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It was 75 years ago that Orson Welles produced one of the most famous broadcasts in radio history: “War of the Worlds.” But much of the mythology now associated with the original broadcast — stories of miscarriages and suicides — may be as fictional as the play’s alien invasion story line. Radio historian Neil Verma joins Kojo to explore what really happened, as well as the craft behind the radio play itself.
- Neil Verma Professor, University of Chicago; Author, "Theatre of the Mind: Imagination, Aesthetics and American Radio Drama" (University Of Chicago Press, 2012)
Orson Welles’ “War Of The Worlds” Full Radio Broadcast
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, Food Wednesday. The history of candy and how it shaped the American sweet tooth. It's trick or treat time on Food Wednesday. But first, a chance to correct the history behind one of the most famous radio broadcasts of all time. 75 years ago, a 23-year-old Orson Welles terrified a nationwide radio audience with the original broadcast of "The War of the Worlds."
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThe story is now the stuff of legends, and it's common accepted that Welles's alien invasion tale was so scary and so real that millions of Americans panicked, that people were so convinced we were under attack, they suffered heart attacks, miscarriages. But so much of the mythology that's been built up around what actually happened after that broadcast is every bit as fictional as the storyline itself.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWe'll separate myth from faction (sic) in a few moments, but first, let's take a listen to what Welles's audience heard at the beginning of his broadcast 75 years ago.
RADIO ANNOUNCERLadies and gentlemen, we interrupt our program of dance music to bring you a special bulletin from the Intercontinental Radio News. At 20 minutes before 8:00 Central time, Professor Farrell of the Mount Jennings Observatory, Chicago, Illinois, reports observing several explosions of incandescent gas, occurring at regular intervals on the planet Mars. The spectroscope indicates the gas to be hydrogen and moving towards the Earth with enormous velocity. Professor Pierson of the Observatory at Princeton confirms Farrell's observation, and describes the phenomenon as, quote, "like a jet of blue flame shot from a gun," unquote. We now return you to the music of Ramón Raquello, playing for you in the Meridian Room of the Park Plaza Hotel, situated in downtown New York.
NNAMDIWell, that's how the "War of the Worlds" broadcast began 75 years ago today. Many American are familiar with the story that followed. Aliens landing and terrorizing the town of Grover's Mill, New Jersey. But a lot of us are also familiar with the tales of what happened in the real world during the broadcast. Stories of mass hysteria, listeners going into cardiac arrest. But many of these stories about the broadcast are also fiction. Joining us now to discuss that is Neil Verma. He is a radio historian and a professor at The University of Chicago.
NNAMDIHe's also the author of "Theatre of the Mind: Imagination, Aesthetics and American Radio Drama." He joins us from the studios of WEEZ in Chicago. Neil Verma, thank you for joining us.
MR. NEIL VERMAThank you so much for having me.
NNAMDIHow would you explain the legend that's grown up around the "War of the Worlds" over time?
VERMAWell, it kind of accumulates and never seems to go away, the way that people exaggerate the panic that surrounded the broadcast back in 1938. And I think that the best way to explain that is partly through the allure of the panic itself. I mean, one of the original listeners to the radio play, who was interviewed by a famous sociologist named Hadley Cantril in 1940. He said that the thing about the broadcast for him was that it was a thrill to believe that something like this could actually happen. It was the thrill of a lifetime.
VERMAAnd I think that quality of thrill also attaches to our belief in the panic. We have a certain affection for believing in this parable of human susceptibility. And that's been true for generation after generation in remembering this broadcast.
NNAMDITo what degree is the collective memory of this broadcast a statement also about the power of media? In a recent article for Slate, Jefferson Pooley wrote, "it's emblematic of the unease many of us have with the power of media over our lives." What do you say?
VERMAYes. I think that's exactly right. And actually, you know, this is sort of the narrative that forms around the broadcast, almost immediately, right after it happened. But there's more than one medium that we should be talking about. You know, much of the reason why we believe that the broadcast had such an impact is because of, kind of, dubious press reporting, by newspapers, in the days and weeks following the play. So, there's kind of exquisite irony to thinking about the "War of the Worlds," because we're kind of condemning a group of people for uncritically believing the radio.
