It took place on the night before Halloween, long known as “Mischief Night.” Just after 8 p.m. on Oct. 30, 1938, millions of Americans listening to CBS Radio heard the voice of a panicked announcer reporting that strange explosions were taking place on Mars, followed minutes later by a report that Martians had landed in the tiny town of Grovers Mill, New Jersey.
So began the unusual dramatization of H.G. Wells’ classic The War of the Worlds, performed by 23-year-old wunderkind Orson Welles and his Mercury Theater on the Air. Most listeners understood that the program was a radio drama, but countless others — perhaps a million or more — were plunged into panic, convinced that America was under a deadly Martian attack.
On the 75th anniversary of this infamous broadcast, American Experience’s War of the Worlds explores how Welles’ ingenious use of the new medium of radio struck fear into an already anxious nation. “In an era when the public can still be fooled or misled by what is read online, in print, or seen on TV, War of the Worlds is a timely reminder of the power of mass media,” says American Experience executive producer Mark Samels.
The film examines the elements that came together to create one of the biggest purported mass hysteria events in US history: our longtime fascination with life on Mars; the emergence of radio as a powerful, pervasive medium; the shocking Hindenburg explosion of 1937, the first disaster to be reported live; and the brilliant Welles.
Public reaction, forever immortalized in thousands of letters written to CBS, the Federal Communications Commission and Welles himself, is dramatized in on-camera interviews, bringing to life the people who listened that night to the broadcast and thought it was rip-roaring entertainment — or the end of the world.
Tune in to witf TV on Tuesday, October 29 at 9 p.m. EST to relive the thrill of this legendary, and undeniably mischievous, moment.
Watch a preview below.
Co-Writer Brad Schwartz Talks War of the Worlds:
A recent graduate of the University of Michigan, Brad Schwartz did his senior honors thesis on the War of the Worlds broadcast, drawing upon listeners’ firsthand reactions found in letters housed in the university’s archives. Here, Schwartz discusses what sparked his interest in the 1938 broadcast and how he became involved with the American Experience documentary.
Q: What led to your interest in the War of the Worlds broadcast?
A: I had an unusual childhood in that I grew up listening to a lot of old-time radio: The Lone Ranger, Suspense, and particularly The Shadow, which was my favorite show and how I first became aware of Orson Welles, who was the voice of The Shadow. I’d heard the War of the Worlds broadcast and knew the story about how it terrified the nation. And in the ninth grade, I did a school project on it. I had a poster board with pictures of Welles, and I set up a music stand with a microphone that said “CBS” on it, and I had my fellow students recreate portions of the broadcast. But it wasn’t until I got to the University of Michigan and learned about the archive of letters that I took a serious interest.
Q: How did the letters end up at the University of Michigan?
A: Among Welles’ associates at the Mercury Theater was a producer named Richard Wilson whose job was to save Welles’ documents. He wound up with a box of letters that the Mercury received after War of the Worlds aired. The box sat in his garage for a good six or seven decades until his son donated the letters to the university in 2007.
Q: What struck you about the letters when you began reading through them?
A: I found I was laughing a lot. Not at the people in the letters, but at their unique voices and unique turns of phrase. It was like I was talking to them. And you could often tell, even from people who were frightened by the broadcast, and ostensibly upset by it, that the act of writing a letter gave them a moment of reflection, and they could come at it with the ability to laugh. There were several letters where somebody started out with, “Orson Welles, you son of a gun,” and wrote a page just dripping with invective, and then at the very bottom there would be a postscript—“Actually it was a pretty good broadcast,” and “Good job, you got me!”
Q: Is there one letter that stands out as the most entertaining or surprising?
A: There was one in particular that really jumped out at me. It came from a woman in New York who was frightened by the broadcast and was going to commit suicide. She and her sister found their way to a neighborhood bar and had some high balls, and that cured them of their fright. It’s one of the letters prominently featured in the film.
Q: How did you become involved with the documentary?
A: It’s a funny story. I applied for an internship at American Experience and during the application process, I told them about my thesis. It just so happened that Mark Samels, the executive producer of American Experience, is a fan of Orson Welles and wanted to do a film on War of the Worlds for the 75th anniversary. He had this idea of doing interviews with people who heard the broadcast—portrayed by actors. Lo and behold, I had gone through the perfect kind of material that nobody had used before, and it exactly fit his conception of the film.
Q: What are the lessons of the broadcast?
A: If there's a moral in the War of the Worlds story, it's to think critically about what we see in the media, particularly on the Internet where anybody can post anything. Don’t take something at face value. That’s the great gift that Orson Welles gives us: the awareness that just because something sounds true or looks true, doesn't mean it is.
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