War of the Worlds — Portland Tribune

Martians ready to invade

Willamette Radio Workshop brings back “War of the Worlds”

BY PAUL DUCHENE Issue date: 10/26/2001

The Tribune

You might find it hard to believe as an adult that you were ever scared of things that go bump in the night.

But if there’s a little flicker in the back of your mind, you might enjoy Willamette Radio Workshop’s live re-creation of Orson Welles’ radio broadcast from Oct. 30, 1938, of “The War of the Worlds,” which takes over CoHo Theater on Saturday.

Welles’ Mercury Theatre managed to overamplify the story of Martians invading Earth by presenting it as a series of live news broadcasts. The resulting panic among listeners led to a front-page story in The New York Times and subsequent federal restrictions on radio broadcasts.

The very idea of radio terror seems far distant from the present, only a month after millions of viewers watched close to 5,000 people die on morning television when the towers of New York’s World Trade Center were destroyed.

But radio is theater of the mind, and the hobgoblins we create can be scarier than reality, however awful it is.

Portland actor Sam Mowry staged a reading of “The War of the Worlds” last Halloween with such success that he resolved to re-create Welles’ production.

“I did it last year with radio and TV people, and we were going to repeat it but it fell through because of conflicting schedules,” Mowry said. “Meanwhile I’d started Willamette Radio Workshop and everybody said: “Why don’t we do it?”

Twelve actors sound off Mowry aims to duplicate Welles’ hourlong CBS production with 12 actors and live Foley sound effects (named for Jack Foley, the technician who developed them).

Welles’ production, based on H.G. Wells’ 1898 book, was announced as a drama before it started, but the problems began when people switched to the 8 p.m. show in progress.

Starting with a news flash about explosions on the planet Mars, bulletins and scene broadcasts followed, describing a meteor hitting a farm at Grovers Mill, N.J. The meteor was then revealed as a metal cylinder from which strange creatures emerged firing death rays.

Meanwhile, large numbers of listeners had been listening to “The Chase and Sanborn Hour” with Edgar Bergen and dummy Charlie McCarthy on NBC, and many changed stations at the first musical break, rather than listen to Dorothy Lamour sing “Two Sleepy People.”

What they dialed into was Frank Readick as newscaster Carl Phillips describing the scene at the meteor as the Martians emerge. Police can be heard shouting in the background as Readick gradually loses his cool. Readick said later he based his delivery on the reporter who had witnessed the destruction of the Hindenburg only 18 months earlier.

Terrified voices can be heard as the din increases and the death ray guns are firing. Then abruptly, there’s dead silence. After Readick’s “death,” bulletins and news reports describe the Martian advance across New Jersey and nerve gas attacks on New York City.

(Those who listened to more of the show might have wondered exactly how the Martians managed to wipe out the 7,000-member-strong New Jersey National Guard and march clear across the East Coast in 15 minutes.)

Panic reigns At the break, the station announced that the show was a drama   but the damage had been done. Even though The Associated Press and New York and New Jersey police announced there was nothing to worry about, police stations and newspapers were swamped with calls, and panicked listeners rushed into the street. The New York Times alone received 875 calls.

Analyst Hadley Cantril estimated in a 1966 study that 20 percent of the audience exhibited signs of mass hysteria. Phone calls to friends and relatives spread the terror across the country, leading to scenes like the man in Pittsburgh who returned home to find his wife in the bathroom holding a bottle of poison and screaming, “I’d rather die this way.”

“The War of the Worlds” is seldom aired, though there is an original tape. Station WKBW in Buffalo, N.Y., successfully updated the play using its news staff and DJs and local settings in 1968.

“We won’t be broadcasting this one either,” Mowry said, recalling a 1950 broadcast in Caracas, Venezuela, that was so successful an angry mob stormed the station and burned it down.

Contact Paul Duchene at pduchene@portlandtribune.com.

