On Halloween Eve 75-years ago, Radio Play Alarms Wilmington

What's on the Air, a guide to radio programs from the 1930s

What’s on the Air, a guide to radio programs from the 1930s

The end of October is normally a scary time in Delaware as Halloween rolls around.  But on Mischief Night 75-years-ago the season for frights took on special significance after people dialed up a popular regular theatrical broadcast on the radio.  As bulletin after bulletin interrupted the popular production, the news flashes out of New Jersey growing more urgent with each passing minute, many listeners believed the world stood on the edge of an occupation and destruction by invading aliens from outer space.

Listening to the drama some in Wilmington were unnerved, expecting the strange unidentified flying objects, the deadly gas, and grotesque creatures to sweep across the Delaware River any minute and charge through the streets.  However the scary stuff, the antics, the theatrics, and the all too real on scene reporting were part of a show designed to entertain the national audience, although plenty of people mistook the realistic dramatization for the real thing.

It certainly caused a fright for many people who already had ghosts, goblins, and specters, as well as mischief makers on their mind.  But on this Devil’s Night, it wasn’t witches on broomsticks or goblins floating through the air that kept Wilmington Police on edge.  Nor was it costumed pranksters or vandals as police assigned an extra platoon, being vigilant for stunts that crossed the line.  Getting frequent calls of that nature, radio cars had been scurrying from one end of the city to another, trying to grab mischievous youngsters, the Sunday Star reported.

But the sudden jamming of the Wilmington Police switchboard “with calls from half-hysterical residents” startled the lawmen.  That sudden, unstoppable, urgent jangling of the desk sergeant’s phone at headquarters, with people babbling about Martians invading Delaware and wanting to know what they should do before they reached the City, had the officer’s asking what was going on when they normally just chased youthful scamps during the annual celebration.

wilmington war of worlds broadcasting

Headline from the Wilmington Morning News in October 1938.

Apprehensive residents also swamped the newspapers and radio stations, jamming circuits across the city as near hysteria affected some, who mistook the far too realistic broadcast for the real thing, the Star observed.  One man ran into a mid-city restaurant, creating near panic by excitedly shouting about the invasion from Mars, “warning they’ll be here any minute.”  Another broke into a service at a suburban church to get his mother.  “He said he was going to take her to safety, warning the rest of the congregation to leave.”

WDEL, a part of the NBC Red Network, was in the middle of another Sunday evening show when the announcer started getting calls from panicked people seeking information about the death and destruction in New Jersey and the approaching Martians.  Since the Wilmington Station wasn’t broadcasting the Mercury Theatre of the Air’s War of the World’s show the surprised announcer working fright night checked with the puzzled city police about the invasion.  But headquarters was just as mystified by the abrupt, unexpected terror sweeping the city as they answering those scared voices asking about the attack by the Martians: “What’s it all about?  Is it safe to stay here?  What should we do?”  When he checked with his network sources, he quickly sorted it out.  It was part of the Sunday show on The Columbia Broadcasting System so the DJ began wearily informing caller after caller, some on the edge of panic, it’s a play.  “One man told the station he had to turn the radio off when his wife became hysterical, and all his children started crying.  Two or three people came to the station in person.”

The exchanges at the Diamond State Telephone Company switchboard received an unprecedented volume of calls too.  Many people made long-distance calls to New Jersey to check on friends or obtain information.  Others hearing low flying aircraft pass over were convinced it was the arriving Martians.

Finally things settled down in Wilmington and the unusually eerie Halloween season night of October 30, 1938, came to an end as the sun of another day lifted the darkness of that unforgettable evening in the City so long ago.  The men from Mars had all been part of a radio play, delivered courtesy of Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre on a coast-to-coast program of the Columbia Broadcasting System.

wilmington war of worlds broadcast 1

A radio advertisement from October 1938 in the Wilmington newspaper.

What's on the Air, a guide to radio programs from the 1930s.

The Tonnerville Trolley was a Delaware cartoon. It appeared daily in the Wilmington Morning News.

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2 Responses to On Halloween Eve 75-years ago, Radio Play Alarms Wilmington

  1. Andy Rokita says:

    Great blog entry. I remember back in school I had a case study about War of the Worlds. Just to let you know, this Tuesday night on WHYY at 9 PM the program, “The American Experience” will show an episode about the airing of War of the Worlds in 1938. I have my DVR set!

  2. Mike Dixon says:

    Thanks Andy. Also I will check out the broadcast.

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