The Daily Star
---- — If there was ever a big boost in the career of actor, director, writer and producer Orson Welles, it came 75 years ago this coming week when radio was a media giant. It was Sunday night, Oct. 30, 1938, when Oneontans and those across the nation tuned in — many of them after the program’s introduction — to the Mercury Theatre play, “The War of the Worlds.”
By missing the play’s introduction, a listener would have missed the fact that he was listening to a fictitious news broadcast describing men from Mars invading northern New Jersey. This mock newscast sent residents from the New York-New Jersey area either scrambling in a frenzy to escape, or to pick up their guns and go fight the outer space enemies.
Radio listeners around Oneonta must have either heard the play’s introduction, or they were listening to the popular and competing Edgar Bergen-Charlie McCarthy show, as a look at The Oneonta Star over the next couple of days showed absolutely no reports of any such panic.
The Oneonta Herald of Nov. 3, 1938, reported, “Relatives of an Oneonta family were among the many New Jersey residents who were startled into leaving their towns on Sunday night … and being led to believe that a major catastrophe had struck the New Jersey area.”
“George S. Andrus of 32 West street received a phone call about 8:30 Sunday from his son, Emmon Andrus, of Campgaw, near Paterson, N.J., saying that he, his wife and their daughter … were leaving at once for Oneonta and asking his father to stay up for them. At 10:15 Mr. Andrus had another call from his son, then in Kingston, who explained that the radio announcement had been the cause for their hasty departure, but that on reaching Kingston they had learned the true nature of the broadcast.”
“They planned to spend the night there and to return home in the morning. Panic reigned throughout their section of New Jersey, Emmon Andrus said, with families frantically trying to flee from the imagined peril.”
Unlike the quiet in Oneonta, reaction was a bit stronger in Broome County. Many Oneontans subscribed to or purchased The Binghamton Press newspaper from paperboys in the afternoon each day, and there were no reports of panic published. The Binghamton Sun, that city’s morning paper and not locally distributed, had several incidents to report.
“The Orson Welles broadcast was little more than five minutes old before the Sun’s switchboard operator began to get a taste of the public’s apprehension over the situation,” the Sun reported on Oct. 31.
A restaurant proprieter told a Sun reporter that a woman rushed into a “Greek Halloween party … crying that ‘the world is coming to an end.’ The party was broken up, those present hurrying to their homes to spend what they believed were to be their last minutes with members of their families.”
“A gasoline station attendant on the South Side (Binghamton) was reported to have left his station unattended while he rushed home to kiss his wife farewell.”
“A group of neighborly Sixth Warders (Binghamton), led to believe ‘the end had come,’ left their homes to embrace each other in the street, according to a report reaching police headquarters.”
The aftermath of the broadcast was plentiful, in terms of reaction by the Federal Communications Commission and letters to the editor of larger city newspapers. Nothing was mentioned beyond the account of the Andrus family in Oneonta newspapers.
The Otsego Journal, based in Gilbertsville however, had some editorial comments in its Nov. 3, 1938, weekly edition.
“After the realistic performance of an H.G. Wells fantasy, Mr. Welles can rest on his laurels until the Butternut Valley goats come home.”
“But — the ‘white fathers’ in Washington are all in a dither … . This newspaper has held to the theory that RADIO, as practiced today, is a downright menace. It not only offends the ear, but great many times offends good taste. The perpetrators of this national crime are supposed to be men of intelligence.”
“The Journal ventures to predict that, come few more fantasies, the government will take over the broadcast systems. The usual fat head politicians will be given nice jobs, at public’s expense, to run them. In time, they will make such a mess of things, people will refuse to listen to the radio.”
“And, that is the most pleasant thought of all.”
On Monday: A bit of the local life and times in October 1988.
Oneonta City Text ColorSwatch/NoneStrokeStyle/$ID/SolidText ColorSwatch/NoneStrokeStyle/$ID/Solid$ID/NothingText ColorText Color$ID/NothingText ColorText ColorHistorian Mark Simonson’s column appears twice weekly. On Saturdays, his column focuses on the area during the Depression and before. His Monday columns address local history after the Depression. If you have feedback or ideas about the column, write to him at The Daily Star, or email him at email@example.com. His website is www.oneontahistorian.com. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/marksimonson.