Historicist: The War of the Welles




Historicist: The War of the Welles

Did Toronto panic during the broadcast of The War of the Worlds 75 years ago?

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Orson Welles and unidentified man, before 1950. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 4562.

Radio listeners enjoying the strains of Ramón Raquello and his orchestra on the evening of October 30, 1938 grew anxious. The mellow music they had tuned into on CFRB to wind down their weekend was interrupted by a steady stream of news bulletins concerning the observation of strange activity on the surface of Mars. Around 8:10 p.m., Toronto played its role in the unfolding drama:

Ladies and gentlemen, here is the latest bulletin from the Intercontinental Radio News. Toronto, Canada: Professor Morse of MacMillan University reports observing a total of three explosions on the planet Mars, between the hours of 7:45 p.m. and 9:20 p.m., Eastern Standard Time. This confirms earlier reports received from American observatories.

Sharp-eyed readers will observe a few discrepancies. The time is off by an hour. MacMillan University was not among our finer institutes of higher learning in 1938. The Intercontinental Radio News never chased a hot story.

The Martian invasion which followed wasn’t real either, but that didn’t prevent scared listeners from flooding the switchboards of every legitimate media outlet in Toronto with calls. While the level of hysteria didn’t approach that of south of the border, we weren’t immune from the impact of Orson Welles’s broadcast of The War of the Worlds.

The radio listings for 8 p.m. on October 30 gave little hint of the drama to come. A few listeners might have tuned into religious programming on CKCL (later CKEY) or Melodic Strings on CRCY (later CJBC). Most would have dialed CBL to listen to NBC’s The Chase and Sanborn Hour starring ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his wooden pal Charlie McCarthy. CFRB countered with CBS’s The Mercury Theatre on the Air, a series of adaptations of classic literary works spearheaded by 23-year-old boy genius Orson Welles.

Welles later admitted that he feared The War of the Worlds “would flop on account of being so dull and old-fashioned. We were afraid of being accused of going Buck Rogers.” Scriptwriter Howard Koch crafted an adaptation of H.G. Wells’s tale that, using modern news broadcasting techniques, tapped into the fears of listeners wearied by the recent Czechoslovakia war scare. Koch later described it as “that extraordinary night when the submerged anxieties of tens of thousands of Americans surfaced and coalesced in a flood of terror that swept the country.”

Part of the problem was that many listeners missed the show’s introduction. The Chase and Sanborn Hour tended to shed listeners whenever it brought on a musical act, and October 30, 1938 was no exception. People tuned out guest star Nelson Eddy (whose selections that evening included “The Canadian Logging Song”) and flipped around the dial. Anyone joining The War of the Worlds would have heard bulletins on the first Martian landing at Grover’s Mill, New Jersey.

Front page, the Telegram, October 31, 1938

Front page, the Telegram, October 31, 1938.

Switchboards lit up at all Toronto media outlets. Police forwarded calls to CFRB. Worried callers relayed the details of the invasion and asked for further information about the situation in New Jersey. “Typical of the calls,” reported the Telegram, “was that of a sobbing woman who asked what army had invaded the United States and whether the invaders would come to Canada.” The Star heard from a north Toronto man dealing with hysterical women after listening to the broadcast. It took a while to convince him it was only a radio play. “It does seem fantastic, but is it true?” he asked. “Why in the world did they put on a show like that?” Calls flowed in after the broadcast ended at 9 p.m. from people so caught up in their fears that they missed Welles’s closing disclaimer that the show was a “radio version of dressing up in a sheet and jumping out of a bush and saying ‘Boo!'”

A letter to the Star from one reader described how panic spread, and how simple precautions could have prevented it. As summarized in the paper:

The writer was urged to listen to the play by a friend who had missed the opening announcement. On hearing the description of the “Invasion,” the writer called a cousin, who became excited and called his mother. Before they learned the program was a play their entire circle of friends has been alarmed and one was on the verge of entering a church and warning the congregation. Ruefully, the writer remarked, the damage would have been averted had they looked up the advance billing of program on the Star’s radio page Saturday.

While there were no reports of people jumping out of windows or hospitals being flooded with hysterical patients, fear did provoke some sharp reactions. Students at Orde Street Model School told their teachers stories ranging from parents who ordered them to shelter in the basement to a boarder who hopped in his car after declaring “this is no place to stay.” In Burlington, diners at a restaurant shook hands and kissed farewell in preparation for their imminent demise.

Cartoon by Les Callan, the Toronto Star, November 1,  1938

Cartoon by Les Callan, the Toronto Star, November 1, 1938.

Papers consulted psychologists for their take on the scare. University of Toronto professor David Ketchum felt Torontonians worried so much about world events that it would take little prodding to make them believe Martians were invading or German war planes were flying over the city. “Just because people are getting more education today than a century ago,” Ketchum noted, “it does not follow that they are learning to think any more clearly.”

Politicians quickly expressed their outrage. Toronto mayor Ralph Day believed that future horror broadcasts should be censored. Controller Fred Hamilton joined calls for an inquiry. Toronto city council didn’t go as far as London’s, which adopted a resolution that condemned the show and called on the federal government to prevent future broadcasts that “might be calculated to disturb the peace of the inhabitants.” The feds didn’t take the bait, noting only two private stations (CFRB and Montreal’s CKAC) carried the show in Canada. Ontario Attorney General Gordon Conant resisted calls for provincial action, though he did say that such broadcasts were not in the public interest.

Cartoon capturing the general mood of Halloween 1938, the Telegram, October 31, 1938

Cartoon capturing the general mood of Halloween 1938, the Telegram, October 31, 1938.

