Tag Archive | From Mercury to Mars

From Mercury to Mars: War of the Worlds and the Invasion of Media Studies from Antenna

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Our #WOTW75 hijinx are behind us, dear listeners, but our series on the radio work of Orson Welles, From Mercury to Mars, continues with several posts stretching into the new year. This week, our partner blog Antenna published a fascinating look at how social research into the WOTW audience both synthesized and catalyzed a whole set of approaches of social research about media effects. Drawing on some original research into the personal letters of Princeton researcher Hadley Cantril, Catholic University Professor Josh Shepperd tells the story …

“The day after the ‘War of the Worlds’ broadcast, a request came from Frank Stanton’s
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employer – the Columbia Broadcast System (CBS) – for an opportunity to test their new ‘technique.’ Cantril wrote in one personal letter: ‘when the broadcast of October 30 occurred, with its responses in mass hysteria over a wide area, the Princeton researchers recognized that here was a perfect opportunity for their inquiry.’ On the Wednesday following the broadcast two field workers began the first Mass Communications research canvass—in Orange, New Jersey. They visited the homes of 30 persons who were known to have listened to the broadcast, while other researchers began to tabulate statistics from other sites …”

[Reblogged from Antenna]

The M2M series is becoming quite an archive. To catch up, here are some links.

  • Here is “Hello Americans,” Tom McEnaney‘s post on Welles and Latin America
  • Here is Eleanor Patterson‘s post on editions of WOTW as “Residual Radio”
  • Here is “Sound Bites,” Debra Rae Cohen‘s post on Welles’s “Dracula”
  • Here is Cynthia B. Meyers on the pleasures and challenges of teaching WOTW in the classroom
  • Here is Kathleen Battles on parodies of Welles by Fred Allen.
  • Here is Shawn VanCour on the second act of War of the Worlds
  • Here is the navigator page for our #WOTW75 collective listening project
  • … And here is our podcast of Monteith McCollum‘s amazing WOTW remix.

In two weeks, check this space for a new essay by Northwestern University Professor Jacob Smith on the radio play that connoisseurs have long felt to be hands down Welles’s best radio work, “Hell on Ice.”

— nv

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#WOTW75 — It’s Time for “War of the Worlds!”

Click here to stream our broadcast in your web browser from WHRW in Binghamton, New York, beginning at 7pm EST!

Tweet along with us at #WOTW75

7:00-8:00 EST An all-new audio documentary hosted by Brian Hanrahan (Cornell) and featuring critical reflections from a dozen prominent radio historians, including Kate Lacey, Kathleen Battles, Jason Loviglio, Damien Keane, Alex Russo, Shawn VanCour and Tom McEnaney.

8:00-9:00 EST The re-broadcast of the original “War of the Worlds”!

9:00-10:00 EST  Hosted by SO!’s own Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman (Binghamton University), this hour includes live post-broadcast chats with Keane, McEnaney, and VanCour, and experimental soundscapes and drama produced by Binghamton University students and community members.

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Looking for the end of the world? Don’t panic, you’ve come to the right place. Our #WOTW75 project invites you to listen to and live-tweet Orson Welles’ classic “War of the Worlds” radio play tonight alongside hundred (thousands?) of others. This page has all you will need to participate.

When to Listen. Our project starts at  7 pm Eastern Standard Time on Wednesday, Oct. 30. Our goal is to keep in sync across listening sites everywhere.

How to Listen. Click here to stream our broadcast in your web browser from WHRW in Binghamton, New York. If this feed won’t work or goes down, see Alternative Listening Options below.

How to Respond. Use Twitter, Instagram and post on our Facebook group page using the hashtag #WOTW75. Be sure to follow @WOTW75 on Twitter and reply to one another). Posting a comment on this page is another option. Want to follow the conversation as a whole? Try our hashtag in tagboardGrover's Mill

Alternative Listening Options.  There are several other listening options available. You can stream the play from wellesnet, youtube or archive.org. These should be suitable to play on an ipod, phone or laptop. Please keep these links handy just in case something goes wrong with the WHRW feed (although we don’t anticipate this).

Public Radio Options. Want a real radio experience? KPCC Southern California Public Radio has generously given a feed out for free to a variety of public broadcasters, so check your local NPR, BBC or college station. KPCC will have its own broadcast on pacific time. They are sharing our hashtag, too. Here is a link with more information.

ticeHow to Help. All we need are your ears and keyboards, but if you want to build the project, add your friends to our FB group and post items from that feed to your wall.

