On This Day in 1938: Thousands Panic When Nelson Eddy Begins to Sing

Last night, I watched The Red Dragon (1945), another one in the long-running series of Charlie Chan movies. To my surprise, there was a familiar voice in the cast: Barton Yarborough, one of the three comrades of the I Love a Mystery radio serial I’m going to review, starting tomorrow. On the radio, Yarborough’s Texan drawl was taking center stage, and, “honest to grandma,” I’ll sure enjoy hearing it again in the weeks to come. Before I get started, however, I need to acknowledge the anniversary of what is unquestionably the most famous of American radio plays, the Mercury Theatre production of “The War of the Worlds.”

Airing on this day, 30 October, in 1938, it had a profound effect on millions of Americans—the hundreds who panicked while tuning in and the considerably greater number of radio listeners who would suffer the consequences of this prank: FCC regulations, censorial squeamishness, and a whole lot of spiritless broadcast drama. Could Nelson Eddy be to blame for it all?

As “The War of the Worlds” got underway, Eddy was just about to burst into song on The Chase and Sanborn Hour. Now, CBS’s sustaining (that is, commercial-free) Mercury Theatre broadcasts were no match for NBC’s Sunday night feature, the ratings behemoth sponsored by the makers of Chase and Sanborn Coffee; about ten times more listeners tuned in to the latter than could be convinced to hear young Orson Welles and his celebrated players.

And yet, to most Americans, the main attraction of The Chase and Sanborn Hour was not Nelson, lord of the operetta, but ventriloquist dummy Charlie McCarthy (pictured above, sort of, by yours truly). So, once Charlie (or Edgar Bergen, the man who gave him life) stepped away from microphone to let Mr. Eddy sing, quite a few listeners might have felt compelled to twist the dial, tuning in “The War of the Worlds” just as the arrival of the Martians was being announced in a series of fictive bulletins. Having missed Welles’s introduction, which alerted listeners to the fictional nature of the program, those turned off by operetta and not crazy about highbrow theatricals would have been more likely to fall for news about “The War.”

Back in the late 1990s, when Robert J. Brown examined “The War of the Worlds” in Manipulating the Ether, this particular episode of the The Chase and Sanborn Hour was not yet widely known to radio scholars; now that recordings of this broadcast are readily available, we should really give it a listen to get the larger picture. As I discovered anew a few weeks ago, it is a mistake to dismiss the response to the Mercury Theatre‘s Halloween hoax as a symbol of an ostensibly innocent past.

3 Replies to “On This Day in 1938: Thousands Panic When Nelson Eddy Begins to Sing”

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