Promoters of rival entertainment forms like movies and live theatre couldn’t resist skewering radio. Shea’s Hippodrome manager Jerry Shea felt “they should all be arrested for allowing such a broadcast,” while Royal Alex manager W.J. Breen believed “all kinds of stuff like that should be cut out.” Newspaper editorials, such as the Globe and Mail’s, warned about the power of radio and how easily listeners could be misled.

Radio is not taken like the movies or a stage play. By no means all the radio “fans” tune in at the beginning of a program and follow it to the bitter end. As entertainment, radio commands remarkably little concentrated attention. Many programs are tuned-in part way through. Many are interludes in conversation, heard, as it were, in snatches. Under these circumstances it would not be unfair to say that producers of the play were at fault in adapting the “news bulletin” to their drama without special precautions against misunderstanding. During the European crisis radio audiences grew accustomed to having programs interrupted by special news “flashes” as the various networks competed in covering day-to-day developments. To come suddenly on a news announcement of a “meteor killing 1,500 persons” near Paterson, N.J., would give most people a shock. After all, meteors do fall.

The broadcast sparked interest in the red planet, temporarily making Toronto’s astronomers the hottest interviewees in town. Neither the Dominion Meteorological Service on Bloor Street nor the David Dunlap Observatory in Richmond Hill received any panicky calls during the broadcast, however. When asked about the possibility of life on Mars, a Dunlap staffer told the Star’s Gordon Sinclair that “we couldn’t answer such a question with yes or no; it would have to be maybe.”

The man Toronto media really wanted to talk to was Orson Welles. Among the reporters who rushed down to New York was the Globe and Mail’s Bruce West, who asked Welles how it felt to become famous overnight. Welles’s reply:

My idea of fame always was that it might be something that…oh…made more people ask for your autograph, or maybe prompted the head waiter to bow a little lower when you walked into some swanky restaurant. But all this seems to be a little different. Every time I walk down the street now I hear some guy say “There goes that son-of-a-bitch Welles, who scared the hell out of us the other night.” This is not exactly the kind of fame I had in mind, when I used to dream about it.

Welles rode on his notoriety for a while, quickly earning the nickname “Man from Mars.” The Star capitalized on the furor by inviting Welles to participate in its Santa Claus Fund holiday broadcast. Aired on December 21, 1938 by both the CBC and private stations, the show was held at the Eaton Auditorium (now the Carlu) to raise money to provide “Santa Claus boxes” for needy children. Besides Welles, the broadcast’s other guests included Dionne quintuplets physician Dr. Allan Roy Dafoe (who auctioned photos of the quints), bandleader Percy Faith, Toronto Symphony Orchestra conductor Ernest MacMillan, and members of CBC’s Happy Gang. In the lead-up to the show, Welles gave the Star little hint of what he would perform: “I’ll probably make up my mind what I’ll do when I face the microphone.” He chose a soliloquy from Shakespeare’s Richard III, reportedly because he picked up a 98-cent paperback copy of the play at a railway station drug store.

Orson Welles "shown here smoking one of the set of pipes presented to him at the civic reception at noon yesterday " Welles is pictured with Rupert Lucas  The middle picture shows Star writer Greg Clark, Denton Massey, and Dr  Allan Roy Dafoe  The picture on the right shows Clark speaking with Wellington House resident William Williams  The Toronto Star, December 22, 1938

Orson Welles “shown here smoking one of the set of pipes presented to him at the civic reception at noon yesterday.” Welles is pictured with Rupert Lucas. The middle picture shows Star writer Greg Clark, Denton Massey, and Dr. Allan Roy Dafoe. The picture on the right shows Clark speaking with Wellington House resident William Williams. The Toronto Star, December 22, 1938.

Welles praised the city during the holiday broadcast. “I’m not from Mars,” he joked. “I’m from New York and very happy to be in Toronto. The entire city seems to be inhabited by Cossacks in fur caps. Mayor Day told me they were the policemen. They are entirely too polite for that—I don’t believe it.” After portraying the hunchbacked king, Welles apologized if he frightened anyone. He donated $25 to the fund “because this audience has been so good to him and for being allowed to read Richard the Third. It’s cheap at the price.”

Years passed before journalists who had worked in newsrooms during the airing of The War of the Worlds actually got to hear the tape from that night. Bruce West didn’t catch it until CHUM reran it for Halloween in 1973, and used his column to reflect on the reaction when it originally aired. “When reports of the great spoof and its spectacular effect upon the U.S. public appeared in the press, Canadians, as usual, smiled rather smugly at the curious antics of ‘those high-strung Yanks,'” West recalled. “But my countrymen didn’t fool me on the matter, because I had seen that night the switchboard in our newsroom light up like a Christmas tree as hundreds of worried Torontonians called the paper to seek assurance that the men from Mars weren’t heading our way.”

Additional material from The Panic Broadcast: Portrait of an Event by Howard Koch (Toronto: Little Brown and Company, 1970); the November 1, 1938, November 11, 1938, November 5, 1973, and November 6, 1978 editions of the Globe and Mail; the November 1, 1938 edition of the London Free Press; the November 1, 1938 edition of the New York Times; the October 28, 1938, October 31, 1938, November 1, 1938, December 10, 1938, December 16, 1938, and December 22, 1938 editions of the Toronto Star; and the October 31, 1938 edition of the Telegram.

CORRECTION: October 26, 2013, 4:36 PM This post originally referred to the Dominion Meteorological Service as the Dominion Meteorological Institute. We regret the error.

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