VERMAAnd yet, often what we're doing is uncritically believing the newspapers, and what they had to say about it. So...
NNAMDIContextualize this for us, because it's my understanding that this occurred during a period when radio was rising in its popularity, and newspapers were concerned. Because newspapers felt that they were losing popularity, and much more importantly, revenue, to radio. And so, it was, in a way, in their interest, to, I guess, to feed skepticism about what people were hearing on the radio.
VERMAYeah, that's true. I mean, a lot of radio historians kind of make this argument that by 1938, a lot of the protocols prohibiting radio from airing live news bulletins and kind of infringing on the domain of traditional newspapers, a lot of those protocols were kind of eroding. And, so what historians often say is that the kind of -- there's a -- the moment was ripe for newspapers to kind of take a run at radio, and this became an opportunity for that to be so.
VERMAI mean, one of the things that both Orson Welles and his producer John Houseman often remembered, in their memories of the event, is that right after the broadcast happened, the police storm in and they're shuffled off into a little room. And then, a couple of hours later, they're kind of turned in front of the press, and the press has all these crazy stories to get their responses to. Do you know how many people died here? Have you heard about this one in New Jersey?
VERMAAnd they're kind of, you know, partly tickled by this, but partly befuddled. And there's a way in which the newspapers are exploiting this to make the radio listener seem uncritical, relative to the newspaper reader, who is supposed to be well informed.
NNAMDIOur guest is Neil Verma. He's a radio historian. He's also a Professor at the University of Chicago and author of the book, "Theatre of the Mind: Imagination, Aesthetics, and the American Radio Drama." He joins us to discuss the "War of the Worlds" broadcast featuring Orson Welles 75 years ago today. We're inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. Were you made to believe the original broadcast of "War of the Worlds" created a mass hysteria so severe that men died of heart attacks and women suffered miscarriages?
NNAMDIWhere did you think the mythology of the broadcast comes from? How was it handed down to you? 800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com or send us a tweet at kojoshow. Neil Verma, you've written that we sometimes forget the other hoaxes associated with this dramatic Martian invasion. Let's start with the second one you wrote about in a piece for Inside Higher Ed. What do you mean when you talk about the hoax America pulled on Orson Welles?
VERMAOh, right. Well, that's sort of what I was just mentioning. So, I mean, there's, you know, there's a good way of thinking about this that's, you know, there's the hoax that Welles pulls on America, and that's kind of a questionable one, you know? Historians have always and probably will always be bickering about whether or not Welles, Houseman, and the writer Howard Koch intentionally misled the nation. But there's also a kind of second hoax that starts happening to Welles and Houseman and the other producers at CBS that night.
VERMAIn that in the middle of the broadcast, one thing we know for sure is that radio stations got tons and tons and tons of calls and complaints. And this is true, actually, across switchboards. In New Jersey, something like 39 percent increase in call volume totally. So, a lot of these phone calls and complaints start coming in to CBS headquarters, itself, in New York. And eventually they make it to the studio booth. And so producers start signaling to Orson Welles, about a third of the way through the broadcast, you need to cut away. You need to stop.
VERMAAnd to everyone it's just a play, and he kind of waves them off. But by the end of it, you know, when it seems like the hysteria is greater than it was, partly as a result of these phone calls, Welles and Houseman and the others are kind of corralled into this room and they're kind of made to believe that what they've done is much, much worse than it actually was.
NNAMDIHow did this event contribute to the mythology of Orson Welles himself?
VERMAWell, in several levels. I mean, Welles was a stage director. Many of your listeners will probably know he was known for, especially doing a version of "Macbeth" set in Haiti with a largely African-American cast. He also did an anti-fascist version of "Julius Caesar," and these were the things that kind of brought him to the radio. On the radio, he did experimental programs of "Hamlet," "Les Miserables." He also had a role as "The Shadow," many of your listeners might know.