How to Document. Doing something creative while listening? Installing WOTW on a streetcorner, in a bar, an observatory? Roaming rural New Jersey with a flashlight? We need images and artwork. Snap a few for us and send them our way. Your responses will archived both digitally and in print.

There’s more. Here is a link to the most recent entry in our From Mercury to Mars web series about Welles and radio, for which #WOTW75 is the centerpiece. Here is a link to Howard Koch’s WOTW script, in case you’d like to read along. Here is a recent radio play contest, and here is a recent episode of the podcast Aca-media on WOTW.white flag Check out PBS American Experience, which aired a major documentary on Tuesday night. Also, here is a new version of the story by Campfire Radio. Visiting New Jersey? There are live events out there in the moonlight, check out Raconteur Radio. Many more events and news items for the anniversary are up on  wellesnet.

Thanks for joining in on the fun. We’re eager to read your tweets and posts, and proud to annihilate the world before your very ears.

Questions, ideas? wotw75@soundingoutblog.com

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From Mercury to Mars: A Hard Act to Follow: War of the Worlds and the Challenges of Literary Adaptation from Antenna

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This week our From Mercury to Mars: Orson Welles on Radio after 75 Years series begins ramping up for our big event, a listening party / social media experiment, in which we’re asking all of our fans and readers to listen to Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds” radio play at the same time and respond to it on social media with the hashtag #WOTW75, beginning at 8:00 pm Eastern. On that date SO! Editor-in-Chief Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman,  SO! Multimedia Editor Aaron Trammellproducer Nick Rubenstein, Binghamton Cinema Professor Monteith McCollum and his “Performative Processes” class,  and BU’s Radio Drama Division will offer a broadcast from 90.5 FM WHRW radio in Binghamton, NY (and online) both before and after the play.

Remember to tune in to this blog on that date, and we’ll have lots of links and resources ready to help you participate. Organize your listening party now! Follow our project on Facebook and Twitter, too.

But first! Check out the most recent entry to the M2M series by contributor and media historian Shawn VanCour 

Post-apocalyptic“What is left to tell after the end of the world, and who is there to tell it? In his Mercury Theater signoff on October 30, 1938, producer and star Orson Welles boasted that the evening’s “War of the Worlds” broadcast had “annihilated the world before your very ears and utterly destroyed the C.B.S.” While these scenes of otherworldly invasion from the program’s opening 40-minute act have been a source of much discussion, its 20-minute closing act is seldom addressed and stands in stark contrast to the fast action and stylistic innovation of Act I …”

[Reblogged from Antenna]

Click here to read VanCour’s exceptional essay on the second act of the “War of the Worlds,” and what made it – from a stylistic point of view – perhaps more controversial than the first.

This is the sixth entry in our ongoing series on Welles and radio. Want to catch up with the series? See below.

  • Here is “Hello Americans,” Tom McEnaney‘s post on Welles and Latin America
  • Here is Eleanor Patterson‘s post on editions of WOTW as “Residual Radio”
  • Here is “Sound Bites,” Debra Rae Cohen‘s post on Welles’s “Dracula”
  • Here is Cynthia B. Meyers on the pleasures and challenges of teaching WOTW in the classroom
  • And … Here is Kathleen Battles on parodies of Welles by Fred Allen.

See you on the 30th! — nv

“Welles,” Belles, and Fred Allen’s Sonic Pranks: Making a Radio Auteur Laugh at Himself

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WelleswTower_squareWelcome back to From Mercury to Mars, our series of posts (in conjunction with Antenna) that reflect on Orson Welles’s radio career, and the upcoming anniversary of its highlight, “The War of the Worlds.”

When scholars discuss the effect of that play on people, they often fall into reveries about its most serious dimensions — what the Martian Panic says about human susceptibility, about the power of the media, about sound and the unknown. But it’s important to realize that, besides being terribly humorless, this approach also isn’t historically just. Although Welles was — like some of his listeners — spooked the night of the event, in the days that followed he and many others came to recognize some humor in the the whole thing, too. Later in life, Welles focused on that dimension of his memory, repeatedly recalling with laughter that when the actor John Barrymore (something of a “grand old man” of the American stage in 1938), heard the Martian invasion broadcast he tearfully decided to free his beloved dogs, so they could taste freedom before meeting the inexorable doom.

Battles1Such tall tales aren’t trivial. Actually, we misunderstand the WOTW escapade if we don’t recognize that immediately adjacent to modern America’s propensity for panic stood its equally fascinating capacity to laugh at itself. Both tendencies do cultural work, often in concert with one another. With that in mind, this week our Mercury to Mars series moves from the macabre (see Debra Rae Cohen’s piece on Welles and Dracula) to the ridiculous, focusing on the relationship between Welles’s puffed-up fame and how it was lampooned by Fred Allen, one of the great absurdist comics in modern entertainment, and perhaps the most creative radio comedian of his era.

