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Tuesday, October 8th, 2013


War of the Worlds


Premieres Tuesday, October 29th at 8:00pm on WTVP-HD 47.1.

Orson Welles rehearsing Campbell Playhouse for CBS Radio, November 1938.

- In Conjunction With 75th Anniversary Of Original Radio Broadcast -

On October 30, 1938, just after 8:00 p.m. on the east coast, the millions of Americans tuned to CBS Radio were treated to an unusual dramatization of H.G. Wells’ classic The War of the Worlds, performed by 23-year-old wunderkind Orson Welles and his Mercury Theater on the Air. Although most listeners understood that the program was a radio drama, the next day’s headlines reported that thousands of others — perhaps a million or more — were plunged into panic, convinced that America was under a deadly Martian attack. Timed to air in conjunction with the 75th anniversary of Welles’s notorious radio broadcast, War of the Worlds, produced and directed by Cathleen O’Connell, premieres on AMERICAN EXPERIENCE on Tuesday, October 29, 2013, 8:00-9:00 p.m. on WTVP-HD 47.1.

Featuring interviews with film director and cinema historian Peter Bogdanovich, Welles’s daughter Chris Welles Feder, and other authors and experts, as well as dramatizations of some of the thousands of letters sent to Welles by an alternately admiring and furious public, War of the Worlds explores how Welles’s ingenious use of the new medium of radio struck fear into an already anxious nation. “In an era when the public can still be fooled or misled by what is read online, in print, or seen on TV, War of the Worlds is a timely reminder of the power of mass media,” said AMERICAN EXPERIENCE Executive Producer Mark Samels.

It took place on the night before Halloween, long known as Mischief Night. It began like any other ordinary Sunday evening, with millions of Americans tuned to their radios. But beneath the outward calm was a nation tense with worry and fear; the Great Depression refused to let up, and the threat of war in Europe loomed larger every day. Then, at 8:15 p.m., the voice of a panicked announcer broke into the dance music with a news bulletin reporting that strange explosions were taking place on the planet Mars, followed minutes later by a report that Martians had landed in the tiny town of Grover’s Mill, New Jersey.

Almost instantly, frantic listeners responded to the shocking news. Chicago newspapers were flooded with calls; in St. Louis, people gathered outside to discuss what to do about the “invaders”; in San Francisco, many feared that New Jersey had been laid to waste and that the Martians were heading west. Callers pleaded with the power company in Providence to shut off the lights so that the city would not be seen by the invaders. Similar reports of panicked reactions came from Baltimore, Atlanta, Indianapolis, Memphis, Minneapolis, and Salt Lake. At the epicenter of the event, New Jersey national guardsmen flooded armories with calls asking where to report. And in cities and towns across the country, people stopped a moment to pray — then grabbed their loved ones and fled into the night.

Seventy-five years later, War of the Worlds explores this legendary but misunderstood event. With the CBS radio broadcast serving as its narrative spine, the film examines the elements that came together to create one of the most notorious media events in U.S. history: our longtime fascination with life on Mars; the emergence of radio as a powerful, pervasive medium; the eagerness of newspapers to disparage their radio rivals; the shocking Hindenburg explosion of 1937, the first disaster to broadcast live; and the brilliant enfant terrible Orson Welles, the director of the drama and mischief maker supreme.

Public reaction, forever immortalized in thousands of letters written following the broadcast, is dramatized in on-camera interviews, bringing to life the people who listened that night and thought it was a rip-roaring entertainment — or the end of the world. Saved by Mercury Theater member Richard Wilson, most of these letters had not been read since 1938. Donated to the University of Michigan in 2007 by Wilson’s estate, they were re-discovered by A. Brad Schwartz, a University of Michigan student who was writing his thesis on the broadcast. “The ‘panic’ caused by the broadcast has become legendary,” said producer Cathleen O’Connell. “Using these newly discovered letters was a wonderful way to personalize the story. These rarely heard first-hand accounts, juxtaposed with the print media coverage of the day, help demonstrate the true impact of Welles’s radio drama.”




About the Participants, in Order of Appearance

Robert Crossley, for 37 years a member of the English Department at the University of Massachusetts Boston, is now Professor Emeritus. His latest book, Imagining Mars: A Literary History, appeared in January 2011 from Wesleyan University Press.

Paul Heyer is a Professor at Canada’s Wilfred Laurier University. A lifelong fascination with radio led to his recent book, The Medium and the Magician, about the radio legacy of Orson Welles and how Welles’s use of sound in radio influenced his motion pictures.