VERMAAnd then he had this program, The Mercury Theater on the Air, which was sort of a gift to him from the network. An hour long show, once a week, where he could do adaptations from great literature. And so up until now, he'd done things like "Dracula," "Tale of Two Cities" and "Around the World in 80 Days." But the "War of the Worlds" broadcast turns Welles into the Welles we know, the sort of famous showman. And within a few weeks after the broadcast, it's picked up by a sponsor and stops being "The Mercury Theater on the Air."
VERMAIt starts being the "Campbell's Soup Theater." And not long after that, he gets this contract, this sort of famous contract in Hollywood, to sort of produce films, and that eventually leads to "Citizen Kane." So, were it not for "War of the Worlds," it's hard to imagine "Citizen Kane" being produced, and if that doesn't happen, then it's kind of hard to imagine American film.
NNAMDIWelles himself being quoted as saying, somebody down in South America did an imitation of that broadcast, and he ended up in prison, so I shouldn't complain, I guess. I didn't go to jail. I went to Hollywood. Neil Verma, sometimes it seems people focus so much on the mythology of the panic that they don't talk much at all about the radio play itself. You're a historian of radio and of radio drama. What do you find about this format to be so compelling?
VERMAA lot. First of all, I find it kind of amazingly transfixing, especially this particular broadcast. But, you know, I feel like so much attention, especially around this anniversary, is paid to, you know, did the hoax happen? Did it not happen? That not enough people kind of listen, just listen to the show and try and appreciate what it's doing. I really think that the "War of the Worlds" is one of the great works of art of the 20th century. It fuses a lot of different styles. Narrative realism, science fiction, news broadcasting. It has an incredible sense of pace.
VERMAJohn Houseman writes a lot about this and, really, I think a lot of people who take the broadcast seriously, are amazed at how it goes fast, and then it goes slow, and then things hurry up. And then they slow down again. And things disappear, and it uses silence. And there's all kinds -- a rich variety of different oral spaces. Some are very deep, some are very shallow. It uses music in great ways. There's lots of things about this broadcast that are worth just appreciating in the same way you appreciate a great novel or painting.
NNAMDIWell, you'll hear about that silence in a second. But first, let's go to Lori in Fairfax, Virginia. Lori, you are on the air. Go ahead, please.
LORIHi Kojo. Well, one of my favorite things is to listen to the big broadcast on Sunday nights when, you know, you listen to the old time radio.
NNAMDINeil Verma, that's a program that airs on this station on Sunday nights, hosted by Ed Walker.
LORIAnd the idea of listening to a story, and the idea of the theatre of the mind is so compelling. I majored in Speech and Drama back in the '60s, and my professor was always talking about the theatre of the mind, and how things -- when people hear things, it's just perfect for them, because their own imagination just makes it, just exactly what's perfect for that person and their experiences. And like books on tape, even today, I just find so fun to listen to, and I'm sorry that there aren't more opportunities to do this.
LORIAnd that the idea of having your own imagination be the theatre, I think is a great idea, and this "War of the Worlds" is one of the best.
NNAMDIThank you very much for sharing that with us. Let's listen to some of the craft behind the "War of the Worlds" broadcast. Here's the scene when the reporter Carl Phillips and the professor Richard Pearson are approaching this mysterious alien vessel.
UNIDENTIFIED MANNow we're not more than 25' away. Can you hear it now? Professor Pearson?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2Yes, Mr. Phillips.
MANCan you tell us the meaning of that scraping noise inside the thing?
#2Possibly the unequal cooling of its surface.
MANI see. Do you still think it's a meteor, Professor?
#2I don't know what to think. The metal casing is definitely extraterrestrial, not found on this earth. Friction with the earth's atmosphere usually tears holes in a meteorite. This thing is smooth and you can see it's cylindrical shape.
