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Remembering the night WBT dominated the scarewaves

By Mark Washburn
Mark Washburn
Mark Washburn writes television and radio commentary for The Charlotte Observer.
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    Charlotte Observer front page the day after “War of the Worlds” broadcast.
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    Orson Welles reading a script for his “Mercury Theatre on the Air” program on CBS Radio.
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    DIEDRA LAIRD - dlaird@charlotteobserver.com
    Veteran broadcaster Robert D. Raiford in his Concord home with the antique radio over which he heard “War of the Worlds.”

“Good heavens, something’s wriggling out of the shadow … They look like tentacles to me. There, I can see the thing’s body. It’s large, large as a bear and it glistens like wet leather. But that face, it – ladies and gentlemen, it’s indescribable. I can hardly force myself to keep looking at it.”

– “War of the Worlds,” Oct. 30, 1938

In that era 75 years ago this Halloween, there was nothing to fear but fear itself.

But fear itself got a gnarly claw into the American psyche – for a brief time at least – with Orson Welles’ radio broadcast of “War of the Worlds.”

His adaption of the 1898 H.G. Wells classic started at 8 p.m. Oct. 30, 1938, on WBT radio and other CBS stations across the nation. Welles explained at the beginning it was just a dramatic interpretation. Music played, interrupted by official sounding bulletins from the New Jersey countryside. It ended at 9 p.m. with news that the Martians had been conquered by Earth’s most primitive defense: common germs.

Problem was, a lot of people missed the disclaimer at the beginning of “Mercury Theatre on the Air,” and subsequent announcements that it was just a play. And it was a great play. People thought it was true.

“The eyes are black and gleam like a serpent. The mouth is V-shaped with saliva dripping from its rimless lips that seem to quiver and pulsate. The monster, or whatever it is, can hardly move. … The crowd falls back now. They’ve seen plenty.”

Sgt. John Dwyer, who was not listening to the radio, was on the desk at the Charlotte Police Department that Sunday night. He became aware of the hysteria when a woman walked in, an infant in one arm, a Bible in the other and a trembling boy clutching at her dress. She asked for protection from Martians.

“Sgt. Dwyer admitted that it was the strangest request the department had ever had,” The Charlotte Observer reported the next morning beneath the banner headline: “Thousands Terrified By Mock-War Broadcast.” He did his best to assure her all was well and sent her home.

She was but the vanguard of Charlotteans who would be appealing to police that night, most of them by phone.

At the Observer, calls poured in seeking information on the invaders’ advance. After answering 100, those on duty lost track of the number.

“Many of them refused to believe that what they heard was a play,” the paper said. “Others seemed panic stricken.”

“A humped shape is rising out of the pit. I can make out a small beam of light against a mirror. What’s that? There’s a jet of flame springing from that mirror, and it leaps right at the advancing men. … Good Lord, they’re turning into flame!”

He’s still got the radio

In Concord, Robert D. Raiford was a lad of nearly 11 (he’s pushing 86 now) when he heard the broadcast.

“They said during the show that this is not real, it is a dramatization,” he recalls. “Any fool who listened to it could tell. Even I could tell and I was just a boy.”

Raiford heard the show on an Atwater Kent cabinet radio that his father bought in 1929. When his father built their Concord house in 1935, he installed an antenna in the rafters so distant stations could be received at night.

They’re all still there in the house — the antenna, the radio and Raiford.

“I cut my teeth on that radio, literally,” says Raiford. There’s a piece of decorative woodwork gnawed off by Baby Robert when he was teething.

In 1952, Raiford went to work for WBT and then onto a long career in broadcasting. He’s still at work, as resident curmudgeon on the “John Boy and Billy” morning show on WRFX-FM ( Fox 99.7).

And his memory of 1938 is still crisp. “That next day when everyone was talking about it, I couldn’t believe how dumb they had been.”

“All communications with Jersey closed … Our Army wiped out. … I’ve just been handed a bulletin. Cylinders from Mars are falling all over the country. One outside Buffalo. Another in Chicago. St. Louis.”

Gullibility on campus

On Carolinas campuses, the hive mentality was easily excited.

At Charlotte’s Chicora-Queens College, as it was then known, the broadcast was widely believed. Two women fainted, as women were apt to do back in those days.

Men, too – five male students had to be revived at Brevard College.

At Clemson, one student was found standing next to the river, prepared to jump in to escape Martian heat rays.

Another found religion. “One cadet was playing poker when the broadcast started; when it ended, he was praying,” The Charlotte News said.

Clemson cadet Ed Schmidt tried for 30 minutes before he managed to get a call through to his father in Roselle Park, N.J., not far from the Martian beachhead.

“There came the reassuring words, ‘If anything had happened, I would have known about it before you. By the way, how did Clemson come out with Wake Forest?’” the News reported.

“Enemy now in sight above the Palisades. Five – five great machines … Wading the Hudson like a man wading through a brook … He stands watching … His steel, cowlish head is even with the skyscrapers … They rise like a line of new towers on the city’s west side.”

‘An exciting experience’

Marion Dobbin of Davidson was a newlywed visiting her in-laws in Lake Forest, Ill., the night of the broadcast.

“I didn’t hear it from the beginning,” says Dobbins, now 97. “At first, I think we thought it was for real, then as we listened we realized it wasn’t. It was an exciting experience.”

Especially later, when those who’d been fooled found out it was just a play.

“People who tuned in a little late thought that was for real, and there was great consternation.”

As Halloween scares go, it was a classic. Scholars disagree on how many people were mistakenly taken in, but 75 years later, the show retains its notoriety in the nation’s — and the Carolinas’ — imagination. Welles’ soliloquy at the end of the broadcast was more insightful than he even he could have known at the time.

“This is Orson Welles, ladies and gentlemen, out of character to assure you that ‘The War of The Worlds” has no further significance than as the holiday offering it was intended to be – the Mercury Theatre’s own radio version of dressing up in a sheet and jumping out of a bush and saying Boo! … That grinning, glowing, globular invader of your living room is an inhabitant of the pumpkin patch, and if your doorbell rings and nobody’s there, that was no Martian — it’s Halloween.”

COMING SATURDAY: Another radio scare — the amoeba that attacked Charlotte. In Living.

Washburn: 704-358-5007
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