To introduce this crucial entertainer and to explain why his relationship to Welles matters so much, we are lucky to have one of the most important voices in radio studies today: Kathleen Battles, Associate Professor of Communication at Oakland University, author of a paradigm-shifting study of the relationship between radio and policing, Calling All Cars: Radio Dragnets and the Technology of Policing (Minnesota, 2010). Battles is also one of the co-editors of a book you should all be reading, assigning, and handing out like Halloween candy — War of the Worlds to Social Media: Mediated Communication in Times of Crisis (Peter Lang, 2013).

Here’s a taste, just to get you started.

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Contemporary public memory of Orson Welles seems bent on remembering him as mercurial, imperious, haughty genius, driven in equal parts by ambition and artistic vision. It is hard to remember that this image of the auteur – not Welles but “Welles” –  was one crafted not by the man alone, but by a host of actors and other performers, all with their own interest in attaching themselves to such a “genius.” As Welles’s reputation grew in the wake of the “War of the Worlds” broadcast, furthering his transformation into “Welles,” it was simply a matter of time before he became a fodder for another kind of auteur, the radio comedian. One of the most popular was Fred Allen, who made a career archly satirizing the cultural conventions of the day, with the radio industry itself being one of his favorite targets.  “Welles” was too rich a subject to forego.

This post explores two key moments of Allen’s satire. The first came on November 9, 1939, when Allen’s show featured a comic skit, entitled “The Soundman’s Revenge, or, He Only Pulled the Trigger a Little, Because the Leading Man was Half Shot Anyway,” a radio skit that deftly mimes the Mercury/Campbell style to comic effect. The second is from three years later, October 18, 1942, when Welles himself appeared on Allen’s show, joining in the fun as the pair rehearse Les Miserables, with Welles gamely mocking “Welles.” In these two short skits, Allen and his team of writers and performers quickly dismantle what had become the more recognizable elements of the Mercury/Campbell style–as exemplified in Welles’s version of A Tale of Two Cities–including the elevation of Welles to the genius “author” of the plays, its narrative and performance techniques, and the use of sound effects.

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Orson Welles as Mr. Arkadin in his film of the same name, 1955.

Mercury Theater was strongly marked with the authorial imprint of the real Welles, but the legend of “Orson Welles” was also crafted quite deliberately by CBS, and then later by show sponsor Campbell’s Soup, for their own aims at cultural legitimacy. As Michele Hilmes argued, such moves were key to legitimizing the medium as operating in the “public interest” (183-88). Here is a clip from just after Campbell Soup began sponsoring the Welles program:

As other writers have pointed out, such as Debra Rae Cohen in her entry to this series, Neil Verma, and Paul Heyer, the show was among the best in emphasizing the sonic properties of radio to maximum effect in storytelling.  The quality acting of members of the Mercury Theater, the music of Bernard Herrmann, the ambitious use of sound effects, and some stellar examples of adapting literary tales make the show worthy of praise.

The emotional and narrative power of Welles himself is evident in the Mercury Theater dramatization of A Tale of Two Cities. Taking on Dickens’ sprawling classic in one hour certainly demanded some creative choices.  One was to open with Dr. Mannette’s letter from the Bastille prison, with Welles as Mannette emotionally dictating the words that would later serve to betray his own family.

This is contrasted against the later reading of the same letter in a courtroom scene, where the emotional poignancy of Welles’s performance is counterpointed against its dry reading as a piece of evidence.

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The sound effects team from The March of Time in a 1930’s publicity photo. On the left is Ora Nichols, who would later develop sounds for The War of the Worlds.

Dynamic use of sound effects was another key element of the Mercury/Campbell style. From his work in March of Time and The Shadow, which both used sound effects to enact key narrative devices (Time varied times and locations, the Shadow’s invisibility), Welles used his own radio program to push the boundaries of what such effects could achieve. In A Tale of Two Cities, sound effects are used to punctuate key moments, none to greater effect than the final scene in which the sound of the guillotine serves as the morbid backdrop to Carton’s final, famous speech of self sacrifice:

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Cover art for “Fred Allen Looks at Life,” a 1971 vinyl release by Bagdad Records.

All of these tendencies are key to Allen’s “Soundman’s Revenge,” in which Orson Welles and the Campbell’s Playhouse become “Dorson Belles” and “Finnegan’s Playhouse,” with the evening’s entertainment an adaptation of Jack and Jill fetching a pail of water.

