklore for allegedly causing mass panic in the streets.

At 8 o’clock that Sunday evening, a voice announced: “The Columbia Broadcasting System and its affiliated stations present Orson Welles and the Mercury Theater on the air in ‘War of the Worlds’ by H.G. Wells.”

Sunday evening was prime-time in 1938, the golden age of radio. And while millions of Americans had their radios turned on, most were listening to ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummy Charlie McCarthy on NBC, and didn’t tune in to CBS until 8:12 p.m. after the sketch ended. More than a million people have been said to have listened to the broadcast, but actual numbers have been estimated at only 2 percent of the national radio audience at that hour.

The radio adaptation of H.G. Wells’ novel converted his story into fake radio news bulletins that described an alien invasion of New Jersey that was moving toward New York City. The disclaimer that preceded the drama was not repeated until 40 minutes into the broadcast, so those listeners who tuned in late may not have realized that the news bulletins were not real. Some made phone calls to the police, newspapers and radio stations.

On Halloween morning, headlines on the front pages of newspapers across the country reported there had been mass panic due to the 23-year-old Welles’ realistic performance. A PBS documentary years later reported that mass panic from coast to coast resulted in “traffic accidents, near riots, hordes of panicked people in the streets, all because of a radio play.”

But while reports of mobs and National Guardsmen roaming the streets of America were greatly exaggerated, one infamous episode of public panic apparently did occur in the town of Concrete, Wash., north of Seattle. During the radio drama a reporter states, “A bulletin is handed to me. Martian cylinders are falling all over the country. One outside of Buffalo. One in Chicago, St. Louis.”

At the same moment, a bolt of lightning struck the power station in Concrete — lights went out, the radios went silent and the citizens of the town ran into the streets. And while the people of Concrete soon found out there was no invasion, the story of their brief panic hit the papers as far away as New York.

An adaptation of the 1938 broadcast was performed in Fort Wayne, Thursday through Sunday, at the University of Saint Francis. “War of the Worlds: The Panic Broadcast,” by Joe Landry, moves back and forth between the original broadcast and another 10 years later. As the actual radio play comes to an end, Landry dramatizes Welles’ and his producer John Hauseman’s responses to the flood of calls that came into the station and to the police.

You can find the complete original 1938 radio broadcast on YouTube.

Kerry Hubartt is former editor of The News-Sentinel.