This week’s episode of American Experience on PBS commemorates the 75th anniversary of the classic 1938 radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds. I watched the show, as well as some great bonus footage, on the show’s website. I especially liked an analysis by Brad Schwartz, comparing the concerns over the power of radio to current concerns over the power of the Internet.
Orson Welles’ historic production has fascinated me for as long as I can remember. As a kid, I listened to the annual rebroadcasts on WOR. When I was in grammar school, I bought a paperback book about the show through the Scholastic Book Club. The book included the script of the broadcast. I really got hooked when I saw a made-for-TV movie that dramatized the creation of the radio show. It showed an audio engineer slowly opening a glass jar over a toilet bowl to create the eerie sound of the Martian ship opening.
The Mark & Brian Show on KLOS did an annual live broadcast of A Christmas Carol, using Foley artists to create the sound effects. When I worked there, we expanded the tradition to include live radio dramas for Halloween and Easter too. Naturally, we took on The War of the Worlds for Halloween. A year later, we recreated two episodes of a show called The Witch’s Tale.
I arranged for the show to be done in front of a live audience at the Museum of Television & Radio, which is now known as The Paley Center for Media. Our 1997 version of The War of the Worlds remains in their collection with the catalog ID number B:51560.
In our production, Paul Sorvino played the Orson Welles part. I cast Paul Moyer and Colleen Williams from KNBC and Leonard Maltin from Entertainment Tonight in the roles of the newscasters who “interrupt” the program. They were all great but it was William Shatner who stole the show. He played Carl Phillips, the reporter who (spoiler alert) gets burned up by the Martians. Shatner got a well-deserved standing ovation during our first commercial break.