War of the Worlds Revisited | Program Notes

War of the Worlds Revisited

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Most likely, you won't be able to get in the door at Bricolage for either of the troupe's remaining two "live radio" performances of The War of the Worlds. It's been selling out its intimate Downtown space. So little point here in praising the fine production, which I was fortunate to see last week.

But before the run ends, here's a few tidbits about the Mercury Theater on the Air original that didn't fit in my feature story on Bricolage and its Midnight Radio project (www.pittsburghcitypaper.ws/gyrobase/Content?oid=oid%3A86631).

The main reason we remember Mercury's1938 version of WOW, led by Orson Welles, is the panic it caused: An estimated one million listeners -- one out of every six people who heard the broadcast -- thought it was a newscast of a real Martian invasion. Many fled their homes.

The ruckus was so great that it propelled Welles -- till then a theatrical wunderkind largely unknown to the general public -- to national celebrity. This fame was surely the main reason he was signed by a Hollywood studio a couple years later. That makes WOW indirectly responsible for Citizen Kane and the (underappreciated) remainder of Welles' cinematic ouevre.

As I noted in the article, WOW scriptwriter Howard Koch, Welles and the rest of the Mercury troupe were playing with dynamite by structuring the play as a series of "urgent bulletins."

Not only was radio itself a new medium (scarcely older than widespread Internet access is now), but radio news itself was pretty rare. (Most people still got their portion from the daily rags.) The "urgent bulletin" was a quite recent innovation, created to broadcast news from Europe, where Hitler was on the march. And the infamous Hindenburg broadcast, the first-ever catastrophe to air live, was fresh in people's minds.

But the panic wasn't due merely to the cleverness and verisimilitude of the Mercury broadcast. It also involved a nifty bit of timing.

Mercury aired against one of the nation's most popular shows, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. (Ventriloquism on the radio!) And a few minutes into every Edgar-and-Charlie, some chump singer came on and people changed channels for a couple minutes.

The Mercury broadcast led off, responsibly, with an announcement that the show was an adaption of the H.G. Wells classic. But the first urgent bulletin broke in on the show's faked concert ("Ramon Raquello and his orchestra") seconds after Bergen's musical guest sang his first notes. Just in time to catch unsuspecting channel-surfers.

And Mercury's WOW didn't let up with its frenetic mock newscast, or again announce that it was a dramatization, until a good half-hour later. By which time everybody who was going to get suckered surely had.

Coincidence? I don't know that anyone associated with the broadcast has ever admitted otherwise. Still, in the immediate wake of the uproar the show caused, Welles denied Mercury wanted to fool anyone. Then, years later, he changed his tune, and said the troupe meant to point out that people shouldn't believe everything they hear on the radio.

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