It happened the night before Halloween, 1938. “The Mercury Theatre on the Air” on CBS Radio broadcast a new version of “The War of the Worlds,” starring 23-year-old Orson Welles, 7 p.m. La Crosse time. Welles used fake news bulletins to make it sound like Martians were landing in New Jersey, and one actor playing a reporter who eyewitnessed the Martian attack on humans had listened to the broadcast of the Hindenburg explosion to help him sound realistically frightened.
One La Crosse church was reported in a near panic about the “invasion.” The phone company brought in an extra operator to handle calls. La Crosse’s only radio station, WKBH, was airing ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummy Charlie McCarthy at the same time, which was a much more popular program than “Mercury Theatre.” La Crosse Mayor C.A. Boerner thought the whole thing was terrible, even after Welles ended the broadcast by claiming the show was his version of a Halloween prank.
In October of 2003, WIZM aired a live recreation of the Welles program, performed from the stage of the La Crosse Community Theatre, now the Cavalier Theatre. But the original show took place in 1938, yesterday in La Crosse.