“The War of the Worlds”

What: Live re-creation of Orson Welles’ broadcast

Where: CoHo Theater, 2257 N.W. Raleigh St.; 503-295-3565

When: 11 p.m. Saturday

Admission: $5

“War of the Worlds” on OPB — Transcript

OPB Radio’s news magazine airs Tuesday-Friday afternoons at 4:30
New “War of the Worlds” – Colin Fogarty
October 26, 2001

This weekend, a radio theater troupe in Portland will recreate a Halloween production from 1939. The “War of the Worlds” was Orson Welles’ early claim to fame. At a time, when the nation was preparing for world war, the “War of the Worlds” sounded real to many listeners. The modern production wouldn’t confuse anyone. But as Colin Fogarty reports, it could have some relevance for today’s audience.

You’ve heard Sam Mowry. But you likely didn’t notice him.

Commercial: The aggressive aerodynamic style of the Mitzubishi Eclipse will get you as much attention as you want. At a 16-valve engine and rack and pinion steering. And you my friend will be the total package. The GI Joe’s take it to the extreme 14-hour sale this Friday. We still have the sales. Grab the gear and seize the season.

Mowry’s got what in the business they call “great pipes.” But commercial voiceovers are his day job. He’s really a stage actor, playing every part from Henry the 8th to Henry Higgins. But Mowry’s latest project takes place in the theater of the mind. He plays Orson Welles in a radio theater production of the “War of the Worlds.”

Mowry voice: We know now that in the early years of the 20th century this world was being watched closely by intelligences greater than man’s, and yet as mortal as his own”.

Welles voice: We know that as human beings busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinized and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinize the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.

Saturday night, Mowry?s Willamette Radio Workshop is staging a live performance of “War of the Worlds” in the worlds at the New Coho Theater in Northwest Portland. He hopes, in part, the revival will change people’s perception of Orson Welles.

Mowry: What they’re used to hearing from Orson Wells is the “Yes, we will sell no wine before it’s time.” And that’s what most people go, “Oh yeah, Orson Wells, the wine guy.” But when he was doing this, he was 21, 22, he’s actually much higher.

Mowry listened to old-time radio as a child, back when stations ran reruns of programs like “The Shadow.” As an actor in Portland, he found that there was a great deal of interest among fellow actors.

Mowry: What I love about it as an actor is that you can be anything you want to be. And my Dad, and I think everybody has this story, when my parents asked him whether he liked radio or TV better, he said, “Oh, I like radio, the pictures are much better.”

By re-producing the “War of the Worlds,” the Willamette Radio Workshop hopes to raise money for a series of original radio theater productions. At a time when foreign correspondents report by videophone and the Internet is more common than the newspaper, radio theater seems antiquated. But Mowry believes radio can forge a closer tie with the listener.

Mowry: And it is that intimate connection between a person and a microphone and that microphone and somebody’s ear, and you’re talking to them and you’re sharing an idea or love or hate or envy or any kind of human emotion that you’re sharing with them in a very intimate, very personal way makes for a tremendous connection.

Mowry says the production of “War of the Worlds” has special significance for our time. Just as in the radio play, the nation has been under attack’by hijackers using airplanes as weapons and by bioterrorists, sending anthrax spores through the mail. Some listeners of the original “War of the Worlds” panicked thinking Martians were really invading.

Mowry: And one of the things that we learned is that we do need to think before we act. And I think that’s as much of a good lesson today as it was back then. And even more so now because I think we’re a little more on par with the Martians ourselves in terms of having weapons of mass destruction that maybe we can and cannot use wisely.

Mowry hopes the re-production of the “War of the Worlds” doesn’t scare its audience during a delicate time. Rather the play is meant to comfort.

Mowry: It all comes out in the end. Humanity does survive and humanity does survive because there’s an innate plan for us to survive.

Welles voice: This is Orson Welles, ladies and gentlemen, to assure you that the “War of the Worlds” has no further significance than the holiday offering it was intended to be.

Mowry: So, good-bye everybody and remember the terrible lesson you learned tonight: that grinning, glowing, globular invader of your living room is an invader of the pumpkin patch. And if your doorbell rings and there’s nobody there, that was no Martian, it’s Halloween.

Copyright 2001  Oregon Public Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved.