It is probably safe to say that the October 31, 1938 radio drama broadcast by Orson Welles had more impact on its listeners than any other of its ilk in the history of broadcasting.
When the Mercury Theater On the Air presented a realistic dramatization of H.G. Wells's 19th-century fantasy novel, War of the Worlds, it set off a panic particularly in New Jersey and New York.
According to Phil Vourtsis president of the New Jersey Antique Radio Club (NJARC), the broadcast took place at a special moment in history when radio drama and live news reporting seemed to be intersecting.
"The results were tumultuous and unforgettable," said Mr. Vourtsis. "Many listeners had tuned in late and had missed the disclaimer about the broadcast being a fictional drama."
In 1938, thousands of listeners mistook the broadcast for news reports of Martians killing earthlings with death-rays as meteors landed at Grover's Mill just a stone's throw from Princeton. The mass hysteria had residents fleeing their homes or joining to combat the "aliens."
This Saturday, October 28, in the auditorium of the Sarnoff Corporation at 201 Washington Road, the David Sarnoff Library will present a live re-enactment of the 68-year-old broadcast using period technology supplied by the NJARC and with the help of some two dozen performers from Hunterdon Radio Theatre.
"This is the third time in the last four years that the David Sarnoff Library is presenting the broadcast," said Dr. Alex Magoun, executive director of the David Sarnoff Library. "We are very pleased that the Hunterdon Radio Theatre group will be participating again."
"David Sarnoff predicted and innovated the power of network broadcasting," said Mr. Magoun. "Welles's broadcast showed how the media could instantly encourage national hysteria as well as national unity. We think that's a powerful lesson worth revisiting."
Radio Theatre Lives
"This is arguably one of the best radio dramas of all time," said William Spear, president and founder of Hunterdon Radio Theatre (HRT), a nonprofit group that writes, performs and records radio plays.
"This is our second year of performing at the Sarnoff Library and we are proud to participate," said Mr. Spear, who got involved in the Sarnoff re-enactment after touring the library. "The idea of Hunterdon Radio Theatre performing at the library grew spontaneously from seeing the performance area."
Inspired by memories of radio dramas he heard as a child, especially during long road trips, Mr. Spear is an accomplished radio playwright. Having written his first in 1994, he now has more than 15 plays to his credit and his work has featured on broadcasts in New York and New Jersey.
Established in 1998, Hunterdon Radio Theatre works with a cadre of over 100 actors/performers, all of whom try different aspects of radio drama with actors experiencing setting up microphones and mixing board and writers encouraged to perform sound effects or an engineer to try a hand at writing a science fiction scene. "This creates a vibrancy which allows the organization to maintain its growth," said Mr. Spear.
The Internet's recent embrace of radio broadcasting and the advent of satellite radio are creating opportunities for new audiences for such groups at HRT, which is building its own web streaming presence to reach more listeners.
"Radio drama is also attracting new performers because of its relatively low barriers to entry," noted Mr. Spear. "While there are more entertainment options nowadays than ever before, there is still a place for radio plays. America's first great mass entertainment medium retains its capacity to develop characters and advance plot lines in a singular manner."
Besides, professional level audio available on computers has made recording easier than ever and capturing performances onto CDs, or, streaming live to the Internet, is within the reach of a larger number of organizations.
Hunterdon Radio Theatre, said Mr. Spear, intends to be a part of these advances, producing radio adaptations of literary works and original dramas that are family-friendly.
"Radio drama in the United States is very much alive," he said.
A Special Experience
The sound effects and actors' voices will be transmitted through 1930s microphones to 1930s radios, provided by members of NJARC.
"Listening to radio theatre is an experience unlike anything two generations raised on television and the Internet have ever felt," said Mr. Vourtsis, editor of 45rpm Phono Gazette and author of The Fabulous Victrola 45.
"To listen to the sounds of a Martian invasion through the radios of the time makes you appreciate how much the world has changed since the original broadcast."
"We have been surprised by the clarity of the signal and the quality of the sound," said Mr. Spear. "We felt as if we were performing in 1938."
NJARC holds its monthly meetings in the Library of the Sarnoff Corporation, originally part of RCA research laboratories, the site of much pioneering radio and television development.
"In the late 30s, radio was considered the entertainment and news information gateway to the world and most homes had a special spot in the living room for the radio," said Mr. Vourtsis. "Radio drama was an important part of popular entertainment, bound only by the listener's imagination."
Performances of "The War of the Worlds" will take place at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. The doors will open one hour prior to the shows, allowing visitors to tour the Library's new exhibits on David Sarnoff and the Innovative Spirit and Six Innovations that Changed the World.
All tickets for the matinee performance are $10 in advance ($15 at the door). Ticket prices for the evening performance, which will be followed by a dessert reception, are as follows: adults 13-64 are $20 in advance ($25 at the door); all others are $10 in advance ($15 at the door). A special benefit reception follows the evening show.
To reserve tickets in advance, send a check with a note indicating which performance, the number and type of tickets to David Sarnoff Library, CN 5300, Princeton NJ 08543-5300, or by credit card through paypal.com to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The David Sarnoff Library, containing a museum and archives with the state's largest holdings of RCA historical materials, is open by appointment for tours and field trips. For more information, visit www.davidsarnoff.org.
For more information about Hunterdon Radio Theatre, visit www.co.hunterdon.nj.us/index.html.
Return to Previous Story | Return to Top | Go to Next Story