War of the Worlds | Mark’s Remarks

Orson Welles was an actor and director, and at one time was at the helm of a popular radio show called “Mercury Theater on the Air.” This group of distinguished actors would put on all types of dramatic shows each week, reading from scripts of course, but otherwise creating grand visions in the minds of listeners.

Welles and his acting troupe put on a dramatization of the old H.G. Wells “War of the Worlds” novel. It was a story about an invasion of Martians. It would have been safe to say folks were thinking about enemy planes, spy planes and the like during this unstable time. It was Oct. 30, 1938. Thinking about and being entertained a little (in perhaps a fearful way) of invaders from Mars would have been believable for the time and appropriate for the season.

The night the group put on the show, most listeners weren’t tuned into the CBS radio network. They were tuned into another network to hear Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy on a comedy show. Less than 4 percent of the listening audience was tuned into the Welles program that night. File that tidbit for later.

OK, just a tangent here. Is it hard to believe people would tune into a radio program that featured a talking dummy and a ventriloquist? Bergen and McCarthy were indeed popular, but isn’t the whole idea of watching a ventriloquist actually the watching?

marksBack to the real story. So, the Welles drama went on. They made the whole thing sound like the invasion was really happening. They would go to a music program, then break in with news bulletins. In the show, a weird object landed at Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire. Later, the object hissed. The top came off and out crawled a spider-like being that proceeded to zap people around it and set things on fire. Things got worse as objects landed all over the U.S. Everything was on fire. News bulletins kept coming on the air until even the radio station was forced to go off the air. It was all very well done and fun to listen to, I’m sure.

I used to let my students listen to the broadcast as a treat. We’d listen to a recording of the original show. It usually took us a couple of afternoons to get through it. Although it was the most fun for me, most of my students didn’t get it. They enjoyed listening to an extent, but in this day and age of high-tech stuff and special effects, they did not understand how radio shows were once such a big deal.

There was a whole lotta hype about the show, which I always told my students about. People apparently thought the show was real. They called the police; they turned out their lights and cowered in their homes in fear. There were stories, the next day, of mass hysteria. Phone lines were jammed, streets were jammed and some people contemplated suicide. Mass hysteria throughout the nation. Or so they said.

I went right along with the whole story. My students smiled. I told them that even though there were frequent announcements and commercial breaks telling listeners that this was a radio program, some folks had stopped listening to wait for the Martians to come and get them. It made for good storytelling and added to the fun.

I recently found out I’d been telling a whopper. In fact, even textbooks and documentaries were telling about the mass hysteria caused by Welles’ program.

In reality, few people were listening. In reality, the people who WERE listening believed it was a radio show and nothing more. There were no roads or phone lines jammed. One story told about a little town up north losing their power about the time the “Martians” invaded near their area. Big myth. So, how did the whole thing Depression due to radio advertising, were eager to make the radio folks look like fools. So, they splashed all that baloney across the papers. Welles even went on radio to apologize. A bunch of hype.

And, just like any other big story like this, folks start rumors and add embellishment. Pretty soon, we started hearing about the folks who DID listen that night (even though they really didn’t). Yarns were spun. Tales of farmers shooting water towers (that looked like spaceships) began to surface. Hype, hysteria and hearsay. That’s all it ended up being. You might call it an early urban myth.

Still, I’d recommend giving “The War of the Worlds” a listen. You can download the whole program for free on the internet. Imagine yourself in your living room on that fall evening in 1938. You’re ready for some entertainment. A good scare.

Because it was originally broadcast on Oct. 30, 1938, you can actually listen to it 76 years later on the anniversary date. What a way to celebrate Halloween. And it’s still fun to tell about all the hysteria and crazy things that were supposed to have happened.

It’s part of the legend. It’s entertaining — even if it really didn’t happen.

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Mark Tullis

Mark is a 25-year veteran teacher teaching in Columbia. Originally from Fairfield, Mark is married with four children. He enjoys reading, writing, and spending time with his family, and has been involved in various aspects of professional and community theater for many years and enjoys appearing in local productions. Mark has also written a "slice of life" style column for the Republic-Times since 2007.
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