When Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre on the Air presented the “The War of the Worlds” radio drama on Oct. 30, 1938, many were sucked in by the show’s realism and wondered if the nation was actually under attack by aliens. East Lansing resident Jack Bates and his family were among those tricked by the mock newscast.
“It was very, very real to us,” he said.
Bates, 89, was only 12 when his family tuned into the infamous broadcast. While an announcement at the beginning of the show warned listeners that the program was fictional, Bates and his family, like many listeners, joined the program late and missed the disclaimer.
“All we had was what we had tuned into,” Bates recalled.They didn’t have a telephone (“We were too poor,” Bates said), so they turned to another media outlet for answers.
“We lived at the corner of Capitol and Ionia,” he said. “We weren’t far from the old State Journal, so our mom took us and walked down there to try to find out what was happening.”
When the family arrived, they found they weren’t the only ones fooled by Welles’ radio drama.
“There were already a lot of people outside waiting to see if they could get any information. Maybe 100 people,” he said. “Somebody came out and made an announcement. They said it wasn’t real.”
Mason resident Dave Downing is hoping to tap into the show’s legendary reputation. For the 77th anniversary of the broadcast, he is presenting a live reenactment of the program Friday at East Lansing’s Pump House. The show will attempt to recreate the program as it would have been done in 1938, complete with voice actors, live sound effects and live music.
Downing, 62, has been doing audio theater performances for almost 40 years, including the 38 years he taught radio classes at Lansing Community College. He founded LCC’s popular holiday-themed old time radio show — always presented the same evening as Lansing’s Silver Bells in the City — which celebrates its 10th anniversary this December. For years, Downing thought about forming his own audio theater ensemble. This year, the timing felt right.
“Now that I’m retired, I thought, ‘Why not?” Downing said.
“I decided that we would try a couple of well known titles,” Downing said. “I wanted to see if we could attract actors, and I wanted to see if we could attract an audience.”
Downing launched Audio Air Force last month with a 1943 radio version of “Casablanca.” When he saw Oct. 30 was open on the Pump House calendar, he instantly knew what he wanted to do.
“That had ‘War of the Worlds’ written all over it,” he said.
Friday’s performance will feature 10 voice actors, most doubling or tripling parts to cover the drama’s 25 roles. With the exception of a few pre-recorded sounds, the sound effects — including the opening of the spaceship escape hatch — will be re-created on stage with props. The drama will not be broadcast. It is designed to give audience members a behind-the-scenes experience.
“The idea of doing this is partially an educational thing,” Downing said. “A lot of these original audio concepts are still being used today in movies, TV and video games.”
While Downing has no problem with big-budget movies and immersive video games, he thinks there’s a value in giving people a chance to use their imaginations.
“As a society, we’ve become so visually oriented,” he said. “The theater of the mind is better than any computer graphics.”
East Lansing resident A. Brad Schwartz, author of “Broadcast Hysteria, Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds and the Art of Fake News,” pored over some 2,000 letters that were sent to either the radio station or the FCC following the broadcast. He found that many, including a few listeners in Lansing, were fooled by the program.
(Schwartz will be the guest on "City Pulse Newsmakers" on My18 at 10 a.m. Saturday. Check lansingcitypulse.com for the online version of the show Friday.)
One letter to the FCC from “a thoroughly disgusted Lansing listener” echoes the complaints of many who tuned in that evening.
“The H.G. Wells drama which was altogether too realistically portrayed over station W.J.R. a few minutes ago had myself and friend most unnecessarily aroused,” the writer says. “I can’t imagine what kind of listeners could enjoy such hideous drama — even if they knew it to be untrue. The lame brain that developed the play did a marvelous job on realism, but certainly such ingenuity was, in this case, misdirected.”
The writer compares the program to the fable of the boy who cried wolf, arguing that such realistic programming makes it difficult to discern between real emergencies and fictional reenactments.
“If such ‘wolf-wolf’ programs are allowed to continue on the air,” the writer asks, “How do you expect us to listen in time of an actual crisis?”
But, Schwartz argues, the reports of mass hysteria often associated with the radio show were greatly overblown.
“The show did not cause the kind of nationwide mass panic that we’ve been led to believe,” Schwartz said. “There was some initial outpouring of anger, but that dissipated very quickly.”
Based on listener survey and other documents from the time, Schwartz believes that a “vast majority” of listeners understood it to be fiction. He estimates that only a sixth of the listening audience initially thought it was real. Even in that fraction, he said, most quickly realized it was fiction.
After the opening disclaimer, the “War of the Worlds” broadcast began with a simulated musical variety show. Schwartz thinks that many people were scanning the radio and tuned in, thinking they had found an actual variety show. Others who tuned in late were expecting the Mercury Theatre on the Air but assumed it had been preempted by a newscast.
Schwartz described the 1,400 letters to Welles as “overwhelmingly pro-Welles,” estimating that 90 percent were letters of encouragement. Of the 600 letters written to the FCC, Schwartz estimated that about 60 percent were anti-Welles, while the rest were in support of the program.
One letter to the FCC from Lansing resident Francis Donahue voices support for Welles and the controversial program.
“Far from taking any disciplinary action, I strongly suggest that you highly commend the Mercury Theater (sic) for a fine, artistic and thoroughly enjoyable program and one which was superbly presented,” he writes. “These are the sentiments of all persons I have spoken to about the program.”
Donahue says in the letter that he teaches creative writing at People’s University, a free adult education organization in Lansing. He has some harsh words for those who misunderstood the program.
“Those who objected to the program were certainly poorly read and illiterate persons, for the works of H.G. Wells are well known and widely read by high school and college students, and as masterpieces of literature they hold a high place in the esteem of all admirers of masterly writing,” he writes.
And while the realism of the show is what caused most of the panic, Donahue argues that the show’s realism is its greatest asset.
“We who listened to the program here in Lansing were most favorably impressed by the superb artistry of the program and feel that it has inaugurated a step forward in radio,” he writes. “We hope to hear more programs presented in as convincing and as artistic a manner. Most other programs are lifeless, stereotyped presentations periodically interrupted by an announcer with long and tiresome commercial announcements while the dramatic sketches themselves fail utterly in realism and similarity to real life.”
“War of the Worlds”
Audio Air Force 7 p.m. Friday, Oct. 30 FREE The Pump House 368 Orchard St., East Lansing