Tuesday, October 30, 2018

80th Anniversary: Orson Welles' "War of the Worlds" Radio Drama Broadcast

If you have an hour tonight, you might want turn off the lights and stream the 1938 Mercury Theatre production of "War of the Worlds." The program, with such a small listenership that is did not have a sponsor, incited an hysteria over Martian armies invading New Jersey.

Based on the book by H.G. Wells, and presented as a series of radio bulletins by Orson Welles, "War of the Worlds" is infamous as the "radio broadcast that panicked America." Since the show did not have to have a commercial announcement in between each act (no sponsor = no commercials), it helped with the realism of the thing.

Although accounts vary, it's fun to think that many people listened and thought that the country was really being invaded. It was pretty easy to tune into other stations and see that they were NOT talking about Martians and death rays.

As for me, I got the record (above) when I was a kid. (Thanks, Dad!) I listened to it many times. I don't know if there was some big panic, but PBS has a new American Experience special that says so.

The record was my introduction to Welles and I still remember playing it when I was ten years old in my corner bedroom in Lawrence, KS while I drew pictures at my desk.

There was a book, and then a made for TV movie title "The Night That Panicked America" (1975). It starred a bunch of TV actors of the time (Meredith Baxter Birney, Tom Bosley, Will Geer, Casey Kasem, Eilen Brennan). Based on the book by Howard Koch, the story and screenplay was by Nicholas Meyer. As of now, you can find it on YouTube.

Watch a preview for the PBS American Experience "War of the Worlds" documentary online here.

1 comment:

Brian Fies said...

I'd always heard that the Welles broadcast panicked the nation, then later heard the revisionist story that it hardly panicked anyone at all. Newspaper clippings seems to support the "no panic" version of history--the broadcast was barely mentioned the day after--so I'm looking forward to American Experience setting the record straight. In any case it was undeniably a brilliant piece of theater. When and where I grew up, there was a radio station that played it every Halloween to great effect. I love it!

A minor point: your link to the American Experience piece doesn't work for me.