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.)
The show’s 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 HERE.
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.