October 24, 2010 at 2:56 am #20
This story was originally posted in 2003. There is one new added item at the end. It’s an ad taking advantage of the hoax.
“War Of The Worlds” Shocks Portland & N.W.
72 years ago this month the entire Country was shaken by a program on the Columbia Broadcasting System. It was Orson Welles’ adaptation of “War of The Worlds”. Most of you know the story and the hysteria that occurred during and after the broadcast on the East Coast. For a national look at this story, check out the link featuring “The New York Times” here:
But what happened in Portland and the Northwest?
It was Sunday October 30, 1938, Halloween Eve and “The Oregon Journal” newspaper was running it’s daily radio column ad “Studio Air-Flo, KOIN-KALE”. Both stations were owned by The Journal. Among other programs highlighted in this column was:
“An invasion of the earth by inhabitants of Mars will be the imaginary theme of Orson Welles, when the ‘Mercury Theatre On The Air’ broadcasts an adaptation of H.G. Wells’ ‘War of The Worlds’ over KOIN today at 5 p. m.”
That’s right, 5:00pm which would have made it 8:00pm Eastern time. This was a Live broadcast across America. Most programs were in 1938. There was no time to warn the West, what was to come.
Snapshot of Portland Stations on 10-30-38:
KGW – 620 – NBC/Red
KOIN – 940 – CBS
KWJJ – 1040
KEX – 1180 – NBC/Blue
KALE – 1300 – Mutual/Don Lee
KXL – 1420
KBPS – 1420
On Monday October 31, 1938 the front page of “The Oregonian” far right hand corner read:
“All Nation Agog – Realistic Radio Drama Causes Hysteria – Play About ‘Man From Mars’ Invading World Taken to be Real Thing.”
The front page of “The Oregon Journal” far right hand corner read:
“Radio Play Quiz Begun After Panic – Nationwide Hysteria Follows ‘Realistic’ Presentation of Invasion From Mars; Federal Agency Investigates Program.”
A large picture of 23 year old Orson Welles with a CBS microphone appears with the U.P. article. Above the picture reads: Brought ‘Men From Mars’. Below the picture an article: “Orson Welles ‘Sorry’ – Feared Play ‘Too Dull.”
From “The Oregonian” which owned rival stations KGW & KEX, comes the best local coverage, headline read: ‘War of Worlds’ Shakes Portland – Calls Pour in by Hundreds to Newspaper Office.
[Now The Complete Northwest Story]
A wave of hysteria that swept across the United States Sunday night as the result of a realistic radio dramatization of H.G. Wells’ “War of The Worlds” reached all the way to Portland, 2500 miles from the scene of the fictional disaster.
The telephone switchboard of “The Oregonian” was swamped by hundreds of excited calls. Queries kept members of the newspaper’s editorial department and of radio stations KGW and KEX busy. Several persons rushed into the business offices of “The Oregonian” on the street floor, demanding information.
Police Kept Busy
Dozens of calls were made to “Portland Police” radio operators [KGPP]. Most of the callers demanding to know what protection the city could offer and what place might be safe in event the wholesale destruction spread to the Pacific Coast.
Radio station KOIN which released the program in Portland, reported it was able to answer 500 of the volley that swamped its switchboard. The station received complaints that three women had fainted and a doctor was called for one, the elderly mother of a retired army officer.
At Washougal, Wash., a man was reported to have loaded his family into a car and to have driven frantically through the streets looking for a haven of refuge.
The Portland office of the Western Union Telegraph Company was jammed with persons seeking to send telegrams to relatives in the East, inquiring as to their safety.
At Concrete, Wash., [32 miles East of Mount Vernon] Women fainted and men prepared to take their families into the mountains for safekeeping when electric power failed.
[The Oregon Journal continues this story]
Just as an announcer was “choked off” by “poisonous gas” in what he had just said might be the “last broadcast ever made” the town plunged into darkness. On man bolted from his home, grabbed a small child by the arm and headed for the pine forests.
[The Oregonian continues the story] For a time the village of 1000, verged on mass hysteria.
