Saturday, October 31, 2009

The War Of The Worlds, and the Golden Age of Radio

In what has become somewhat of a tradition here at LTR, I thought I'd share a little history with you.

Seventy-one years ago yesterday, October 30, 1938, a radio drama aired that really made an impact on the airwaves of America. The Mercury Theatre on the Air, led by Orson Welles, did an adaptation of the H.G. Welles classic science fiction work The War Of The Worlds.

I wrote about this the past two years, here and here. Here's some of what I wrote then:

Welles and company prepared an adaptation of H.G. Wells' science fiction thriller The War Of The Worlds, which told the tale of a violent alien invasion of Earth. And in keeping with the eccentric nature of their on-stage productions, which included Shakespearian works set in Fascist Italy and the Carribean, among various contemporary settings, this adaptation would be unique.

The broadcast, as envisioned by Welles, was to be done as a hoax. Welles was never a fan of overly-political radio commentators such as Father Charles Coughlin, and perhaps wanted to show people that they could not necessarily believe everything they heard on the radio. Most likely, he was inspired by the horrific thought of his ambitious dramas getting clobbered in the ratings by a radio ventriloquist. Something had to be done.

The show started with an ordinary ballroom concert performance (actually the CBS radio orchestra conducted by Bernard Herrmann) would be interrupted by live news reports and announcer cut-ins, reporters on the scene, sounds of ham radio operators and interviews with fictitious government officials – all relaying a fictional Martian attack on Grovers Mill, New Jersey.

Not much more can be added to what I wrote earlier. But audio dramas such as War Of The Worlds, to this day, speak of the power of really good "old time radio" presentations, done before the advent of television. The better ones really had no need for television, as they effectively drew pictures for the listening audience. For example, Dragnet, considered by many to be the best of the old-time radio shows, and definitely the best-produced, was arguably more effective on radio than in its later television incarnation.

The Internet Archive has a mind-boggling selection of old-time radio shows on their site, including drama, comedy, suspense, horror, sci-fi, crime stories, westerns, variety, news broadcasts and much more. And it's all free, allowing anyone to download old episodes of the comedy duo Bob and Ray, or enjoy the Red Scare camp of I Was A Communist For The FBI (highly recommended!).

Listening to radio these days can often be either depressing or boring (or both). Thankfully, the Internet Archive has preserved many, many examples of radio's Golden Age.

For your listening pleasure this Halloween, here is the original Mercury Theatre presentation of War Of The Worlds:

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