30 October 2005

This Day In History

1938 "War of the Worlds" panics millions


Radio program Mercury Theater on the Air presents Orson Welles' production of H.G. Wells' "War of the Worlds," a fictional drama about a Martian invasion in Grovers Mill, New Jersey. The program, which aired on Halloween, sparked a panic among listeners who believed the play was an actual news broadcast. Of the six million listeners who heard the show, more than 1.7 million reportedly believed the story was true.

Born in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and raised in Chicago, Orson Welles was well versed in Shakespeare before he finished grade school. He excelled in poetry, music, cartooning, and magic. After high school, Welles-the son of an inventor and a concert pianist-chose to travel the world rather than attend college, and he launched his acting career in Ireland in 1931.

He came back to the United States in 1932 but was snubbed by Broadway, so he traveled to Spain, where he performed as a bullfighter. He returned to the United States soon thereafter and landed the role of Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet on Broadway. In 1937, he founded the Mercury Theater, home of innovative stage and radio drama, with John Houseman. Their radio anthology program, which later changed its name to The Campbell Playhouse, ran until 1941.

At age 25, Welles produced, directed, co-wrote, and starred in the Academy Award-winning Citizen Kane, his first foray into motion pictures. The film told the story of a media tycoon who muscled his way to power using unscrupulous tactics while destroying his marriage and alienating his friends. Though Citizen Kane wasn't commercially successful, the film won praise for its unique camera and sound work, which influenced filmmakers around the world. Indeed, it topped the list in the American Film Institute's 1998 poll of America's 100 Greatest Movies. After Citizen Kane, Welles' diverse works included everything from adaptations of Shakespeare to documentaries. Some of his acclaimed films included The Stranger (1946), The Lady from Shanghai (1948), and Chimes at Midnight (1966). In his later years, he narrated documentaries and appeared in commercials, and he left behind numerous unfinished films when he died in 1985. He was a recipient of the American Film Institute's Life Achievement Award.

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