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When Illinois Helped Scare America

Wikimedia Commons

Eighty-two years ago, theatrical impresario Orson Welles panicked the nation with his company’s “War of the Worlds” Halloween Eve radio broadcast. That was the reported story, but the truth is more complicated.

Today, it seems unbelievable that a radio show could terrorize listeners. In 1938, when “War of the Worlds” aired, radio was a new broadcast medium. The only other was film, which was more sanitized and far less lifelike than now. Welles and his company played with the airwaves’ potential by making this show as realistic as possible. They were far more successful than they dreamed. 

Most radio programs featured light fare, such as ventriloquist Edgar Bergen, but 23-year-old Welles’ aim was more highbrow. His Mercury Theatre on the Air produced weekly shows based on literature. For Halloween, it adapted H.G. Wells’ sci fi book, “War of the Worlds,” about Martians invading Earth, a relatively new storyline then. 

While most of Mercury’s shows were straightforward book adaptions, “Orson wanted (this one) done in a different way,” said scriptwriter Howard Koch in a 1988 documentary, “The Making of the War of the Worlds.” “He wanted it done in news bulletins and first person and contemporary.” They changed the story’s locale from England to New Jersey. They used real names of government agencies, locations, and people, or names similar to the real ones. 

It worked so well, some listeners thought the broadcast was true, despite disclaimers that it wasn’t.

“Men of Mars’ Terrorize U.S.,” headlined Chicago’s Daily Times the next day. “Orson Welles: He Scared All America,” proclaimed the Detroit Times. The Associated Press printed a photo of a Manhattan actress with bruises and a sling on her arm; she bolted into the streets and broke it. Papers reported people fleeing homes, charging into church services announcing the end of the world, or committing suicide.  

The Federal Communications Commission demanded the script, congressmen promised legislation to prevent another radio scare, and Welles was threatened with lawsuits. Before the broadcast ended, police filled the recording studio because of a bomb scare. John Houseman, Welles’ Mercury Theatre partner, wrote about the immediate aftermath in his book, “Run Through.” “Hustled out of the studio, we were locked into a small back office on another floor. Here we sat incommunicado while network employees were busily collecting, destroying, or locking up all scripts and records of the broadcast.”  

Credit Wikimedia
Orson Welles (fourth from left) at Todd School for Boys in 1931.

Once Welles reached the safety of his hotel room, he called his unofficial foster father, Roger Hill, in Woodstock In McHenry County. Hill was the headmaster of the town’s prestigious Todd School for Boys which Welles attended five years. The Hills practically adopted Welles, and Roger became a lifelong mentor and collaborator. He invited Welles to produce plays at the school after Orson had left. In Hill’s memoir, “One Man’s Time and Chance,” he writes that Welles called him after the broadcast, “stuttering, trembling, in search of something stable to hang onto in a world that was reeling around him.” Welles was dumbstruck that listeners believed the broadcastWeeks before, Welles asked Hill to review the “War of the Worlds” script, says Todd Tarbox, Hill’s grandson. “My grandfather thought it was not terribly convincing, and he said, ‘You might consider something else.’ Welles himself was not too enthused…they thought it would be considered phantasmagorical and very unbelievable.”  

“There was a real belief among the people in Welles’ company that (the script) was too silly to be taken seriously, that they would be laughed off the air,” echoes A. Brad Schwartz, author of “Broadcast Hysteria: Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds and the Art of Fake News.” He researched letters written to Welles and his theater after the broadcast and accounts of people involved with the show. “Everybody decided…the best thing they could do was make (the show) sound as realistic as possible.” 

They added mock news broadcasts of Martians invading New Jersey and killing residents with ray guns. Their style mimicked real broadcasts of the time about Nazi Germany’s invasions of Europe. The actor who played the reporter witnessing the Martian invasion based his performance on an iconic broadcast given by a Chicago newsman merely one year earlier, when the German airship, the Hindenburg, crashed in America and killed 36 people.

During WLS reporter Herbert Morrison’s on-the-scene account of the disaster, he broke down: “Oh, the humanity! And all the passengers screaming around here. I told you; it – I can't even talk to people, their friends are on there! Ah! It's... it... it's a... ah! I... I can't talk, ladies and gentlemen.”

Frank Reddick played the reporter in Welles’ show. “He went down to the archives in the CBS building and found the recording of the Hindenberg disaster that Morrison made and listened to it over and over again and really internalized it,” says Schwartz. “His emotion was so direct (on the show) that people were fooled into thinking they heard an event that had happened.” 

Some people who only heard snippets or second-hand accounts of the show thought Nazis invaded or a natural disaster occurred, according to Schwartz. But reports of a panic-stricken nation were overblown, he says. It was a “gross exaggeration” caused by individual stories of frightened people or communities that reporters inaccurately extrapolated to be widely occurring. 

The big question after the show was, had Welles intended to terrify? Roger Hill gave his answer to the press. The Nov. 27, 1938 Rockford Illinois Morning Star paper reported it: “From the day young Orson landed at my school, looking uncommonly like a playful puppy, he was searching for some bizarre way to disturb people. … It was still Orson playing games and having a good time on a bigger scale.” 

Tarbox says Welles was known for putting on acclaimed theatrical productions at Todd School that provoked people and made them think. As evidence, he points to a 1932 play Welles and his grandfather wrote about racial injustice called “Marching Song.” He insists Welles’s motive with “War of the Worlds” was the same. Schwartz agrees: “Welles certainly claimed in later years that he knew what he was doing. With a wink and a nod, he was trying to teach people a lesson not to believe everything they heard on the radio.” 

Nothing came of the cry for lawsuits or legislation, but the threat of them hung over Welles for years. 

Did he ever express regret or concern to Hill about the broadcast? “No!” says Tarbox. “Quite to the contrary. From every indication I can glean, he was elated by it! It brought him international recognition within days…it certainly enhanced his career.” 

After the airing, Mercury Theatre found a sponsor and Hollywood called, as Hill wrote in his memoir: “It was this block-buster explosion on the air waves that brought those offers from Hollywood and the chance to produce his cinema masterpiece, Citizen Kane.” Welles went on to become a respected film director. 

In a book Tarbox wrote, “Roger Hill and Orson Welles: A Friendship in Three Acts,” based on transcripts of conversations between Hills and Welles later in their lives, Hill asks Welles if he misses radio. “Radio is what I love most,” he replies. “The wonderful excitement of what could happen in live radio, when everything that could go wrong did go wrong…” Even when it went right.  

To hear Mercury Theatre’s production of “War of the Worlds,” click here.