Sunday, October 30, 2011

What happened on the day before Halloween in 1938?

"Radio Story of Mars Raid Causes Panic"

Yup, it wasn't Halloween itself, but the day before, when Orson Welles broadcast that famous radio play "War of the Worlds" from the East Coast. As the sub-head read, "New Jersey Homes Abandoned After Fictional Broadcast."

October 30 was a Sunday in 1938, just as in 2011.

Welles announced that a meteor had fallen somewhere near Trenton, NJ, so newspapers, hospitals, and police departments were flooded with calls. This is long before 911, btw. "Flooded with calls" meant that the police dept switchboard got over 2,000 inquiries from the panicked masses. Surely, thousands more just couldn't get through.

A rumor spread in Newark that a "gas bomb attack" was imminent, then that a gas explosion actually occurred--so ambulances and fire trucks were sent to the Clinton Hills area of the city for naught.

Dallas, Tulsa, and other cities reported emergency calls as well, according the Los Angeles Times. In fact, the switchboards at the LAT were swamped. Hundreds of people called, and those in the downtown area just walked or ran into the newspaper office for updates, thinking the invasion was real.

Orson Welles pointed out that the broadcast started with music, that the script began with an announcement that it was now 1939 (the future), and that the show broke for regular commercials. Also, there were four announcements reminding listeners that this was a fictional story.

"It's too bad that so many people got excited but after all we kept reminding them that it wasn't really true," Welles said. "You can't do much more and hope to keep up any impression of suspense when you're putting on a play."

And, of course, a U.S. Congressman immediately announced that he would introduce a bill to curb such abuse of the airwaves.

The play was broadcast by KNX in Los Angeles.

While looking up this story, I can across another headline: "Autoist Dies of Injuries."


We try out and dump so many words over the years. I once talked with a man who was Very Angry. Why? Because someone had let our language change so much that he could no longer enjoy Shakespeare's English. He blamed academics--I guess he felt it was their job to keep our language from evolving.

The REAL headline story for 1938, though, told how "the widow Barnett" was dragged from her home after tear gas had been deployed, ending a two-year battle to evict her. I'm going to save that for another post, and try to find out more about the diary she kept, parts of which are hinted at in the newspaper.

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