Danny Tyree: The Martians were coming!
Ah, time passes faster than a flying saucer. So we blink and find that Oct. 30 marks the 75th anniversary of one of the most embarrassing incidents in American history.
I’m speaking of the hysteria surrounding the CBS radio adaptation of H.G. Wells’ science fiction novel “The War of the Worlds.” The first two-thirds of the hour-long “Mercury Theatre on the Air” broadcast (directed by and starring Orson Welles) was designed like a live newscast. More than one-fourth of the 6 million listeners tuned in late, missed the disclaimers, and thought that tentacled Martians were actually landing on earth and (without “Take me to your leader” niceties) using brutal “heat rays” to incinerate every civilian, soldier and weapon they encountered.
Those who remained with the program until the bitter end learned that the aliens (75-YEAR-OLD SPOILER ALERT) were ultimately defeated by common earth bacteria for which they had no immunity. Granted, one Brooklyn mother insisted that the extraterrestrials actually failed because they refused to wait an hour after eating before wading the Hudson River with their tripod machines.
And timing certainly mattered. A scene cut from the script had one dying alien grousing to another, “I wanted to schedule the invasion when earth had the Powdered Wig Generation or even the Big-Wheeled Bicycle Generation, but YOU had to go up against The Greatest Generation, Mr. Big Shot! All these humans saying ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am’ and pulling their pants up and offering to buy us a new spaceship for a nickel have got me off my game!”
An unnamed source said that President Roosevelt was a bit peeved by the reaction to the show, muttering, “‘Say goodnight, Gracie’ they remember — but ‘nothing to fear but fear itself,’ they forget. I’d like to give the ingrates a NEW New Deal, but Eleanor insists I watch my language.”
Historians have questioned early reports of suicide attempts and wild gunfire, but references to the broadcast have permeated popular culture over the decades. (ABC aired the movie “The Night That Panicked America” in 1975. “American Experience” on PBS will examine the events on Tuesday.)
When I was trying to become a professional cartoonist (circa 1976) I drew a strip in which my main character (Tat McGrat) chuckled at the silliness of people overreacting to something they heard on the radio. Of course he was next seen running screaming from the house because a radio newscaster declared, “President Ford has just announced his newest economic policy.” (Wow, a punchline so subtle you could see it from the Red Planet.)
COULD a “War of the Worlds” broadcast cause such hysteria today? Not likely, considering the fragmented listenership, fact-checking websites and general cynicism of our age. Crashing alien cylinders would be deemed less dangerous than Lindsay Lohan’s driving. Donald Trump would demand to see the tentacled aliens’ birth certificates before accepting that they weren’t Kenyan. No one would believe the Martians could afford the airline “carry-on” charge for bringing the heat rays.
Still, we have our own ways for spreading hysteria in smaller doses. (“A CELEBRITY said vaccinations cause spontaneous combustion in children! A CELEBRITY said that avoiding piles of broken glass can lead to Siamese twin births in ...”)
When is the next ship for Mars?
Danny Tyree welcomes reader e-mail responses at firstname.lastname@example.org.