When “The War of the Worlds” played in Albany

[nggallery id=17254]Haven’t done the ‘When It Played in Albany” feature in a while, so this is a good time to restart.

I’m going back to 75 years ago, when the Mercury Theater of the Air created a dramatic rendition of H.G. Wells’ classic War of the Worlds as a radio drama.  Over those three-quarters of a decade, War of the Worlds became both an audiophonic triumph and a classic study of mass hysteria and paranoia.

If you’ve never heard the original radio broadcast, here’s what happened.  On Sunday October 30, 1938, the Mercury Theater of the Air retold the legendary science fiction story, using radio broadcasts and simulated news reports.

Of course, the more important feature… as far as this current blog post goes… is, “When War of the Worlds was on the air, what else was being broadcast in Albany?  And for that matter, what was playing in the movie theaters at that time?”

Let’s go back in time.  It’s 8:00 p.m. on Sunday, October 30, 1938.


We do know that War of the Worlds aired locally on Albany’s CBS radio affiliate WOKO (1430 AM), while WGY (790 AM), an NBC “Red Network” affiliate at the time, aired the Chase and Sanborn Hour starting at 8:00 p.m.  The third network station in the area, WABY (1370 AM), an NBC “Blue Network” affiliate, aired a couple of musical interludes – a half-hour show called Out of the West, followed by a half-hour of chamber music from the Library of Congress.  Yawn.  Note: The AM frequencies listed are correct for their time period; these stations moved up the dial in 1942 as part of a nationwide radio frequency realignment.


The Chase and Sanborn Hour, at that time the most popular program on radio (35 million people tuned in each week, as opposed to 4 million for Mercury Theater), featured Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy that Saturday night, along with host Don Ameche and guests Madeleine Carroll, Nelson Eddy, Dorothy Lamour and Judy Canova.  Nice lineup for that time period.  In fact, if you want to hear that particular episode, click here.

Meanwhile, at that same time, Mercury Theater on the Air broadcast their hour-long recreation of War of the Worlds, and you can hear the entire hour-long drama transcription by clicking here.

The story is told that after Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy performed their first sketch of the night, the show went into a Nelson Eddy musical interlude.  By that time, many listeners who were NOT Nelson Eddy fans decided to change the channel – and stumbled upon live news reports of Martians tearing apart New Jersey and marching toward New York City.  And because Mercury Theater of the Air was an unsponsored show (the “Mercury” didn’t mean that the show was sponsored by the car company), there were no commercial breaks for cigarettes or shampoo or floor wax to convince listeners that they weren’t hearing a live attack from outer space.

Of course, as the night progressed, so too did the hysteria around the invasion from Mars.  There are stories of people ready to take up arms and drive to New Jersey to combat the Martians.  There were also stories of people ready to give up on life, thinking that all hope is lost and that the Martians would enslave the population of Earth.

In the Capital District, there were some examples of hysteria as well.  In the October 31, 1938 edition of the Times Union, a report is transcribed verbatim here:

Albanians last night shared the widespread hysteria caused by the radio broadcast describing a mythical invasion of this continent by “Men From Mars.”  Police headquarters received many calls from radio listeners and 200 persons telephoned The Times-Union to obtain further details.  One woman thoroughly convinced that an actual invasion was taking place even placed the transmitter of her telephone to the radio so the reported [sic] could hear “what was going on.”


Of course, the story became front page news.  A couple of days later, however, the Capital District returned to normalcy.  There were no signs of Martians marching up State Street.  Nobody saw any spaceships hovering over the General Electric factory.  And if there were any little green men going into Frear’s Troy Cash Bazaar, they were most likely looking for a sale.

And the movies that were playing that night in the Albany area that Sunday night?  They included:

  • tuwar3The Palace Theater had a double feature of Room Service with the Marx Brothers, followed by Gail Patrick and Lloyd Nolan in King of Alcatraz.  Also at the Palace: dedication ceremonies for Christian Brothers Academy.
  • The Hall Theater had two smash hits as well; the second big week for the film You Can’t Take It With You, and the action romance thriller The Return of the Scarlet Pimpernel.
  • Both the Albany and the Colonial offered the Mickey Rooney – Judy Garland film Love Finds Andy Hardy.  The Albany paired that film with Don Ameche’s Gateway, while the Colonial offered Lady in the Morgue, starring Preston Foster.
  • The Royal offered several B-films from 2pm to 11pm, including Victor Moore in This Marriage Business, Charles Quigley in Game That Kills, Charles Starrett in Law of the Plains, as well as the film Jim Hanvey – Detective, a Republic B-western called Call the Mesquiteers, and a Dick Tracy serial.  Adults 15 cents, children 10 cents.
  • The Ritz Theater offered two big first-run hits – Garden of the Moon with Pat O’Brien, and Penrod’s Double Trouble with Billy and Bobby Mauch.
  • The Grand presented Jane Withers and Arthur Treacher in Always in Trouble, paired with the Florence Rice / Dennis O’Keefe romance Vacation From Love.
  • Want to see what’s at the Strand?  They offered the exciting war film Men With Wings, starring Fred MacMurray and Ray Milland.
  • The Madison, one of Albany’s uptown second-run theaters, provided Too Hot to Handle with Clark Gable and Myrna Loy, along with Safety in Numbers with the Jones Family.
  • Over at the Leland, you could see Tyrone Power in Alexander’s Ragtime Band, along with James Gleason in Higgins Family and a Lone Ranger serial.
  • And finally, over at the Eagle, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Ginger Rogers are Having a Wonderful Time, while Michael Whalen and Lynn Bari offer Speed to Burn.

And there you have it.  Theater-goers may have completely missed the original hysteria because they chose to watch a Fred MacMurray film or an Andy Hardy flick.

Me? I probably would have preferred putting my headphones on and listening to Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds concept album.

But that’s just me.

And that’s what was playing in Albany the night War of the Worlds aired on WOKO on that Halloween Eve.