Wednesday, October 30, 2013


75 years ago, on October 30, 1938, a 23-year-old Orson Welles terrified the nation. Kind of.

Inside the CBS building, from the studio on the 20th floor, Welles and his Mercury Theatre On Air team performed the infamous WAR OF THE WORLDS broadcast for Sunday night radio listeners.

Welles used radio clips from Herbert Morrison's reporting on the Hindenburg Disaster to illustrate the tone he wanted for the broadcast and writers Howard Koch and Anne Froelick (both of whom became successful screenwriters until they were blacklisted for Communist sympathies) got to work.

Welles, Koch and Froelick structured the re-imagining as a news broadcast with Welles acting as the main narrator. Since it was a sustaining show, it ran without commercial breaks and the uninterrupted flow only heightened the realness of the broadcast.

In the years since the broadcast, the legend that Welles sent the nation into a panic has grown. Slate has a great article on the reality of the situation, which says that pretty much everyone knew it was radio program and wasn't actually happening.

Newspapers were the ones yelling the loudest, but as Slate claims, it was mostly because they were angry that they'd been losing advertising to radio shows and wanted to portray radio newscasts as unreliable. So when they were able to grab hold of something like Welles' WAR OF THE WORLDS broadcast, blow it out of proportion and sensationalize it to their benefit, they did.

Neither Welles nor CBS faced any kind of consequences for the program, and the only thing that came of it was that the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) determined that "news flashes" were not to be used during fictional programming any longer. One woman did try to sue the network for $50,000 saying the broadcast caused "nervous shock" but that claim was dismissed almost immediately.

CBS still regularly celebrates Welles' WAR OF THE WORLDS broadcast and it's been the subject of many stories, articles, TV specials, movies and documentaries. Even though the impact it may have had on that fall night was minimal, it's still regarded as one of the greatest stunts in entertainment history. The facts may have gotten skewered and reactions may have been a bit inflated, but it was still a defining moment that launched the great career of Orson Welles and the rest of the Mercury Theatre group.

Besides, as we all learned from THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE:

"When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

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