‘War of the Worlds’ terrified listeners in Charlotte

“Sgt. John Dwyer, who was not listening to the radio, was on the desk at the Charlotte Police Department that Sunday night. He became aware of the hysteria when a woman walked in, an infant in one arm, a Bible in the other and a trembling boy clutching at her dress. She asked for protection from Martians.

“ ‘Sgt. Dwyer admitted that it was the strangest request the department had ever had,’ The Charlotte Observer reported the next morning beneath the banner headline: ‘Thousands Terrified By Mock-War Broadcast.’ He did his best to assure her all was well and sent her home.

“She was but the vanguard of Charlotteans who would be appealing to police that night, most of them by phone.

“At the Observer, calls poured in seeking information on the invaders’ advance. After answering 100, those on duty lost track of the number.

“ ‘Many of them refused to believe that what they heard was a play,’ the paper said. ‘Others seemed panic stricken.’ ”

— From “Remembering the night WBT dominated the scarewaves” by Mark Washburn in the Charlotte Observer (Oct. 30, 2013)


Another Charlotte mayor answered call to D.C.

Transportation Secretary nominee Anthony Foxx isn’t the first former Charlotte mayor to be tapped for a high-profile federal job.

That was Frank McNinch, who as chairman of FDR’s Federal Communications Commission (1937-39) dealt with controversial figures ranging from Orson Welles to Mae West. About Welles’ “War of the Worlds” McNinch lamented that “any broadcast that creates such general panic and fear… is, to say the least regrettable,” but resisted calls for increased censorship. West wasn’t so lucky: After McNinch chastised NBC for her suggestive delivery in an Adam and Eve skit, she wasn’t heard on radio for another 37 years.

Seventy-five years ago this month Time magazine put McNinch on its cover, reporting that “President Roosevelt — to whom radio means a lot — sent over [to the FCC] his acute and large-eared little trouble shooter, 65-year-old Frank Ramsay McNinch. Chairman McNinch comes from Charlotte, N.C., a thriving city of which he was twice mayor. A small but fearless Presbyterian elder, Mr. McNinch is against liquor (he keeps a vacuum jug of milk on his desk).”

“Large-eared” was just the first of Time’s characteristically snarky descriptions of McNinch’s appearance. Later in 1938 he was “goggle-eyed;”  in 1939, “pitcher-eared.”

McNinch’s house in Charlotte, a designated historic landmark,  is for sale for $2,195,000).


Bill of Rights? How ‘American’ is THAT?

“In the autumn of 1940 James Boyd, the engaging historical novelist and essayist from North Carolina, recruited an outstanding cast of writers to prepare a series of radio scripts….  Unsponsored and unpaid, this group called itself the Free Company and took as its mission a dramatic presentation of the Bill of Rights. ‘Our only purpose,’ Boyd explained, ‘is to remind people, in this hour of danger, how precious the American way of life is.’

“The writers felt determined to reach the broadest possible audience and by May 1941 there were, indeed, more than 5 million faithful listeners. Despite the self-evident ‘Americanism’ of the scripts, however, more conservative listeners and the Hearst papers disliked the internationalism and liberal tone….

“Boyd’s ‘team’ included William Saroyan, Archibald MacLeish, Stephen Vincent Benet, Orson Welles and Paul Green. Their 11 programs were heard on CBS and enjoyed extensive rebroadcasting  despite the flak…. More than 7,000 copies of the scripts were sold, and the Free Company received more than 10,000 fan letters.”

— From “Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture” by Michael Kammen (1991)