Elsewhere in the Northwest calls poured into newspaper and press association offices by the thousands. Seattle newspaper switchboard operators reported many hysterical calls from persons wanting to know if it was true New York had disappeared beneath the Atlantic Ocean.
Snapshot of Seattle Stations on 10-30-38:
KVI – 570 – CBS (Tacoma)
KIRO – 710 – CBS
KXA – 760
KOMO – 920 – NBC/Red
KJR – 970 – NBC/Blue
KRSC – 1120
KTW – 1220
KOL – 1270 – Mutual/Don Lee
KMO – 1330 – Mutual/Don Lee (Tacoma)
KVL – 1370
From “The Oregon Journal” local headline read: “Many Portlanders’ Hair On End During Broadcast”
[Now The Complete Northwest Story]
Radio’s “destruction of the world by Martians” got a rise out of many Portlanders’ early Sunday evening. Like their Eastern relatives, some Portlanders’ hair stood on end when “news flashes” in the dramatization by Orson Welles of H.G. Wells’ “War of The Worlds” over CBS and KOIN-The Journal from 5 to 6 p. m. carried the word that “here they come, tall as skyscrapers…they’re throwing a heat wave…etc.”
Don Price and George McGowan [formerly with KXLY, later KEX News Director], on duty at KOIN-The Journal studios, said that they answered about 100 telephone calls to reassure persons it was “all a dramatization.”
The “War of The Worlds” dramatization was a presentation of the “Mercury Theatre On The Air”, a Columbia chain sustaining program heard each Sunday over the network from New York City.
The Journal switchboard was “swamped during the play and calls came in intermittently through the evening, the operator reported. Apparently unlike some other cities, no telegrams of inquiry were sent via Western Union to Eastern ‘folks’. [note: The Oregonian had said it “was jammed”]
A member of the The Journal staff returning from the coast, was informed by a panic-stricken McMinnville service station attendant, “There’s no use buying any gasoline. The worlds coming to an end!” The Journal man insisted on getting his gasoline and driving along.
Sought Baptism, Absolution
Grants Pass, Ore., Oct. 31. – (AP) – A Grants Pass minister confirmed the report today that after last night’s fantastic radio drama of an invasion of the United States by men from Mars, several persons called in excitement at his home seeking baptism and the benefits of religion.
Leave it to a Oregonian newspaper advertiser to take advantage of all the “War of The Worlds” publicity with their November 2, 1938 ad:
Were You One of those fooled
By Sunday’s Radio Presentation
“WAR OF THE WORLDS”
Thousands of people were misled by this
fantastic bit of fiction. Countless thousands
more are fooled every day by fantastic ad-
vertising claims almost equally incredulous.
“Thirty dollar suits for twenty,” and “Walk
up town and save $10,” are statements
never a part of Lowenson’s advertising.
Lowenson’s never ‘blast” you with big space
filled with claims difficult to substantiate.
We prefer to modestly promise only this:
QUALITY CONSIDERED, LOWENSON
VALUES ARE EQUAL TO THE BEST
OFFERED UNDER ANY SELLING PLAN.
Don’t take our word for it. Shop for yourself.
GEORGE LOWENSON & SON
820 S.W. Washington, Corner 9th Avenue.
If you would like to read more about the “Mercury Theatre On The Air” or hear any of their programs, including this one, check out:October 24, 2010 at 7:57 am #1300
From what I understand, the program was up against “Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy”, a top rated show that happened to feature an opera singer that night and people tuned away in droves after the premise was established. All they heard were musical selections, interrupted by what appeared to be network news bulletins. Add to that, the fear of a Nazi attack and I can see how panic ensued.October 25, 2010 at 8:59 pm #1301
I absolutely love the local, West Coast angle on this (sometimes overdone) topic, and a radio piece I produced about the “War of the Worlds” panic in Concrete, WA will air later this week on KUOW in Seattle. Meanwhile, the audio has already been posted at the KUOW website:
In the piece, I use part of an interview I did back in 2003 with one of the last living witnesses to the Concrete, WA panic (he has since passed away).October 26, 2010 at 3:20 am #1302
Great Stuff Feliks! Always liked the Concreate panic best out of all the Northwest “War of The Worlds” stories. After piecing together the best parts of the Concreate story from The Oregonian & Oregon Journal newspapers, I knew there must have been more written. I figured Seattle papers were more in-depth. Just one of the drawbacks, reporting this story from Portland papers.October 26, 2010 at 10:16 am #1303
Nice job Felks! God, I wish radio could be this creative today…October 29, 2010 at 2:01 pm #1304
Thanks Dan and Craig!
