On October 30, 1938, 85 years ago, 23-year-old actor Orson Welles shocked the nation with his dramatization of H. G. Wells’ story The War of the Worlds. It depicted a Martian invasion of Trenton, New Jersey.
The obviously fictional drama was broadcast nationwide on the CBS Mercury Theater program which aired at 5:00 P.M. in Los Angeles on KNX. The “too-realistic” drama unfolded using “news bulletins” which were especially frightening to the people who fled their homes before listening to entire broadcast.
The panic wasn’t limited to New Jersey. In Los Angeles, hundreds of people called the Los Angeles Times’ switchboard, some even came to the newspaper’s office to be reassured in person. In Ventura, an “excited man” called the telephone company about the “eastern disaster” while a young couple, with a half-dressed baby, rushed into a local drug store warning “the world was coming to an end.” The nation was already tense with the threat of world war developing in Europe. (Hitler’s invasion of Poland was less than a year away.)
At the year-old Columbia Square, CBS West Coast Vice President, D.W. Thornberg made light of matter. He said, “We get calls every time one of our fictional characters is supposed to have a cold.” He pointed out that four times during the broadcast it was announced the drama was “entirely fictional.”