It’s been 75 years to the day since Orson Welles caused radio listeners to flee a Martian invasion. On October 30, 1938, he took Howard Koch’s adaptation of H.G. Wells’s classic The War of the Worlds, and convinced more than a million radio listeners that Martians had landed and Earth was under attack.
The fictional attack was the substance of a radio play performed with such gusto that it was mistaken for the real thing by some listeners who tuned in half way through the broadcast and didn’t hear the disclaimer about it being fiction.
Tonight at 7:30 p.m., the historic broadcast described as one of the best radio dramas of all time will be recreated in the Community Room at the Princeton Public Library by members of Raconteur Radio, a six-member team of radio enthusiasts from Metuchen.
The original broadcast was a Halloween episode of the radio drama series The Mercury Theatre on the Air, directed and narrated by Welles before he went on to become a legend of cinema. It transferred the action from turn of the century England to contemporary New Jersey.
The effect was so dramatic that the 23-year old Welles “apologized” at the end of the live CBS broadcast. He said: “This is Orson Welles, ladies and gentlemen, out of character, to assure you that The War of the Worlds has no further significance than as the holiday offering it was intended to be. The Mercury Theatre’s own radio version of dressing up in a sheet and jumping out of a bush and saying Boo! …. We annihilated the world before your very ears and utterly destroyed CBS. You will be relieved, I hope, to learn that we didn’t mean it, and that both institutions are still open for business. So goodbye everybody, and remember please for the next day or so the terrible lesson you learned tonight. That grinning, glowing, globular invader of your living room is an inhabitant of the pumpkin patch, and if your doorbell rings and nobody’s there, that was no Martian, it’s Halloween.”
In the late 1930s, radio was the entertainment and news information gateway to the world. Almost every home had a special spot in the living room for the radio and entire families gathered for their favorite shows.
For the simulated live newscast, Welles played the part of a Princeton University astronomer dismissing speculation about life on Mars. Thousands of listeners took the broadcast for news reports of Martians killing earthlings with death-rays at Grover’s Mill — just a stone’s throw from Princeton.
Such classic radio drama lives on thanks to Raconteur Radio, a six member team headquartered in the Old Franklin School, an historic 1807 one-room school house located at 461 Middlesex Avenue in Metuchen. The group adds a new show to its repertoire every month: theatrical stagings of vintage and original radio plays as well as pop culture parodies for live audiences.
Inspired by the former Metuchen bookstore and performance space known as The Raconteur, the group was founded by bookstore owner Alex Dawson, who is also a novelist and award-winning playwright. His forthcoming book, The Rapscallion Club, is an archeological adventure for all ages.
Raconteur Radio perform in libraries, adult communities, senior centers and schools, as well as in restaurants, bars, and, sometimes private homes. Their productions are amplified and feature theatrical lighting, costumes, and extensive sound effects.
In the past, they’ve put on Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea; Jaws; From Russia with Love; The Great Gatsby; Sunset Boulevard; Casablanca; Rebecca; The Green Hornet; Sherlock Holmes & The Final Problem; The Third Man; Sorry, Wrong Number; The Maltese Falcon; The Twilight Zone; The Abominable Snowman; and Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde.
Upcoming shows include: The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood; Flash Gordon on the Planet Mongo; Gaslight; The Man Who Would Be King; It’s a Wonderful Life; Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple; Jane Eyre; The Scarlet Pimpernel; Macbeth; Alice in Wonderland; and The Lone Ranger.
Raconteur Radio’s “War of the Worlds” is at the Princeton Public Library, Wednesday, October 30, at 7:30 p.m. and at the West Windsor Library, Thursday, October 31, at 7:30 p.m. For more information, call (609) 924-9529 or visit: www.princetonlibrary.org; for more on Raconteur Radio, contract firstname.lastname@example.org or visit: http://raconteurradio.blogspot.com.