Thursday, October 30, 2008

After War of the Worlds

Tonight many stations will run the traditional re-run of the Orson Welles version of the War of the Worlds radio play from the Mercury Theater. On rare occasion stations re-create it completely. I read somewhere that another brave station is attempting it this year. In my pre-senile dementia I have forgotten who. I could tell you the story of the panic... but what' more interesting is the legal mumbo jumbo that followed.

October 30th 1938 Orson unleashed his version of the H.G. Wells classic tale. His version interspersed faux programming with news bulletins, and live feeds. It drove listeners into a panic. It seems absurd, but in an area centering around Princeton, Trenton and Grovers Mill New Jersey there was actual mass hysteria. But people beleive Fox news too. The mob is maleable.

When he signedd off the program police, newsmen, were waiting for him. An irate mayor from a midwestern city was on the phone. He was in doo doo. some staff his in the bathroom. Other staff set abotu destroying scripts and tapes to get rid of the evidence. It was then that Orson was told that some listeners had actually comitted suicide in sheer terror over his tale. He left out the backdoor.

Orson Welles was 23 years old when he decided to make a radio play of the H.G. Wells' classic, "War of the Worlds." He was by all reports, amused and pretty pleased with himself over the chaos. Through CBS he issued a statement of regret. But by November he was bragging about the telegrams he got from listeners that loved it.

H.G. Wells was still alive at the time and he issued a statement suggesting the format of the radio drama violated the license for it's use. he didn't actually pursue legal action of course. He was just seeking to distance himself. The City Manager of Trenton, Paul Mornton complained directly to the FCC. The drama had been set in his city, and used some of it's real landmarks and locations. It was there that the worst panic occurred. Orson had to do a press conference to chill out the irritated mobs of gullible idiots and irritated bureacrats. Some accounts claim that one FCC offical called Orson a "Radio terrorist" but I have NO COMTEMPORARY SOURCE.. so let's call that apocryphal.

The FCC in the end tacitly agreed that peopel are idiots and gave CBS a little swat on the wrists. But there was one single concession:
"In order that this may not happen again the program department hearafter will not use the technique of a simulated news broadcast within a dramatization when the circumstances of the broadcast could cause immediate alarm to the listeners."
Radiolab did a version this March. Download here.
LA Theatre Works did one in May. Download 15-minute clip Here.