Little Bits of History

“Isn’t there … anyone?”

Posted in History by patriciahysell on October 31, 2010

Monument erected October 1998 commemorating where the Martians "landed" in Van Nest Park, Grover's Mill, NJ. (Photo by ZeWrestler)

October 30, 1938: Shortly after 8 PM the radio broadcast of H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds with adaptations by Orson Welles and Howard Koch airs on CBS’s Mercury Theatre On The Air. The action took place in modern day Grover’s Mill, New Jersey and the program was to simulate a music presentation interspersed with live newscasts of the disaster. It is possibly the most successful radio program in history.

The 55-minute show played opposite a wildly popular show starring Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. It was known that after an initial 12 minutes, Bergen’s bit was followed by music. Over at CBS, there was an initial warning that the upcoming program was a dramatic presentation. However, many people were not listening at that time, but switched over when Bergen’s program switched to music. The new listeners were not aware that it was a dramatization, but believed that the “newscasts” were true news. Repeated warnings were aired during the last 15 mintues of the show, and as a finale as well.

Welles had his cast prepare by listening to broadcasts of the Hindenburg disaster to catch the proper mood and tone for the “newscasts.” The format had been used by BBC in London in 1926 for short pieces, but this program was new in both location and in length of the work. Of the 1.7 million people who tuned in, 1.2 million were “very excited” by the “news” but few did anything concrete with this excitement.

However, in New Jersey, where the action was supposedly taking place, a crowd did gather where the spaceship had “landed.” Police came for crowd control, contributing to the chaos. CBS was castigated for the panic, but no punishment was ever handed out. In fact, the broadcast is played yearly in the spirit of Halloween pranks. There is also a monument in the park noting the place where the Martians landed in 1938.

“Isn’t there anyone on the air? Isn’t there anyone on the air? Isn’t there … anyone?” – newscaster, Ray Collins, from The War of the Worlds broadcast

“Doubts and mistrust are the mere panic of timid imagination, which the steadfast heart will conquer, and the large mind transcend.” – Helen Keller

“Fear cannot be banished, but it can be calm and without panic; it can be mitigated by reason and evaluation.” – Vannevar Bush

“It made our hair stand up in panic fear.” – Sophocles

“The one permanent emotion of the inferior man is fear – fear of the unknown, the complex, the inexplicable.  What he wants above everything else is safety.” – Henry Louis Mencken

Also on this day, in 1973 the Bosphorus Bridge was completed, linking Europe and Asia.