War of the Worlds radio broadcast, Santiago (1944)
You would think that the lessons learnt from the 1938 Orson Welles broadcast would dissuade anyone
of sound mind from repeating the mistake, but just a few years later a second War of the Worlds
panic was unleashed on an unsuspecting listening public. At 9.30pm, on November 12th 1944 a number of
Chilean towns and cities were convulsed with panic when a radio station in Santiago staged
their own localised version.
It seems likely that the instigator of the panic knew Orson Welles at least by reputation,
since the script was written by an American called William Steele, who had worked in radio
broadcasting and had in fact scripted episodes of The Shadow, a show that Welles had starred
in for a period of time. I have no evidence to place the two men directly together (The
Shadow ran for many years and Wells was just one actor who portrayed the hero) but the
coincidence is compelling.
Steele and his assistant Paul Zenteno did exactly as Welles' writer Howard Koch had done
and decided to plot the conquest of Chile using familiar place names. The initial landing
site they settled upon was some 15 miles south of Santiago in the town of Puente Alto.
The same device of relaying the action as a series of news flashes was also employed, to
identical devastating effect, such that according to a Newsweek report of the time (27th
Nov 1944 issue) an electrician named Jose Villarroel, a resident of Valparaiso (70 miles
northwest of Santiago) was so frightened that he died of a heart attack. Villarroel
seems then to have earned the dubious honour of becoming the first person on Earth to
be killed in an alien invasion, something that even Welles' Martians failed to do.
The broadcast contained realistic references to organisations such as the Red Cross and
actors impersonating well-known voices. One such was the Interior Minister. The Santiago
Civic Centre was reported destroyed, as were air bases and army barracks. The play was
broadcast countrywide on the Cooperative Vitalicia Network and as the play fictitiously
reported roads jammed with refugees, so too in reality, thousands of listeners apparently
fled into the streets or barricaded themselves into their homes. It is even said that the
governor of one province telegrammed the Minister Of War to tell him that he had placed
his troops and artillery on alert to repel the invaders.
The broadcasters had given a weeks on-air notice of their intentions, and mentioned the
fictional nature of the broadcast twice during its proceedings, but of course the same
blind panic that had engulfed America in 1938 took hold. In an odd coincidence, a law
had been passed only a year previously in Chile banning the use of incendiary radio
broadcasts likely to cause upset to listeners, but for many of those effected, the
fines imposed on the station in no way alleviated their suffering that night.
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