What a great topic, especially as it pertains to radio in the West. You may remember that I did an earlier post a few months ago about high levels of radio ownership out here in the 1930s and 1940s:
In looking at a 1940 sociology book about public reaction to the “War of the Worlds” (the book is called “The Invasion From Mars” and is written by Hadley Cantril), I came across another interesting reference to radio listening habits in the West in this period.
Here’s a table from page 57 of Cantril’s book showing regional differences in the percentage of the total available audience who actually tuned in to “War of the Worlds.” It shows the West leading the way by several percentage points, and I’m still not satisfied that anyone can explain why the percentage is so high:
Mountain and Pacific: 20%
Middle Atlantic: 15%
West North Central: 12%
East North Central: 11%
New England: 8%
The table is followed by this paragraph:
“The high percentage of Mountain and Pacific states is undoubtedly due to the fact that LISTENING IN GENERAL IS HIGHEST IN THE FAR WESTERN PART OF THE COUNTRY (caps mine). The low figure for the New England states is due to the fact that Columbia’s Boston outlet (WEEI) did not carry the program.”
This assertion about Western listening in general cites a then-forthcoming book by Frank Stanton (later associated with CBS) called “Measuring the Listening Audience” that I have not been able to locate a copy of (perhaps the title changed?). Anybody know if this book was actually published? Please let me know.
Here’s a link to the relevant page from Cantril’s book via Google:
http://books.google.com/books?id=2c2-k6AvQtQC&lpg=PA56&ots=JGUFmGJqyL&dq=stanton%20%22measuring%20the%20listening%20audience%22&pg=PA57#v=onepage&q=stanton%20%22measuring%20the%20listening%20audience%22&f=falseOctober 31, 2010 at 11:35 am #1305
In case you didn’t get to see this, thought I’d bring the thread to the top one more time.October 20, 2011 at 4:35 am #1306
This from All Access:
KPCC To Air Orson Welles Special
SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA PUBLIC RADIO noncommercial News-Talk KPCC/PASADENA-LOS ANGELES will air a special audio documentary on ORSON WELLES on the 73rd anniversary of the first airing of WELLES’ legendary “Martian invasion” version of H.G. WELLS’ “WAR OF THE WORLDS.”
“AIRBORNE: A LIFE IN RADIO WITH ORSON WELLES,” produced by film documentarian R.H. GREENE, will air twice over the HALLOWEEN weekend as part of the station’s “OFF-RAMP” magazine hosted by JOHN RABE, once at noon (PT) on SATURDAY (10/29) and again at 7p SUNDAY (10/30). A podcast with 20 extra minutes will be posted at the KPCC website the same week.
“The War of the Worlds was fantastic radio,” said GREEN, “which is why it’s still revived on dozens of stations every HALLOWEEN. But few people know that Welles also pursued careers as a radio comedian, a wartime propagandist, and a serious political commentator over the air, or that his American radio career ended with a heroic act of great personal sacrifice.
“It’s a great American story, one I’ve always felt was hiding in plain sight — neglected, I think, because of the hectic nature of WELLES’ radio experiments and because the world of radio’s ‘golden age’ is so remote to us today.”October 31, 2011 at 1:55 pm #1307
😈October 31, 2011 at 4:07 pm #1308
BOO!November 2, 2011 at 3:12 am #1309
I wasn’t born until 1951 and missed the golden age of radio. I really feel that I missed out on something. My father always told me that listening to the radio shows of the 1930s and 1940s were much better than watching the TV shows of the 1950s up to the present. I can’t say that I disagree with him. Radio is something that I hope never dies. I wouldn’t mind if they brought back the old radio dramas, news accounts, and comedy from that time period. What a novelty that would be to force people to use their imaginations again!
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