After trying in 1938, again in 1944 and once again in 1949, you might think the Earth
would finally be safe from the unwelcome attentions of the planet Mars, but you can't
keep a good Martian down, or indeed a good idea, and in 1968 the invaders were back
for another assault on the airwaves. The location this time was the city of Buffalo,
and in homage to the original 1938 Orson Welles broadcast, the invasion was timed to start
at 11pm on the Halloween night of October 30th. Behind this new version was Jefferson
Kaye, the Program Director of renowned local Radio Station WKBW. The station already
had a reputation for producing interesting Halloween productions (Kaye would be involved
the following year in a spoof story that Paul McCartney had died,) but the War of the
Worlds was to prove one of the most ambitious undertakings for the station.
The intention was not to copy the original broadcast, but to bring it up to date in
the way a modern newsroom might well cover such a monumental event. While previous
versions utilised familiar place names and actors merely impersonating politicians
and military personnel, the WKBW version took the concept to its logical conclusion
by drafting in real newsroom staff and borrowing regular DJ Sandy Beach to create an
extremely realistic portrayal of an invasion. It was planned originally that the
newsroom cast (Jim Fagan, Don Lancer, Joe Downey and WKBW TV anchor Irv Weinstein)
would read from a prepared script, but in rehearsal it became apparent that people
more used to the rapid fire approach of live radio were uncomfortable with the
precision required of a radio drama. It just wasn't working as Kaye had envisaged,
so he decided to let them adlib much of the material. It was an inspired decision
and likely explains why the broadcast was to have such a memorable impact on its
listeners, despite the best efforts of the station to forewarn them.
Mindful of the potential for a damaging debacle like that in 1938, the station had
conducted the most intensive campaign in its history to alert listeners to the
existence and nature of the forthcoming broadcast. For 21 days prior to the transmission
date, announcements were broadcast hourly. Press releases went to police and other
emergency services, plus schools, newspapers and television stations. Anyone in the
eight counties surrounding Buffalo likely to receive calls from the public were
alerted, yet all these preventive measures did nothing to stop over 4000 reported
calls to police and telephone company switchboards that Halloween evening. Canada
is even reported to have sent National Guard forces to the Peace Bridge, Rainbow
Bridge and the Queenstown Bridge.
The broadcast that set this new panic in motion began in wholly innocuous fashion
with a news report from Joe Downey using real up to the minute events, leading
with President Johnson's surprise announcement of a cessation of bombing missions
in Vietnam (what became known as his "October Surprise") and following on with
various minor local crime stories. The final story in the news report is a brief
mention that mysterious explosions have been detected on Mars. With no sense of
unease or any inkling that something untoward is happening, the airwaves are then
taken over by DJ Sandy Beach for his Halloween evening show. Beach cracks a joke
about the explosions and plays several musical tracks and adverts before a breaking
news spot reports on concerns by NASA that the explosions might cause communications
disruptions on Earth. More music follows, but at the end of Hey Jude by The Beatles
comes something a lot more ominous. A meteor has reportedly slammed into Grand Island,
a town northwest of Buffalo that is located on a large island in the middle of the
Niagara River. The news is considered so serious that Beach is bumped off the air
for continual rolling news from the scene.
Jeff Kaye anchors the story in the studio, with Don Lancer and Jim Fagan in the
field, both approaching the imperilled island from separate directions. The events
are now relayed largely through the observations of these reporters, with news
stories radioed in on a seemingly ad-hoc basis, peppered with lots of miscues,
broken misheard communications and the discordant crackle of radios. As it becomes
increasingly obvious that this is no meteor, the sense of unease grows. Fagan and
Lancer sound worried, then disorientated and finally totally terrified, and when
the Martians emerge and begin firing their Heat Ray, the effect is truly awesome.
It is not hard to understand why listeners were horrified. The action never lets
up from this moment, with the Martians setting up their War Machines and military
forces laying down a spirited but ultimately futile defence with artillery and
fighter planes. The demolition by military engineers of the bridges to Grand Island
is a particular highlight of the production, with a frantic John Irving (a
television news reporter) reporting that people have been caught in the explosions.
Aside from this sort of local colour, the WKBW production does differ in several
significant ways to the original Orson Welles broadcast. For one thing, the short
interludes of orchestral music are largely replaced with full-length tracks. By
contrast, Welles took advantage of his listeners' inattention to whip the action
across New Jersey at breakneck speed, such that people did not notice the implausibility
of the Martians rapid advance of the brevity of the interludes. The Buffalo version
is much more tightly constrained geographically and plays out (at least initially)
at a far more leisurely pace, with all of the significant action set within the bounds
of Grand Island and Boston. Most significantly, Kaye took the unusual decision to end
the story with the Martians apparently victorious and he himself the last man left,
dying on the street. There is no last minute reprieve thanks to the actions of bacteria
and germs on the Martians.
If things were tense in homes and on the streets of Buffalo that night, then so too
was the atmosphere in the studio. The phone was ringing off the hook with frightened
people and worried that the situation was getting out of hand, Kaye went to the studio
to implore director Dan Kriegler to let him make a very direct statement on air that
the broadcast was nothing more than a drama. Kriegler refused and as Kaye tells the
story, it literally almost came to a fistfight. With an impasse developing in the studio,
Kaye crossed to the tape machine, which was playing the broadcast and said, "Danny, if
you don't let me go on the air, I'm going to rip this tape right out of this machine and
run like hell onto Main Street with it, and you'll never finish it." Strangely, almost
exactly the same situation had arisen in 1938, with John Houseman (producer to Orson Welles)
threatening to hit a CBS executive who wanted to break into the broadcast with a disclaimer.
Just as eventually happened in 1938, Kriegler relented and Kaye got onto the air, though
it is interesting to consider that listeners had had ample opportunity to discover the
truth prior to this, with the furious action being interrupted on several previous
occasions by messages from sponsors, which made it abundantly clear that the whole
thing was nothing more than a drama.
Kaye sat in his office after the broadcast convinced that he had blown his bridges on-air
and metaphorically. He thought that his days were numbered and believing he could expect to
be summarily fired, wrote his resignation and slipped it under the door of the station
manager. But as it happened, there was no reprimand and WKBW got some priceless publicity.
Kaye was confident enough to repeat a slightly retooled version in 1971, (with no reports of
a panic) which replaced Sandy Beach with Jackson Armstrong but otherwise retained the original
material. Dan Kriegler has disowned this version because it cuts out a lot of the build-up,
though it is arguably the better for it. I suspect however that if listened to in context,
the 68 version was a great deal more unpleasant to the listeners simply because it took such
a low-key approach. Many people actually rang the station to ask when The War of the Worlds
was going to start, unaware that it already had.
Plenty of people who should have known better were certainly fooled. In his introduction
to the 1971 version, Kayes tells several entertaining stories, though perhaps some of the
details might be taken with a pinch of salt. In one case, a prominent local newspaper that
had been sent press releases still sent a news team to Grand Island. A county civil defence
unit apparently also went on alert and a local police station began issuing out firearms
to its officers.
Though there was nowhere near the same scale of panic, the 1968 version compares very
favourably with the Orson Welles original, and might even be considered its superior in
some respects. It is certainly fair to say that in terms of realism it scores very highly.
WKBW did one further version in 1975 but by this time Kaye had left the station and it is
considered a far weaker production.
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