Monday, October 28, 2013

The day the Martians landed

I grew up in South Jersey in the 1960s, about an hour from the city where the first Martian warships came to Earth exactly 75 years ago.

What -- you don't remember reading about the attack on Grover's Mill that sent thousands of people running for their lives? You can relive the event Tuesday at 9 p.m. on PBS-TV, when "American Experience" explores the most famous panic in radio history.

The show "War of the Worlds" pays tribute to the broadcast of that name by Mercury Theatre on the Air, which adapted H.G. Wells' novel into a one-hour show on Oct. 30, 1938. (Aptly, it was heard on the night before Halloween, aka Mischief Night.)

Folks who listened from the beginning knew they were hearing a radio play directed by Orson Welles. But much of the audience, which switched over to CBS during a lull in ventriloquist Edgar Bergen's popular show, broke into a "news bulletin" about a Martian heat ray wiping out U.S. troops.

Here's the original broadcast, perhaps the greatest hour of scripted radio ever:

Americans were already prepared to hear disastrous news on the radio. The Lindbergh baby kidnapping of 1932 and especially the explosion of the Hindenburg zeppelin in 1937 -- both of which happened in New Jersey -- had created radio sensations. And the international news leading up to the week of the "War" broadcast suggested that Hitler would trigger World War II at any moment.

So the terrifically exciting broadcast told us the apocalypse was near, and gullible folks reacted accordingly. The TV documentary recreates their reactions, with actors speaking lines from original accounts. (And not always convincingly: An alleged New Jersey resident mispronounces "Bayonne.") My favorite comment came from judge A.G. Kennedy of Union, S.C., who believed CBS should be sued and called Welles "a carbuncle on the rump of degenerate theatrical performance."

Any discerning listener would have known an Army unit couldn't mobilize within 15 minutes of the "landing," and anyone who stayed with the program soon realized it was collapsing time: Days go by before the story ends. But in an America that had no other forms of mass communication, plenty of people didn't make such distinctions.

Could we be fooled as easily again, in an era when television and the Internet give us immediate visual access to breaking news? Read Facebook posts and Twitter feeds the next time a bogus rumor spreads like cancer and give me your reply.