American Experience: War of the Worlds
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Watch Tuesday, October 27, 2015 at 8pm on WMHT TV

On October 30, 1938, just after 8:00 p.m. on the east coast, the millions of Americans tuned to CBS Radio were treated to an unusual dramatization of H.G. Wells’s classic The War of the Worlds, performed by 23-year-old wunderkind Orson Welles and his Mercury Theater on the Air. Although most listeners understood that the program was a radio drama, the next day’s headlines reported that thousands of others — perhaps a million or more — were plunged into panic, convinced that America was under a deadly Martian attack.

Featuring interviews with film director and cinema historian Peter Bogdanovich, Welles’s daughter Chris Welles Feder, and other authors and experts, as well as dramatizations of some of the thousands of letters sent to Welles by an alternately admiring and furious public, War of the Worldsexplores how Welles’s 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,” said American Experience Executive Producer Mark Samels.

It took place on the night before Halloween, long known as Mischief Night. It began like any other ordinary Sunday evening, with millions of Americans tuned to their radios. But beneath the outward calm was a nation tense with worry and fear; the Great Depression refused to let up, and the threat of war in Europe loomed larger every day. Then, at 8:15 p.m., the voice of a panicked announcer broke into the dance music with a news bulletin reporting that strange explosions were taking place on the planet Mars, followed minutes later by a report that Martians had landed in the tiny town of Grover’s Mill, New Jersey.

Almost instantly, frantic listeners responded to the shocking news. Chicago newspapers were flooded with calls; in St. Louis, people gathered outside to discuss what to do about the “invaders”; in San Francisco, many feared that New Jersey had been laid to waste and that the Martians were heading west. Callers pleaded with the power company in Providence to shut off the lights so that the city would not be seen by the invaders. Similar reports of panicked reactions came from Baltimore, Atlanta, Indianapolis, Memphis, Minneapolis, and Salt Lake. At the epicenter of the event, New Jersey national guardsmen flooded armories with calls asking where to report. And in cities and towns across the country, people stopped a moment to pray — then grabbed their loved ones and fled into the night. 

Seventy-five years later, War of the Worlds explores this legendary but misunderstood event. With the CBS radio broadcast serving as its narrative spine, the film examines the elements that came together to create one of the most notorious media events in U.S. history: our longtime fascination with life on Mars; the emergence of radio as a powerful, pervasive medium; the eagerness of newspapers to disparage their radio rivals; the shocking Hindenburg explosion of 1937, the first disaster to broadcast live; and the brilliant enfant terrible Orson Welles, the director of the drama and mischief maker supreme.

Public reaction, forever immortalized in thousands of letters written following the broadcast, is dramatized in on-camera interviews, bringing to life the people who listened that night and thought it was a rip-roaring entertainment — or the end of the world. Saved by Mercury Theater member Richard Wilson, most of these letters had not been read since 1938. Donated to the University of Michigan in 2007 by Wilson’s estate, they were re-discovered by A. Brad Schwartz, a University of Michigan student who was writing his thesis on the broadcast. “The ‘panic’ caused by the broadcast has become legendary,” said producer Cathleen O’Connell. “Using these newly discovered letters was a wonderful way to personalize the story. These rarely heard first-hand accounts, juxtaposed with the print media coverage of the day, help demonstrate the true impact of Welles’s radio drama.”