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ENTERTAINMENT: 80th anniversary of War of the Worlds radio broadcast infographic
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Remembering the radio broadcast that terrified a nation

Graphic News

October 30, 2018 -- On October 30, 1938, with the world lurching towards World War II, Orson Welles caused mass panic in the United States when the now infamous live radio adaptation of “The War of the Worlds” was broadcast to an unsuspecting public.

1897: H.G. Wells 1898 novel, The War of the Worlds, originally serialised in Pearson’s Magazine and Cosmopolitan, imagines alien invaders from Mars attacking London with towering tripod fighting machines, before succumbing to Earthly germs from which they have no immunity

1938: U.S. actor Orson Welles’ Sunday evening series on CBS Radio, Mercury Theatre on the Air (a low budget show with no sponsor) reworks literary classics into one-hour radio plays. For the Halloween episode, Welles and producers John Houseman and Paul Stewart, agree to adapt a work of science fiction

Mon, Oct 24, 1938: Houseman instructs writer Howard Koch to adapt The War of the Worlds for broadcast, moving it to a contemporary New Jersey setting

Thu, Oct 27: Welles asks the crew to insert news flashes and eyewitness accounts to create a sense of urgency. Houseman, Koch and Stewart rework the script all night

Fri, Oct 28: Executive producer Davidson Taylor warns that the writing is too realistic and tells the authors to tone it down

Sat, Oct 29: Stewart rehearses the show with the sound effects team, paying special attention to crowd scenes, cannon fire and chilling Martian war machines

Sun, Oct 30 – Afternoon: Music rehearsal. The orchestra, under the direction of composer Bernard Herrmann, play dance band music while being interrupted by news broadcasts. The studio’s emergency fill-in music – solo piano playing Debussy and Chopin – is used several times, adding to the sinister overtone

6pm: The dress rehearsal works in last-minute changes by Welles, including allowing actor Kenneth Delmar to impersonate President Franklin D. Roosevelt (forbidden by major networks)

8pm: The show airs live from New York, terrifying many listeners and causing widespread panic. Police storm CBS studios but fail to stop the broadcast. With fears of war growing, many Americans mistakenly believe a Nazi invasion is underway

Listeners are accustomed to radio shows pausing on the half-hour for station messages. Breaking news does not obey this rule. Many listeners who missed the opening disclaimer that the show was fictitious, are convinced the news reports are real, especially when the station break fails to arrive until 8:40pm

Mon, Oct 31: Welles denies to the press that he intended to deceive his audience, but later claimed he was hiding his delight. Instead of ending his career, the broadcast catapults him onto the world stage

Dec 1938-Mar 1940: The Campbell’s Soup company steps in to sponsor the now infamous radio show, renaming it The Campbell Playhouse. Welles stays on until his contract expires and he is drawn to Hollywood, where he makes several classic movies, including Citizen Kane (1941) and Touch of Evil (1958)

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Over the coming weeks I will give further information. Please contact me if you have any questions. Fiona Roberts, froberts @