MANSomething's happening. Ladies and gentleman, this is terrific. This end of the thing is beginning to flake off. The top is beginning to rotate like a screw and the thing must be hollow.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUPMove it. Keep back. Keep those men back. Keep those idiots back. It's off. The top's loose. Look out, man. Stand back.
MANLadies and gentlemen, this is the most terrifying thing I've ever witnessed.
NNAMDINeil Verma, what are we hearing here?
VERMAWell, we're hearing a bunch of different things. We're hearing a crowd of actors that are playing the kind of bystanders in the background. They're probably around an omni-directional microphone somewhere in the booth. We're hearing sound effects that were probably devised by Ora Nichols who was kind of the founding mother of sound effects design starting out at NBC in the early '30s with her husband Arthur. And then he passed away and she kind of became the author of thousands of different effect schemes.
VERMASo the rumor about this sound effect -- and we're not actually sure it's true -- is that she was using a mason jar inside a toilet to make the sound of the uneven -- what's described as the uneven cooling of the Martian vessel. And a little bit later she'll use a cast iron pot to make the sound of the opening of the Martian cylinder. And, you know, I think one thing to notice about this scene is that it's very deep, you know, like you can get a good sense of a projected space.
VERMASo part of what happens when we listen to a radio drama is we're imagining things. But part of what happens is that the drama is giving us things to imagine in the same way a novel does. And so the depth of space here kind of gives us a sense of proximity to the Martian vessel, and that's going to be really important for things like suspense effects.
NNAMDIWhat made the presentation of so much of the early part of this play as a fake broadcast so effective, from the introduction of Ramon Raquello's musical performance to the interrupting new bulletins?
VERMAWell, there's two things about this that are worth, I think, highlighting. One is what most people say about this broadcast is that it happened just a month after the Munich crisis. It's in the last -- the preceding six to eight months, maybe a year. Audiences had gotten more and more used to news bulletins coming in that were kind of sudden where an announcer would say, this just handed to me. This is an emergency. I need to announce this fact to the audience.
VERMAAnd it's very alerting to a 1930's audience. Why? Because of the other thing we should notice, which is that in the 1930's -- for most of the 1930's you weren't allowed to broadcast news as news, so most news was news dramatization. And so one of the classic shows of that is called the March of Time, which is actually where Welles got his start in radio. And -- well, the March of Time was sort of a -- kind of like a magazine format. You would have one scene after another scene that's kind of giving us different moments in the week's news. And you have, you know, Benito Mussolini giving a speech or a young princess learning how to do a fling or a courtroom trial or something like that.
VERMAAnd so the "War of the Worlds" uses both of these aesthetics in the sense that we get a number of scenes that are individual, self-sealed, self-contained modular, like the scene with Carl Phillips and Professor Pearson that you just played. But we also get something that's more contemporary to 1938, which is these interjections, right. So the March of Time model is very orderly, very clean and very separated in all of its segments. Whereas the news bulletin is much more chaotic. So both of these two kinds of news making are playing off one another in the early part of the broadcast, and I think that's what gives it its kind of chaos order feel.
NNAMDIOn now to John in Silver Spring, Md. John, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JOHNHi there. I just wanted to mention that in a book that I read through about two years ago, it was written by a woman. It was about Area 51, supposedly some new information that she had found. And at the back of the book she said that Stalin had heard about the panic in the U.S. from "War of the Worlds," thought it would be a great thing to exploit it and that "War of the Worlds" -- the broadcast had inspired him to get his engineers to create circular airplanes that he would then send to the United States, one of which she said crashed in New Mexico with children who had been surgically altered inside. And he thought it would cause a panic that would bring the United States down.
NNAMDIDo you know anything at all about that, Neil Verma?
VERMAThat sounds very plausible to me. No. What I think is interesting is that this has become such a cultural touchstone right across the world. And, you know, Hitler exploited it for propaganda purposes. And, you know, that the notion that -- like the fantasy here is about our unlimited vulnerability to media. And that's a fantasy that is peculiarly modern and persistent. It's kind of one that can be bent around a lot of different political, social and cultural purposes. And I think that's probably true today just as it was then. Otherwise we probably wouldn't be talking about the "War of the Worlds."
