Chaos of "War of the Worlds" remembered 75 years later

Newspapers were filled with stories of the chaos that followed the "War of the Worlds" broadcast.
CBS News

(CBS News) NEW YORK - At the age of 97, William Herz has a lifetime of memories to look back upon, but there's one dating back 75 years that stands out.

The Mercury Theater on the Air, a drama company founded by little-known director Orson Welles.
The Mercury Theater on the Air, a drama company founded by little-known director Orson Welles.
CBS News

In 1938, Herz was a member of the Mercury Theater on the Air, a drama company founded by a little-known director named Orson Welles.

"He was a brilliant, wonderful, impossible human being," Herz says.

The Mercury Players broadcast on CBS Radio. On Oct. 30, Halloween Eve, they did an adaptation of H.G. Wells' "War of the Worlds." Herz, the only surviving member of the cast, read Welles' part during dress rehearsal.

"I really thought it was pretty far out and people would not respond to it," Herz says.

William Herz
William Herz
CBS News

Herz couldn't have been more wrong.

"During the broadcast, outside, policemen were coming," Herz says. "They were told on the radio that the Martians were coming, the Martians were coming! But they didn't come."

The next day, newspapers were filled with stories of the chaos, and a stunned Welles was forced to address the critics.

"We are deeply shocked and deeply regretful about the results of last night's broadcast," Welles said at the time.

Watch: Orson Welles' first professional film discovered, below.

"He just did the biggest publicity stunt that had ever been done," Herz says, agreeing that it was the event that catapulted Orson Welles into the national consciousness.

It may be hard to imagine in our image-soaked modern world of Twitter and Instagram: There was a time not too long ago when people could imagine horror for themselves, proving that the good old days were not always better.

  • Jim Axelrod

    Jim Axelrod is the anchor of the Saturday edition of the "CBS Evening News" and a national correspondent for CBS News, reporting for the "CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley" and other CBS News broadcasts.