It is October 30th, 1938, and beautiful dance music by Ramón Raquello and his orchestra flows over the airwaves from the Columbia Broadcasting System and into living rooms across America via radio. Suddenly, the broadcast is interrupted by an announcer who reports that explosions have been seen on the planet Mars by Professor Farrell of the Mount Jennings Observatory in Chicago. The music resumes, but it’s an ominous beginning for a Mercury Theatre show which has surprising repercussions.
Another announcement follows, and excitement mounts as the announcer tells listeners that a flaming object has fallen on a farm in Grovers Mill, New Jersey. It’s not a meteorite, but a ship filled with aliens who are anything but friendly. The ships begin to ignite the surrounding fields and building with flaming beams as people panic and evacuate the area. People who just tuned in to the broadcast become increasingly frightened. Is it an invasion? Is it the end of the world?
Why is it significant that many listeners have begun to listen to the broadcast part way through? Because at the beginning, it was explained that what was being broadcast wasn’t real. It is a dramatization of H. G. Wells’s science fiction book “The War of the Worlds” put on by Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre on the Air. Two more times during the show, they explain that this is a dramatic broadcast, but it sounds so authentic that many people are convinced it’s a real emergency.
In 1938, most people listened to the radio or read the newspaper for their news. Almost no one owned a television. Instead of watching TV shows for entertainment, they listened to music or audio dramas on the radio. Orson Welles enjoyed bringing dramatic listening to people, and when he had the idea to dramatize H. G. Wells’s book, he decided to make it sound like a real radio news story at the beginning. At the end of the show, he reminded listeners that it was just a Halloween prank, but the real panic it caused was reported in newspapers all over America the next day. Orson Welles had proved that even when entertaining, the media had great power to influence the people of the nation.
If you’d like to read Meghan McCarthy’s picture book “Aliens Are Coming,” which tells the story of the 1938 broadcast of the “War of the Worlds,” you can find it locally through the Gail Borden Public Library. Stop by Meghan’s profile with Random House to find out more about her.
Source of review copy: Gail Borden Public Library
Publisher: Random House, Inc.