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Contents and Source
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Retro-Views

Old-Time Radio In Review
by Elizabeth McLeod
October, 1999
 


When you first hear "old time radio," whether you're rediscovering a lost part of your youth or you're discovering a form of entertainment you never knew existed, there's a real sense of excitement. But what happens when the "newness" of OTR wears off. Can these fifty or sixty year old programs really stand up as entertainment?

That's the question I hope to tackle in this monthly column, posted to the new OldRadio Mailing List and The Nostalgia Pages. I'll be considering many different shows, some familiar, some obscure -- but all of them available to modern listeners. I'll try to put the programs into some sort of historical perspective -- and I'll offer my candid opinions on whether they've stood the test of time. You may agree -- or not. Either way, I encourage you to listen for yourself -- and discover the world of Old Time Radio.


The Night That Panicked an Insignificant Percentage Of America

Looking back on Welles' "War Of The Worlds"

It's the one OTR-era broadcast that we've all heard.

Every year at this time, talk turns 'round once again to the classic 1938 "Mercury Theatre" production of "War Of The Worlds," so why should we be an exception? Although this is probably the most-talked-about radio-era program of all time, there's always room to add a few additional thoughts.

There are a number of different versions of WOTW in circulation. It's been reissued on LP in varying states of completeness and in wildly varying audio quality -- and this variation has been complicated by forty years' worth of circulation of the program via tape trading. As a result of constant dubbing, many copies of this broadcast are utterly unlistenable: muddy, muffled, full of audio hash.

Which is a real shame, since to properly appreciate this program you need to hear as clean a copy as possible. The thickly-layered sound effects of the Wilmuth Farm scenes, to take a single example, are often obliterated by the distortion of a bad dub -- and as a result, you hear a very different program from the one originally broadcast. Listened to on quality equipment, and ideally, thru headphones, a clean copy of WOTW reveals a remarkable audio depth, and is a real testimony to the high production values found in the Mercury Theatre series. Searching out a quality copy of the program is well worth the effort.

Once you have a clean copy, what, really do you hear? For one thing, you hear a production that is nowhere near a "typical" Mercury production, or even "typical" OTR.

Most of the Mercury shows were straightforward drama, adapted fairly closely from classics of Western literature, and employing no sensationalistic production techniques. It's very unfortunate, really, that WOTW is the best-known example of OTR drama, because it's really one of the *least typical* examples of the genre. The program has been played for generations of high school and college students as a demonstration of what radio drama was like -- when, in fact, most of the program was a complete break from the usual style. Only in the last twenty minutes of the program, as Professor Pierson wanders the vast post-invasion wasteland, do we really get a sense of what 1938-vintage radio drama was really like. The rest of the show is wildly experimental in the way you'd expect from a particularly outre installment of the Columbia Workshop -- fascinating listening, really, but hardly the sort of thing to use if you're trying to present a "typical" example of radio drama.

Such classroom presentations may have done more harm to the general reputation of radio drama than good. To modern, jaded ears, the whole play is, to be blunt, a rather strident piece of sci-fi hokum -- and a 1990s student, hearing the show for the first time, is likely to marvel at the sheer gullibility of the people who were fooled by the broadcast. Without a proper understanding of the context of the times, it's impossible to understand what made WOTW effective.

The single most important point to keep in mind when listening to WOTW is the timing of its broadcast -- it was heard just a month after the Sudetenland crisis had brought Europe to the brink of war. For the entire second half of September 1938, radio programs were constantly being interrupted for the latest developments from overseas: both NBC and CBS broke into regular programming about a hundred and fifty times over the course of those two and a half weeks, and the effect was to make listeners profoundly jumpy. WOTW, especially over the course of the first twenty minutes, captures the essence of that period, even down to the inflections used by the "news broadcasters" in breaking into "regular programming." The sharp, staccato cadences of the "bulletins" are precisely what one would have heard in an actual news crisis. Considering this context gives a whole new significance to the broadcast -- and to the response it generated.

The response to WOTW is another area where there's been a lot of misrepresentation. October 30, 1938 is often referred to as the Night That Panicked America. But is this really true -- or is it a legend that's been amplified by the passing of the years?

