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October 26, 2013

Orson Welles' 'War of the Worlds' still vivid at 75

AKRON, Ohio — On Oct. 31, 1938, the Akron Beacon Journal devoted a big chunk of its front page to three stories about a radio broadcast the night before.

There was other news on that page. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was trying to prevent a railroad workers strike. A Utah man executed by firing squad was wired up to show “the action of the human heart pierced by bullets.” Men had lined up to serve as jurors in a Hollywood trial of fan dancer Sally Rand, apparently in the hope she would perform in court.

But the radio show was something else. In Akron alone, it was blamed for fainting spells, heart attacks and hundreds of calls to the Beacon Journal as part of a wave of “hysteria which swept the city, breaking up church meetings and frightening thousands.”

Elsewhere, the reaction was similar. On Oct. 30 those 75 years ago, showman Orson Welles had flipped out significant portions of America with his radio play “The War of the Worlds.”

Welles, 23, had not yet shaken up cinema history with “Citizen Kane” but had already established a reputation as a wunderkind in theater and radio. As part of Welles’ Mercury Theatre radio programs, writer Howard Koch adapted “War,” a then-40-year-old tale by H.G. Wells in which Martians invaded England and were stopped only when an Earth bacteria infected them. For the radio version, the location was changed to America, with the names of real towns, including the invasion site of Grovers Mill, N.J. Mercury producer John Houseman further told Koch to present the story as a series of news bulletins, heightening the tension and the realism.

That device had been used before. The names of politicians, reporters and experts in the news reports were fictional. The broadcast began with the announcement that it was a radio play, and other notices would come. But some listeners were at first tuned to a show featuring ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummy, Charlie McCarthy. Restless with that program’s content, they switched over to the Welles program in progress, missing the opening.

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