NNAMDILet's listen to another dramatic device put to use in this play from the scene when the reporter Carl Phillips met his demise.
MANWait a minute. Something's happening. A hunched shape is rising out of the pit. I can make out a small beam of light against a mirror. What's that? There's a jet of flame springing from the mirror (unintelligible) men. It strikes him head on. Lord, they're turning into flame (unintelligible) by the woods, (unintelligible) spreading everywhere, coming this way now about 20 yards to my right.
MANLadies and gentlemen, due to circumstances beyond our control, we are unable to continue the broadcast from Grover's Mill. Evidently there's some difficulty with our field transmission.
NNAMDINeil, why do you find that prolonged silence that we did not hear or heard in that clip so fascinating?
VERMAWell, there are a couple of silences in the broadcast that are important. This is probably the one that's most talked about. So the scene is the opening of the Martian vessel. The Martian comes out of the vessel and he attacks everyone around it and eventually attacks Carl Phillips. And a moment or two later we're going to find out that the body of Carl Phillips has been found, Blackened and destroyed.
VERMAAnd so a lot of things about this scene that are really well done. The actor Frank Reddick who, like Orson Welles, had played the Shadow, he studied the Hindenburg broadcast, you know, oh the humanity broadcast that Herb Morrison did of the disaster, in order to kind of convey the sense of chaos and fear. And you can hear that in his voice. Another thing to notice is this kind of lush background that I talked about a moment ago, you know. This scene has a lot of sense of exactly what's happening in it. And partly that's narration, partly that's sound effects.
VERMAThis is actually the closest that the Martians ever come to the microphone in the drama. Now that's quite different from a lot of the movie versions. In the movie versions you'll see the monster coming closer and closer and closer to the screen. But the equivalent in radio doesn't actually happen. The Martians actually stay quite far away from us for most of the play. And then we have finally the silence. And this is kind of -- you know, it's in the script. It's in Howard Koch's script but the question of how long the silence should be is really the domain of the radio director.
VERMASo we kind of hear Welles authoring this silence. How long should it be in order to convey to the listener, oh my god, I think that guy I just heard has been killed, you know.
NNAMDINeil Verma is a radio historian and a professor at the University of Chicago. He's also author of "Theater of the Mind: Imagination, Aesthetics and American Radio Drama." Neil, it's my understanding you're organizing an effort to get fans to listen to the play at the same time tonight at 8:00 pm eastern, the exact air date of the original broadcast, that you want people to listen to "War of the Worlds" and interact with each other the same way they might during an episode of a modern television show of, oh like, Breaking Bad. What are you trying to achieve tonight?
DR. NEIL VERMAOh well, it's just an experiment. I don't know quite what it will achieve but I think it'll be a fun project. The idea is just that we're trying to get different people from around the country. We've got I think nine or ten cities so far to host listening parties. And all listen at about the exact same time, that's 8:00 pm eastern. And you can go to our website which is SoundStudiesBlog.com or follow us on Twitter at @wotw75.
DR. NEIL VERMAAnd the idea is to kind of fuse the kind of listening people did in the 1930s which is a mass listening of a bunch of strangers from lots of different locations with a much more contemporary kind of media consumption. So the way that we often respond to media products is that we're Tweeting and Facebooking about it all the time. And so we want you to do something similar. We want you to use the hash tag wotw75 and kind of respond to the radio play live, as it were.
DR. NEIL VERMAAnd so we're hoping to archive these Tweets in some of the same ways that the original responses to the original plays have been archived. So if your listeners want to participate, we'd love to have your help.
NNAMDIAnd you can find a link to that at our website kojoshow.org. Neil Verma, thank you so much for joining us.
VERMAThank you so much.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back it's Food Wednesday, the history of candy and how it shaped the American sweet tooth. It's Trick or Treat time. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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