Famous Radio Play Failed to Scare Laramie Listeners
(Photo: Darin House, flickr.com)
On October 30th, 74 years ago, theater and radio savant Orson Welles and his Mercury Theater On The Air participated in a broadcast that would make its mark in American History. Welles presented a then-modern-day adaptation of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds as a series of fictitious news broadcasts reporting on a Martian Invasion of New Jersey and the U.S. eastern seaboard.
For some radio dial-surfers that evening, tuning into the CBS War of the Worlds broadcast midway caused panic, with listeners taking the broadcast as fact rather than fiction. Although the scale of the actual panic that followed is a point of conjecture among scholars, newspapers were quick to report what seemed like a major radio faux pas.
From an AP News story printed on October 31, 1938:
“In the double-quick tempo of the news broadcasters, the fiction of a Columbia program became so realistic that hysteria prevailed among listeners throughout the United States and Canada.”
Examples of the panic described by the Associated Press in the 1938 story included the evacuations of apartment buildings in New York, a woman who attempted suicide in Pittsburgh and an onslaught of phone calls to newspapers and police stations across the country.
So what was the effect in Laramie?
Apparently not much. According to an October 31st edition of The Laramie Republican and Boomerang newspaper from 1938, people in Laramie didn’t seem to buy the Welles/Wells dramatization.
According to a brief sidebar published in the paper, Laramie failed to see any panic in the wake of the broadcast. The paper says that it conducted a survey in the area that “failed to show that there was any hysteria here over the CBS radio program last night.” The newspaper then adds that officials and the phone company reported no inquires about the broadcast in the Laramie area.
Despite Laramie’s seemingly laid-back reaction to the broadcast, other parts of the nation were outraged.
From the AP Article published on October 31, 1938:
“Sen. Clyde L. Herring (D. Ia.) said he planned to introduce in congress a bill ‘controlling just such abuses as was heard over the radio last night… Radio has no more right to present programs like that than someone has in knocking on your door and screaming,’ he added.”
The scandal and outrage, however, didn’t seem to affect Orson Welles even in the short term. The Mercury Theater On The Air gained an almost immediate sponsorship from the Campbell Soup Company and Welles himself gained a contract to make motion pictures. The first film Welles made with his contract: Citizen Kane.