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New 'War of the Worlds' documentary — 'War of the Welles' — goes behind the scenes of the 1938 radio classic

Orson Welles directing on CBS.
Orson Welles directing on CBS.

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A new KPCC radio documentary, "War of the Welles," by R.H. Greene, goes behind the scenes of the famous 1938 CBS radio broadcast of Orson Welles' and the Mercury Theatre's "War of the Worlds" on the night before Halloween —  radio so realistic it panicked listeners who believed the Martians really were invading New Jersey.

"War of the Welles" is introduced by "Star Trek" actor George Takei and will air on KPCC's "Off-Ramp" Saturday, with a repeat Sunday. Among the highlights:

According to a CBS survey, 63 percent of listeners who tuned in late and missed the disclaimer at the top of the show believed it to be true. Sociologist Hadley Cantril, the sociologist who wrote the 1940 book “The Invasion From Mars,” analyzed two contemporaneous polls and found that of the 6 million people who heard the broadcast, 1.7 million believed it was real, 1.2 million were frightened by it, and (he speculates) 500,000 were too embarrassed to admit they were frightened by a radio show.

Orson Welles Sketch Book

“I had no idea that I’d suddenly become a national event," he said then. "We didn’t know it wasn’t a few people, [that] it was in fact nationwide.”  

“I stopped at a gas station, they gave me a Jersey map, and I spread the map out, closed my eyes, put the pencil down, landed on Grover’s Mills. Well, I thought, it has a good sound. American, and real.”  -- Howard Koch, NPR, 1988.

The Hindenburg Disaster

While almost every other byproduct of the Golden Age of Radio has been forgotten, "The War of the Worlds," is still remembered 75 years later.

If you watch the news conference Welles held on Halloween in 1938, you can hear that the broadcast's success seems to have scared even Welles. His magnificent voice is gone; he sounds like an adenoidal teenager.

Orson Welles on the panic from his "War of the Worlds" broadcast

In "War of the Welles," Greene shows how Welles got to this point. "The Fall of the City," a radio drama by Archibald MacLeish, was Welles' second credited radio role. CBS founder William Paley wrote, "The play made Orson Welles an overnight star."

Welles apocalyptic description of the slow, armored approach of “The Fall of the City’s” fascist superman, eerily anticipates the Mercury's reportage of Martian death machines. - R.H. Greene, "War of the Welles"

Welles worked closely on stage and radio with producer John Houseman. Mercury actress Geraldine Fitzgerald on their famed co-dependency:

“(Orson) was like a busted water main, his talent. It went all over the streets and down alleys, and filled up holes and made shapes and patterns. Then, John comes along and then with buckets and jugs and pots and pans he collects all this wonderful, wonderful material, and allows it to have more shape than perhaps Orson would have bothered to give it. But he had too much talent to be careful with it.” --Frank Beacham's audio documentary “Theatre of the Imagination,” 1988

"War of the Welles" airs on Off-Ramp at noon on Saturday, Oct. 26, and at 6 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 27.
The original "War of the Worlds," introduced by George Takei, will be broadcast on KPCC at 8 p.m., on Wednesday, Oct. 30.
Greene and KPCC's John Rabe will host a listening party for the original broadcast in the Crawford Family Forum at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, Oct. 30.

(R.H. Greene narrating "War of the Welles" at the Mohn Broadcast Center. Credit: John Rabe)

"War of the Welles," a 75th anniversary celebration of the Orson Welles/Mercury Theatre broadcast of "The War of the Worlds," was written, directed, edited and narrated by R. H. Greene, with help from Alana Rinicella; and produced by R. H. Greene and John Rabe for Southern California Public Radio. It was introduced by George Takei. Re-enactments were read by Tim Cogshill, Darroch Greer, Alana Rinicella, and John Rabe. Engineering help from SCPR's Dave McKeever and Doug Gerry, and NPR's New York bureau.

Script of "War of the Welles"