Life was not easy for the cast and crew of Mercury Theatre on the Air. Days were spent perfecting sound effects. Nights were spent rehearsing for the on-stage play production Danton's Death. Sleep was a valuable commodity.

Howard Koch, scriptwriter for the Mercury Theatre productions, kept the same schedule. Koch had six days to adapt H. G. Wells' classic science fiction novella War of the Worlds, which proved more difficult than the other works he had previously tackled. The final script was more than an adaptation; it was a new creation based on ideas presented in the original work by Wells. To create a more familiar landscape for the American audience, Koch picked a random town from a map of the East coast: Grover's Mill, New Jersey. This town gave the aliens quick access to New York City, Washington D.C., and from there, the entire country. The planned path of destruction was all-encompassing.

In spite of the new locale, cast, crew, and other radio celebrities thought the show would fail. Members begged Welles to choose a new script. Koch was willing to forgo what little sleep he found time for to create Orson Welles and the microphonea new play by airtime on Sunday. But this script was Welles' project. Koch and Welles had incorporated a newly perfected broadcasting style listening audiences had quickly become familiar with: the news bulletin. The bulletin allowed short announcements to move the plotline of the play rather than spoken visual cues and dialogue. Between these brief announcements, audiences listened to music provided by "Ramon Raquello in New York". Cast members' biggest fears were these musical interludes. There was nothing stopping the audience from turning the dial if the music was not to their liking, or the plotline was too slow. Even after the dress rehearsal, the cast still feared a failure. However, two important factors were missing from the dress rehearsal: a fickle audience and Orson Welles.

On a normal Sunday evening, the Charlie McCarthy Show held its audience for the entire hour during the 8:00 Eastern time slot. This Sunday, the puppet's boring first guest had many people turning the dial. By the time the dial turners landed on CBS, the "meteor" had crashed into the Wilmuth's field and the aliens were disembarking. Although announced as a dramatic presentation at the beginning of the program, those tuning in late received no such information until the 8:35 station break (after all of the country had been destroyed). Relying on their knowledge of radio styles, listeners heard the news announcements and accepted the program at face value.

Welles pushed the "silence" between the announcements to help create the illusion of reality for the viewers. The extended musical selections built the level of anticipation and fear within the audience and cast members. This anticipation created a heightened awareness of character interactions within the play for the cast members, and the audience received a technically more advanced presentation than the static dress rehearsal.

The importance of these two factors cannot be stressed enough. Anywhere from 42% to 61% (two different surveys) of those who heard the broadcast tuned in after the opening. Of those who panicked, 80% tuned in late, and the other 20% either disregarded the opening announcement or thought the news bulletins were interrupting the actual broadcast. News announcements kept pouring in, and deaths were reportedly mounting. Listeners worried over the extended silences. When those silences were broken by announcements of poison gas flowing through cities, worried listeners panicked.

The War of the Worlds     
Back to Introduction PageBack Forward Forward to the News Broadcasts