The best source of information on the post-broadcast reaction remains Professor Hadley Cantril's landmark study "The Invasion From Mars," published in 1940, and reissued in 1966. Cantril's estimates of the program's audience and of the numbers of listeners who reacted to the broadcast are the most accurate available, and form the basis for most of what's been written about the program over the decades. It's a book that's constantly quoted -- but rarely seems to have actually been read by those who are doing the quoting.

So what, exactly, does Cantril say?

Professor Cantril estimates, first of all, that no more than six million listeners heard the broadcast. This figure is derived from a scientific poll taken by the American Institute of Public Opinion six weeks after the broadcast, as well as from the C. E. Hooper Inc. Hooperrating survey actually taken on the night of October 30th - Cantril's figure splits the difference between the two surveys to come up with the 6 million figure. Of these, Cantril estimates, based again on the AIPO survey, that about 1.7 million accepted the program as a news bulletin and 1.2 million were sufficiently distressed to do something about it. In other words, nearly a third of those who heard the program believed it -- and nearly a quarter of those who heard it were, in Cantril's words, excited by it.

Impressive -- and, the source of the "Night That Panicked America" legend. But was "America" truly panicked?

Consider this. The population of the United States according the the 1940 census (the closet available figure to 1938) was approximately 150.6 million. If 1.2 million people were "excited" by WOTW, that amounts to less than one per cent of the total population -- and by no stretch of the imagination can that be considered a nationwide panic.

So -- why has the legend persisted? Why do we have these images of frightened families surging into the streets, fleeing some unspeakable fate?

Press coverage has a lot to do with it - and again, timing is everything. The newspapers were still smarting from the beating they'd taken from radio during the European Crisis -- and WOTW gave the print media a chance to wag the Finger Of Alarm at the irresponsibility of this Upstart Medium. The story was played up big in the New York papers -- where the tabloid Daily News and Daily Mirror, especially, gave the story gigantic headlines and pages of inside coverage. Even the staid New York Times gave the story banner placement. The excesses of the New York press can be excused, perhaps, by the fact that a lot of the "panic" was centered in New Jersey, where the alleged invasion took place -- but looking back on the newspaper coverage today, one has to wonder just how carefully researched it actually was.

In any case, the legends took root -- and have entered into our national folklore. All the statistics one could ever want to quote will never dispel the myth that all the nation fled in panic on that Halloween Eve 1938. It's a good story, after all -- and if there's one thing you can count on, it's that a good story beats out straight history every time.

WOTW was both the best thing that ever happened to Orson Welles - and the worst. The publicity generated by the program made him, in short order, a National Figure. Where he was well known as a "boy wonder" in rarefied New York theatrical circles, suddenly he was thrust into the national spotlight -- in his own, rather rueful words, he had acquired "something of a reputation for the uncanny."

One has to wonder what would have happened had Welles and producer John Houseman decided not to go ahead with "War Of The Worlds" -- if they had taken someone's suggestion and done "Lorna Doone" instead. Would Welles have remained in radio? Would he have continued to produce well-crafted adaptations of the classics for tiny audiences? Would he have stayed in New York, accomplishing great things on the legitimate stage? Would he ever have gone to Hollywood? Would we ever have seen "Citizen Kane," "Othello," or "Touch of Evil?" Or would we have been spared the sight of an old-before-his-time Welles, a sad, bloated self-parody rumbling his way thru interviews with Johnny Carson or shilling cheap wine in endless TV commercials?

In the end, those are the important questions to ask about "War of the Worlds" -- for the real impact of this remarkable program was not in the "panicking of a nation" -- but in its creation of an extraordinary, tragic show business career.


Elizabeth McLeod is a journalist, researcher, and freelance writer specializing in radio of the 1930s. She is a regular contributor to "Nostalgia Digest" magazine and the Internet OTR Digest Mailing List, maintains a website, Broadcasting History Resources, and is presently researching a book on Depression-era broadcasting. Elizabeth is always looking for 1930s radio recordings in all formats -- uncoated aluminum or lacquer-coated discs, vinyl or shellac pressings, or low-generation tape copies. You can contact her at lizmcl@midcoast.com