Orson Welles' classic science fiction radio broadcast “The War of the Worlds” turns 75 this year, and to celebrate, KPCC will re-air the show and distribute it internationally along with a companion documentary, introduced by "Star Trek" actor and sci-fi icon George Takei, just before Halloween.
The show — based on H.G. Wells' 1898 novel — will air at 8p.m. Oct. 30 on KPCC, as well as on the BBC and Minnesota Public Radio, among other broadcast entities. You can also attend a companion live event in KPCC's Crawford Family Forum that night or view it on streaming video here on KPCC.org.
It's been nearly eight decades since the Oct. 30, 1938, airing of "War of the Worlds" to millions of listeners on the CBS radio network, which famously panicked audiences into believing Martians were actually invading the town of Grover's Mill, N.J.
Now — as stock markets move by fake Tweets, viewers flock to TV shows that re-imagine current events and breaking news alerts ping on all platforms — the lessons of the hysterical reaction to the broadcast remain vital.
“I was only 1 when the ‘War of the Worlds’ was first broadcast,” recalls Takei, a Japanese-American who was interned with his family during World War II. “But I remember my parents and their friends talking about it."
Takei added: "When you think about how many Americans honestly believed the Martians were invading, it’s not hard to understand why Americans would – just a few years later – be so paranoid as to think Japanese-American citizens — who’d lived here for generations — could suddenly become America’s enemy simply because they happened to look like the people who bombed Pearl Harbor.”
While many listeners to "War of the Worlds" thought it chronicled an actual invasion, many others simply drew closer to their radios to hear a chilling tale told with all the realism of a live news event. It had never been done before, and “The War of the Worlds” changed mass media forever. In many ways, it was the blueprint for Welles’ “Citizen Kane,” released three years later.
Screenwriter Howard Koch (“Casablanca”) adapted Wells’ novel for the Mercury Theatre production. Many members of the Mercury Theatre made significant contributions to the broadcast, but only Orson Welles – known chiefly until then as the voice of “The Shadow” – could pull it all together, like a great conductor leading an orchestra.
As a companion to “The War of the Worlds,” KPCC is also distributing a new documentary on the radio production, “War of the Welles,” by R.H. Greene.
Greene’s work includes “Airborne: A Life in Radio with Orson Welles,” the first radio documentary to assess Welles’ full radio career. With new interviews — including Welles expert Leonard Maltin — plus archival sound from his vast collection, “War of the Welles,” which will be broadcast Saturday, October 26 and Sunday, October 27, in lieu of Off-Ramp, tells the backstory of “The War of the Worlds,” shows why it works so effectively as a radio show, and debunks myths about the production.
In "War of the Welles," Greene writes, “We remain fascinated not only because of the broadcast's dramatic impact, but because of the story behind the story. By sending terrified masses into the streets convinced a Martian attack had been launched, the Mercury ‘War of the Worlds’ taught us something deeply disturbing about ourselves: That no matter how sophisticated the tools of communication become, the trust we place in them, and the limitations of human perception, can make people susceptible to believing just about anything.”
Both the 1938 rebroadcast and "The War of the Welles" are being distributed through PRX, the Public Radio Exchange, free of charge to any station - public or commercial.
SCPR's 75th anniversary celebration of the broadcast, including the rebroadcast, "War of the Welles," and our Crawford Family Forum event, is produced by KPCC's John Rabe, host of KPCC's Off-Ramp program and producer of the NPR/ARW documentary "Walking Out of History," which told the story of Ernest Shackleton's "Endurance" voyage.
(Pierre Guillaud/AFP/Getty Images)