If there was one event that dictated the primary setting of Mercer Street, released last week, it was a radio broadcast that was supposed to be no more than an early Halloween treat.
When Orson Welles took to the airwaves on an otherwise quiet Sunday evening seventy-seven years ago, he intended merely to entertain an audience. Instead, he turned a nation upside down.
On that night, Welles directed and narrated a radio adaptation of H. G. Wells' novel The War of the Worlds. The realistic performance, broadcast to 12 million listeners on the CBS radio network, sparked a mass hysteria unmatched in American history and catapulted the 23-year-old Welles (pictured below) to international fame.
Mercer Street because I thought it perfectly captured the tenor of the times. Many Americans believed "Martians" had invaded New Jersey, despite numerous disclaimers, because they lived in a world where scary things happened every day.
Hitler had just annexed a chunk of Czechoslovakia and looked at the rest of Europe with hungry eyes. America was militarily weak and still mired in a decade-long depression. Fantastic claims could not be disproved by searching Google or even turning on the news. On October 30, 1938, Orson Welles WAS the news.
As a result, many people took what they heard seriously. Motorists near Grovers Mill, New Jersey -- the extraterrestrial invasion's launching point -- jammed local roads and highways. Others overwhelmed switchboards with frantic calls to police. People in other parts of the United States responded in similar fashion.
The radio performance even created a stir in Concrete, Washington, nearly 2,400 miles west of Ground Zero. Some residents fled into the mountains when a power failure during the broadcast plunged the small community into near total darkness. Chaos reigned.
Researching the episode was a memorable experience. When reading dozens of newspaper, magazine, and online articles describing the event, I was able to immerse myself in a simpler, less cynical, more innocent era. I was able to easily understand how up to one million people had simply lost it, if only for an hour.
Much has been written about the broadcast, its aftermath, and its impact on everything from Welles’ career to the radio industry itself. I encourage those interested in this fascinating chapter in our nation’s history to learn more.
Thanks to the magic of the Internet, you can even listen to the entire War of the Worlds broadcast. It can be found at Archive.org.
(Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.)