One vintage radio show remains vibrantly alive in the
American consciousness: Orson Welles’ Halloween eve broadcast of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds from 1938. This week
marks its 75th anniversary. To commemorate that milestone, an NPR
station here in Los Angeles, KPCC, is offering a vibrant, impeccably researched
audio documentary called War of the
Welles. (Full disclosure: I am an interviewee, but I had nothing to do with
writing or producing the show.)
creators, R.H. Greene and John Rabe, had two goals: to torpedo the many myths
that have grown around this notorious broadcast, and to frame the history of the
show in a broader context by talking about the medium of radio and the people
who helped Welles bring this indelible drama to life, including producer John
Houseman, writer Howard Koch and the talented players from the Mercury Theatre.
Excerpts from a variety of radio shows and a wide range of interviews over the
years (including some with Welles himself) make for great listening. You can
listen to the 48-minute program, hosted by George Takei, HERE.
If you like
what you hear, I would encourage you to follow up with Airborne: A Life in Radio with Orson Welles, an equally compelling
documentary by R.H. Greene about Welles’ wide-ranging radio career with an
emphasis on the lesser-known works, including his political commentaries. Click
And if you
get hooked and want to hear even more of Welles on radio, you’ll find an
imposing selection of complete shows at this SITE.
I should also
note that PBS’ American Experience is
airing a War of the Worlds documentary
this week—not an especially good one, I’m sorry to say. I took a dislike to it
from the start, when I was confronted with phony black & white footage of
actors reciting the words of eyewitnesses to the panic that Welles’ broadcast
inspired. The artificiality of this device, along with an over-reliance on
generic stock footage (including some from the television era) kept me at arm’s
length from this perfunctory chronicle of the famous radio show. Too bad.
The man who
made Citizen Kane will always be celebrated
for his work on film, but whereas that medium presented numerous roadblocks and
frustrations, he was able to realize many of his most innovative ideas on
radio. If you’re unfamiliar with his broadcasts, you’re in for a treat.