Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The "Boo" We Won't Forget



Seventy-five years ago tonight Orson Welles lead the Mercury Theatre Players through a radio performance of H. G. Welles "War of the Worlds". The hour-long broadcast, an adaptation that portrayed the events of the novel as a live news broadcast entertained many, terrified some, and gave the then 23 year old Orson Welles creative license to write, direct and act in film classics "Citizen Kane" and the "Magnificent Ambersons". And in the 75 years since the broadcast, the facts of the evening were quickly transformed into a myth that still has the power to generate controversy.

The story of the broadcast is well-covered elsewhere, and there's little we can add to a retelling. We recommend this week's excellent special that aired on PBS's American Masters. If you're so inclined you can stream it from here.

Also this week Slate offered up an interesting analysis of the possible size of the broadcast's audience which helps put the claims of a mass panic by listeners into perspective. You'll find that here.

All that aside, we recommend that you go back to the original broadcast, back to a time when the power of story was in the skill of the teller and the imagination of the listener. Here is a link to the original radio broadcast on YouTube.

Yes, you'll only see a single static title card for 60 minutes. But sit back, close your eyes and imagine a time in which radio was your only live gateway to the world, pretend that over the previous six months it was on that radio you heard the coverage of the burning of the Hindenberg and the ravings of a German mad man who was threatening to plunge the world into war, and witness the already formidable ability of the young Orson Welles to transfix an audience.