War of the Worlds

You might be wondering what a Science Fiction novel has to do with Avon Calling? Let’s blame Mr. George Jones. There’s a scene in Episode #16 Better the Devil You Know, where George flips out at some rather *revealing* news he’s just heard about Betty. Here’s the scene and what he says: 

” George started pacing, then threw his hands in the air. “Just – well, just a minute now! I mean the mind-reading business was odd enough, but all this is just –” he looked at his wife as if she had just grown an extra head. “Are you a Martian?” he croaked, throwing a glance over his shoulder, as if someone might hear. “That business in Grover’s Hill a few years back, on the radio, and then everyone rushing around with towels on their heads – we thought it was all a rouse, a spectacle for the radio, but maybe that was all just a cover up –” He seemed frantic now. “Jeepers Creepers, Betty! Please tell me you’re not an extra-terrestrial!”  

What George is referring to (and freaking out about), is a theatrical Radio Show that happened five years earlier, near his home city of New York (just over the border in New Jersey), based on The War of the Worlds. The original novel was written by H.G. Wells, and recreated on a live radio broadcast by Orson Wells in 1938. The format of the broadcast included a series of ‘real-time’ news bulletins interrupting the normal programming, which described an ‘alien invasion’ that was supposedly taking place in New Jersey. 

Hired actors (part of Well’s theatre troupe) read out the parts in a studio with acting worthy of an Oscar. He directed and read character parts himself, with all the gusto and conviction he could, confusing those tuning in mid-way, into thinking that they were not listening to a theatre show, but rather, the actual news itself!  

Legend has it, the radio broadcast got quite a reaction! As listeners heard the play-by-play description of explosions and objects falling from the sky over New Jersey, they began to get alarmed. Soon, the story escalated into a violent ‘Martian invasion’, with the U.S. military failing to stop it as clouds of poisonous gas were released across Manhattan. A ‘reporter on the scene’ coughs and splutters as he describes New Yorkers running for their lives as the gas moves towards him, then dramatically falls silent. After this, the occupation of the earth is told by Orson Welles himself, reading as a ‘survivor’ of the invasion, in his typical dramatic storytelling fashion.

Some listeners heard only a portion of the broadcast and, in the tension and anxiety prior to WW2, mistook it for a genuine news broadcast. Thousands of those people rushed to share the false reports with others or called CBS, newspapers, or the police to ask if the broadcast was real.  Soon, the studio was being bombarded by incessant phone calls and officials insisting Welles should stop the show. Policemen crammed into the bedlam with the actors, the press were clamoring for information on the attack for new stories and asking how many people had died in the stampede of frightened civilians and implying that others had committed suicide in terror of the invasion.  

Phone lines and electricity in an area of Washington were short-circuited in an unfortunate coincidence, leaving panicked people unable to call their loved ones to calm them or share information that the claims were false. Many of the listeners had missed the ‘alien’ part of the story and thought it was in fact, a war with Germany that was upon them.

Overall, it was a night to remember, and Orson Wells had some very fast-talking (and apologizing) to do to the city officials, the radio listeners, and the police. His reputation as a dramatist shot him to infamy. (And poor George Jones never quite recovered…)