Eric S. Rabkin is Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of English Language and Literature, and Professor of Art and Design at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Rabkin’s many books include Visions of Mars (ed. with Howard Hendrix and George Slusser; 2011); Mars: A Tour of the Human Imagination (2005); Science Fiction: History, Science, Vision (with Robert Scholes, 1977); The Fantastic in Literature (1976); and Narrative Suspense (1973).

Susan J. Douglas is a prize-winning author, columnist, and cultural critic, and the Catherine Neafie Kellogg Professor of Communication Studies at The University of Michigan. Her many books include Listening In: Radio and the American Imagination (Times Books, 1999) and Inventing American Broadcasting, 1899-1922 (Johns Hopkins, 1987).

T. J. Jackson Lears is an American cultural and intellectual historian with interests in comparative religious history, the culture of capitalism, and literature and folklore. He is the Board of Governors Professor of History at Rutgers University and Editor in Chief of the Raritan Quarterly Review.

Chris Welles Feder is the eldest daughter of Orson Welles by his first wife, Virginia Nicolson. Chris has spent most of her life as a writer for education and helped create Brain Quest, the popular series of learning games for children now in its fourth edition. She is also a published poet and the author of In My Father’s Shadow: A Daughter Remembers Orson Welles.

Peter Bogdanovich is a renowned film director, producer, writer, actor, film critic, and author. As a young film journalist, Bogdanovich struck up a lifelong friendship with Orson Welles and has played a major role in elucidating Welles and his career, most notably his book This Is Orson Welles (1992).

David Ropeik is an author, consultant and speaker on risk communication and risk perception and author of How Risky Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don't Always Match the Facts, published by McGraw Hill in 2010.

Produced and Directed
Director of Recreations
Story By
Telescript By
Edited By
Director of Photography
Original Music By
Narrated By
Coordinating Producer


Cathleen O’Connell
Josh Seftel
Michelle Ferrari & A. Brad Schwartz
Michelle Ferrari
Brian Funck
Stephen McCarthy
John Kusiak
Oliver Platt
Melissa S. Martin



About the Filmmakers

Cathleen O’Connell (Producer/Director) has worked in the documentary field for over twenty-five years on both nationally broadcast PBS documentaries and independent films. Her previous work for AMERICAN EXPERIENCE includes: Co-Producer for two episodes of God In America, “A New Adam” and “A New Eden” (a coproduction with FRONTLINE); Coordinating Producer for We Shall Remain, a five-part mini-series which surveyed Native history in America from the 1600's to the 21st century; and Recreations Producer for John and Abigail Adams. Other recent PBS credits include Recreations Producer for the upcoming mini-series The Latino Americans. In 2013, O'Connell’s independently produced documentary Sousa On The Rez was broadcast nationally on PBS' WORLD Channel and exhibited at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. Her non-broadcast work includes producing videos for the Veteran Administration's About Face campaign, an initiative designed to educate Veterans and their families about PTSD.

Mark Samels (Executive Producer) was named executive producer of AMERICAN EXPERIENCE, PBS’s flagship history series, in 2003. Under Samels’ leadership, the series has been honored with nearly every industry award, including the Peabody, Primetime Emmys, the duPont-Columbia Journalism Award, Writers Guild Awards, Oscar nominations, and Sundance Film Festival Audience and Grand Jury Awards. Samels also serves on the Board of Governors at the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. Prior to joining WGBH, Samels worked as an independent documentary filmmaker, an executive producer for several U.S. public television stations, and as a producer for the first co-production between Japanese and American television. A native of Wisconsin, he is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Television’s most-watched history series, AMERICAN EXPERIENCE celebrates its 25th anniversary in 2013. The series has been hailed as “peerless” (Wall Street Journal), “the most consistently enriching program on television” (Chicago Tribune), and “a beacon of intelligence and purpose” (Houston Chronicle). On air and online, the series brings to life the incredible characters and epic stories that have shaped America’s past and present. Acclaimed by viewers and critics alike, AMERICAN EXPERIENCE documentaries have been honored with every major broadcast award, including 30 Emmy Awards, four duPont-Columbia Awards, and 16 George Foster Peabody Awards, one most recently for the series represented by Freedom Riders, Triangle Fire, and Stonewall Uprising.

Exclusive corporate funding for AMERICAN EXPERIENCE is provided by Liberty Mutual Insurance. Major funding provided by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and Public Television Viewers. AMERICAN EXPERIENCE is produced for PBS by WGBH Boston.




For further information contact Linda Miller, WTVP Vice President of Programming, at (309) 495-0591 or linda.miller@wtvp.org



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