Orson Welles will forever be remembered as the director of arguably the best film ever made, Citizen Kane (though, honestly, my first association with him was shilling Paul Masson wine, “We will sell no wine before its time.”). But when he was a 23-year-old wunderkind stage director, a certain radio performance launched him into fame.
On Halloween Eve, 1938, Orson Wells directed and performed H.G. Wells’ science fiction thriller War of the Worlds on the hour-long radio drama, The Mercury Theatre on the Air. He made the choice, with the agreement of producers, to spin the story like it was live breaking news. Except they underestimated the public’s response. At that time, with the ongoing Great Depression, the Hindenburg crash, and brewing trouble with Hitler in Europe, Americans were paying special attention to bad news on the radio. When Welles announced that aliens had landed in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey, and shortly thereafter (in truncated “real time”) had obliterated thousands of state militia, well, the listening audience flipped out. The show was 2/3rds over when it was demanded that Welles cut in to remind the audience that it was a drama. But by then, it was too late for some panicked citizens, who were packing up and fleeing their homes, running from alien invasion.
American Experience: War of the Worlds is an entertaining hour recapping the days leading up to the broadcast, as well as the aftermath, where the public’s panic turned Welles in to a media sensation. If anything the hour feels rather slight. Perhaps Welles’ broadcast has taken a life of its own in pop culture mythology. Despite the media coverage of the public panic, it is thought that that part of the story was overblown from reality. Sure some people panicked when they turned on the broadcast in the middle of the breathless reporting, but it reflected that media, just like now, loved a good story and milked it for all it was worth.
To flesh out the hour, the American Experience special has actors re-enacting letters and interviews from the public at the time. These “interviews” are done in black and white, with period clothes, and, as amusing as they were, seemed a little corny in context of what I was hoping was a serious account of a very famous moment in America’s collective cultural history. Still, the event changed not only the public, but also the media and its responsibility to its audience–and that is a fascinating story alone.