Wednesday, October 26, 2016
COUNTDOWN TO HALLOWEEN BLOGPOST #26: ORSON WELLES AND THE TERRIFYING POWER OF RADIO
Everything about this incident speaks to the power of radio and the human imagination. Individually they can create magic, together they can create worlds. Sometimes, however, they can create a war of the worlds, and that's exactly what happened on October 30th, 1938.
Orson Welles had already created a name for himself as a theatrical prodigy, taking the stage by storm at a very early age. His reputation as an actor was undisputed, and his Mercury Theater company was building a name as a home for uncompromising artistic vision. It only made sense that he would take that vision to the blossoming world of radio, and in 1938 he created The Mercury Theater On The Air.
The show took classic works that Welles' theater company performed and translated them to radio. The cast was high caliber, and the music was composed and arranged by Bernard Herrmann, who was no slouch either. Quality material and acting isn't necessarily a guarantee of ratings, and The Mercury Theater On The Air performed poorly. Welles needed something big to try and turn the tides.
Shifting their focus from more traditional classic works, Welles decided to take a step into the world of Science Fiction for their Halloween broadcast by adapting H.G. Wells' The War Of The Worlds, a classic alien invasion story. Unfortunately, the writers were having trouble adapting the story to radio. Traditionally they would do fairly faithful adaptations of the works they performed, but that wasn't working with the H.G. Wells classic. With less than two days to go before broadcast, the story still couldn't be cracked.
The day before broadcast a script was finally submitted to the radio network for approval. It was decided to create the show out of a series of interrupting radio news bulletins that announced strange phenomenon and outer space activity. These would cut in during music programming that was deliberately conceived to be long and drawn out. As a result, the tension would build because people had no idea what was going on while the music played. Why was the music still playing if something horrible was happening? Was earth really under attack?
The legend has it that the realism of The War Of The Worlds broadcast created mass hysteria. People jammed phone lines with calls to the police and loved ones, and there were a few alleged instances of people committing suicide because Earth was being conquered by invaders from another planet. These reports are viewed as today, as the show had relatively low ratings, but that didn't stop Welles from milking the publicity for all he could.
Welles feigned ignorance over the effect his show would have over people, claiming he never meant to drive people to the brink of hysteria. A press conference was hastily organized, at which Welles apologized to the American public, There is no denying, however, that police were sent to the studio to investigate, and that the network felt they needed to cut into the broadcast to announce that the performance was a work of fiction. John Houseman, a member of the theater troupe, has this to say:
The following hours were a nightmare. The building was suddenly full of people and dark-blue uniforms. Hustled out of the studio, we were locked into a small back office on another floor. Here we sat incommunicado while network employees were busily collecting, destroying, or locking up all scripts and records of the broadcast. Finally, the Press was let loose upon us, ravening for horror. How many deaths had we heard of? (Implying they knew of thousands.) What did we know of the fatal stampede in a Jersey hall? (Implying it was one of many.) What traffic deaths? (The ditches must be choked with corpses.) The suicides? (Haven't you heard about the one on Riverside Drive?) It is all quite vague in my memory and quite terrible.
The accounts of that evening are fascinating, and you can read a bit about it on the Wikipedia page for the broadcast. Orson Welles, the master of the stage, had manufactured a broadcast so terrifying that people were taking to the streets out of fear.
Growing up as a radio obsessed kid, I would often read about old radio shows. My dad would tell me stories about listening to them when he was my age, and I was always bummed that I could never hear them on air. We would go to the library and I would check out LPs of old broadcast, and I would sit by the record player taking in the worlds that were being created from silence. Acting and sound effects made something come vividly alive. This was most definitely the case with The War Of The Worlds, a record I checked out repeatedly throughout my childhood.
Since we're in the midst of pledge drive, it seems only appropriate that this post is all about the power of radio. KMSU is a magical place, a home to possibilities of radio. Everyone up here is a true believer in what radio can do and can be, and we hope you are, too. Please take a moment and pledge your support to 89.7 The Maverick. Call 507-389-5678 or 1-800-456-7810, or you can go to kmsu.org and click the Donate to KMSU link.
Here's the original broadcast of The War Of The Worlds, as heard on Sunday, October 30th, 1938. It's a masterpiece.