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Tuesday, October 29, 2013


Tune in Tonight!
October 29 at 9 p.m.

New York's Channel 13 will mark the 75th anniversary of a moment in history when a significant part of the United States believed it was being overrun by alien invaders. 
The PBS station 
will air 
the documentary 
"War of the Worlds" 
as part of its "American Experience" series.


Major discussions in the theater world during the late 1930s centered around the Mercury Theater troupe and its twentyish wunderkind leader Orson Welles. They achieved notoriety for such Shakespearean fare as adapting "Macbeth" to a Caribbean voodoo setting and presenting "Julius Caesar" in modern dress hinting at the war tensions then prevalent in Europe. In the summer of 1938 the CBS network gave the Mercury Theatre an hour of radio time during which they presented adaptations of such classic literature as "Dracula," "Treasure Island" and "The Count of Monte Cristo." The summer fare was so well received that Mercury was allowed to continue on radio through the end of the year. The problem was that the program was moved to Sundays opposite NBC's monster hit "The Chase and Sanborn Hour" starring ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his wisecracking dummy Charlie McCarthy.
And so it was on the night of October 30, 1938  that "Chase and Sanborn" fans switched dials when Bergen/McCarthy left and a singer came on to find that something otherworldly had landed on a farm in Grover's Mill, New Jersey, not far from Princeton University. What would happen next would be in the words of an announcer "the vanguard of an invading army from the planet Mars." Those convinced by these and other statements set off a panic in many parts of the United States.
In truth, what they were hearing was a Mercury Theater adaptation of the H.G. Wells novel "The War of the Worlds" set in Thirties America instead of turn of the century England. Many threatened to sue Orson Welles and Mercury for "scaring" a major sector of the nation. But syndicated newspaper columnist Dorothy Thompson came to the defense of Welles saying that the "War of the Worlds" broadcast pointed out how sensitized the listening public had become to "war" bulletins on radio.
Welles and his Mercury players rode the "War of the Worlds" publicity to Hollywood. Howard Koch, the young writer who penned the script for that program, would compose the screenplays for such gems as "Sergeant York" and "Casablanca" (both in Merrick Library's DVD collection). Koch would also write the 1970 book "The Panic Broadcast: Portrait of An Event" (in Merrick's Non-Fiction collection) recounting events before, during and after that historic hour. John Dunning's "On The Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio" (also at Merrick Library) contains an entry on "Mercury Theater" with more facts about this still fascinating story about the arts and mass media. 
(special thanks to Bob Ludemann for providing the text for this Blog piece)

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