Tuned In: American Experience on PBS

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PBS's "American Experience" (9 p.m. Tuesday, WQED-TV) revisits Orson Welles' radio play "War of the Worlds" and places it in a historical context that also resonates today.

Produced and directed by Cathleen O'Connell, the one-hour program mixes interviews with recreated scenes of radio listeners reacting to the broadcast, their words culled from letters sent to Welles and CBS Radio at the time.

"When Orson said it was a Halloween prank, it was like being reprieved on the way to the gas chamber," says one listener.

A simple retelling of the story of how Mr. Welles imported the setting of H.G. Wells' classic "War of the Worlds" from England to Grover's Mill, N.J., might not be enough to fill an hour, but Ms. O'Connell gets the experts she interviews to put the incident into a historic context that's relatable today.

'American Experience:
War of the Worlds'
When: 9 p.m. Tuesday, WQED
Narrator: Oliver Platt

The film explains that "War of the Worlds" was not the big radio draw on the evening of Oct. 30, 1938. Most listeners were tuned to a variety show with ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummy Charlie McCarthy but when a musical act came on, some flipped the dial -- the channel surfing of its day -- to CBS Radio and Mr. Welles' "Mercury Theater on the Air."

"They missed the announcement that this was a play," explains historian Susan Douglas.

What's more, the "War of the Worlds" broadcast followed after the May 1937 Hindenburg crash, which was notable for the response of the broadcaster covering it ("Oh, the humanity!"). And in September 1938 Americans were on the edge of their seat after Adolf Hitler pushed the world to the brink of war. All of this followed not so many years after the Great Depression.

"The dominant mood of the country was not anger or resentment ... but in fact was shame and fear, especially fear," said historian T.J. Jackson Lears.

Every news outlet interrupts broadcasts for "breaking news," even if it's something as non-newsy as a routine thunderstorm warning.

Back in 1938, Americans also were accustomed to news bulletin interruptions, Ms. Douglas said, and "War of the Worlds" was styled to resemble that era's breaking news.

What's most interesting in this "American Experience" film is the behind-the-scenes look at the process of making the broadcast, which Mr. Welles didn't put much effort into until just a few days before showtime. He was inspired by another radio program, "Air Raid," which also used the breaking news concept. The actor playing the reporter in "War of the Worlds" listened and relistened to audio from the Hindenburg coverage to approximate the same tone of anguish and terror.

"They were concerned this was going to be some boring, old-fashion, dusty museum piece," says Mr. Welles' daughter, Chris Welles Feder. "They certainly went the other way, didn't they?"

Rob Owen writes this Sunday TV column for Scripps Howard News Service. Contact him at: rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook.

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