What You're Not Listening To

What You're Not Listening To

Fake News and Alien Heavy Metal

October 29, 2020

Orson Wells proved to the world he was a media genius without limits with a radio broadcast of War of the Worlds that literally shocked many and even drew the ire of a dictator. #orsonwelles #waroftheworlds #radio #mercurytheater

Fake news existed prior to the Trump administration. It was preceded by William Randolph Hearst, who actually got the United States into a war with Spain. Arguably, its most famous figure was that of Orson Welles.

Entire gatefold cover of War of the Worlds, in one of its earliest and best-selling formats. Courtesy of Random House.

Welles was already an established and celebrated theatre and radio producer by 1938, and decided to do something unheard of for the medium: create a live radio broadcast for the CBS network for Halloween of that year that was set up like regular news programming. Welles was already a successful risk taker, even producing an all-Black cast for a national touring Shakespeare play, a first.

Orson Welles (left) and a Chicago newspaper headline from Halloween, 1938.

The cast of the Mercury Players, which would include actors he would work with for years, were considered the best in the business. Almost all of them got their start in theatre productions. Many of the actors in the Worlds broadcast played multiple roles, including Ray Collins, Paul Stewart and William Alland.

Paul Stewart (center, front) of the Mercury Theater Players, also starred in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, 1941. Courtesy RKO Pictures.

Welles only wanted the best, and he got it, even if he had to pay it out of his own pocket, which he did regularly. For War of the Worlds, based upon the H.G. Wells science fiction classic, not only were the top notch team of the Mercury Players present, but so was Bernard Hermann and his orchestra, a man who’s name would later become synonymous with Alfred Hitchcock films, particularly Psycho.

Ray Collins, 1941, during the filing of Citizen Kane, courtesy of RKO Pictures. He is best remembered today as Lt. Tragg on the original Perry Mason television series.

Much has been said or disproven about the number of people who thought that the radio play was real or not. Set up like a news broadcast, it did play on the fears of a looming war with Nazi Germany. Even if conservative estimates are to be believed, approximately one and half million people at the time thought it was real, and mind you, the population of the U.S. in 1938 was less than half of what it is today.

“You don’t play murder in soft words.”orson Welles responding to criticism about his radio broadcast

Even Adolf Hitler, in a radio broadcast in early November, about a week after the show, denounced Welles, CBS and the program for inciting panic. Welles, who for years worked tirelessly to help the U.S. war effort, was more than amused he upset the dictator so much.

Orson Welles (left, back, arms raised) and Bernard Hermann (center, with headphones on) conducts the CBS Orchestra for The Mercury Players, 1938. Image from the Gastonia Daily Gazette (North Carolina).

Even though the program made Welles one of the most influential players in radio, not everyone received the same treatment after the broadcast. Screenwriter Howard Koch, the man responsible for setting up the influential news format of the program, did win an Oscar for his work on Casablanca. (“We’ll always have Paris” is him.) However, he was blacklisted during the McCarthy Hearings and the Red Scare of the early 1950’s, and for years could only find work overseas using a pseudonym. Welles often disputed Koch’s involvement in War of the Worlds,...