Belles, acted by Fred Allen, tells his listeners that “My program is famous, and rightly so, for my sound effects, conceived in solitude by me.” The skit reaches ridiculous heights during a dramatization of “Jack’s” first meeting with “Jill.”  As Jack and Jill wax enthusiastically at each other merely by repeating each others’ names, the host breaks in to tell listeners that “This dialogue, ladies and gentleman, is not to be found in the original Mother Goose version.  It has been interprellated by Dorson Belles.  We return you now to the play.”

The always potential high culture pretentiousness of Mercury/Campbell aesthetic choices are brought to the fore by the ridiculous choice of a Mother Goose nursery rhyme as the “play” within the skit. But other things do as well.  The skit opens in typical Mercury first person narrative style, where Jack tells the tale from his own perspective in a ponderous, overwrought dramatic fashion. Jack does not live in postcard ready New England, he lives in a “land of penury and misery.”  He does not merely make a mess while preparing his dinner, but “licks the albumen of owl’s egg off his fingers.”’

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In its most pointed reference to Mercury style, the skit directly plays off a memorable moment in War of the Worlds when, as Professor Pierson narrates his travels in New Jersey, he states that “I saw something crouching in a doorway, and it rose up and became a man. A man armed with a large knife.” Here is the clip:

In similar dramatic style, Jack narrates his journey up the hill, hauling his “heavy oaken pail” and asks “What was that huddled form crouching in my path? Was it a girl? It was!”

The comic tour-de-force, however, comes with its satire of sound effects. Allen’s team goes for broke as listeners laugh along to the gradual undoing of the hapless Theodore Slade, Welles’s sound effects engineer in the skit, who is driven to madness by the excessive number of effects. Slade makes many mistakes throughout, but his errors really add up when Jack kills his father and he describes the “long arm of the law” reaching out, coming from the north on horseback, the east by train, the west by “aeroplane,” and the north by sleigh.  Each description is punctuated by its appropriate sound; hooves, whistles, engines, and of course, sleigh bells.

It works the first time, but when Jack dramatically asks if he and Jill can escape each of these modes of capture, Slade plays the wrong effects. When Jack tells us he stabbed the Sherriff, Slade plays a gunshot. This time, when Belles chastises him, Slade lets loose, telling Belles that he is going “nuts,” then trying to rectify the mistake by killing the Sherriff again.  Belles yells out that “this is confusing!” to which Slade retorts, “you’re telling me!” As Jill tries to continue the scene, telling us she is shooting herself, Slade plays the train whistle. Finally Jack narrates that Jill, the Sherriff, and his father are dead, and that “I alone live.” Slade replies, “yeah, but not for long,” and after listing off years worth of complaints, shoots Belles.  Belles, in a pitch perfect rendition of Welles’s weekly closing of his radio show, says “This is Dorson Belles, signing off permanently. Pending rigor mortis, I remain, obediently yours.”

Fred Allen on the cover of Time, April 7, 1947. Art by Ernest Hamlin Baker.

Fred Allen on the cover of Time, April 7, 1947. Art by Ernest Hamlin Baker.

Perhaps Welles was offended, or perhaps he yearned to be in on the joke. He certainly seemed to relish the chance for that opportunity, when he appeared as a guest on Allen’s show, 3 years later on October 18, 1942.  Here he plays along in the skewering of his own genius image, tied to his authorial control over all his projects.  As the cast nervously awaits the arrival of the great “Welles,” Allen tries to calm them.  Once “Welles” enters the studio, Allen himself comes in for his own ribbing.  “Welles” tells him that they will be performing a new version of one of Welles’s early radio dramatizations, Les Miserables.  Here Welles successfully mocks both “Welles” and Allen, insisting on sole authorship, giving an overwrought performance, using the first person singular mode of delivery, and most humorously by reducing Allen’s contribution to a few sound effects.

In those few moments where Welles himself cannot help from laughing along with the mockery, “Welles” becomes Welles, and we in the audience get to laugh with, not at, the man.

While CBS, Campbell Soup, and the press turned Welles into “Welles,” Allen undermined that move, puncturing the grandiose myth, a project in which Welles himself was only too willing to participate. By breaking it down to its constituent elements, the “Soundman” and Les Miserables skits celebrate the unique style of the Mercury/Campbell radio productions. Yet, they also pierce its cultured veneer by pointing to the unsung efforts of the always-necessary team to make radio performances work, and skewering the pretentiousness of the program’s extra-textual discourses. In the process Welles and Allen mutually constructed and deflated each other’s reputation as radio geniuses.

Orson Welles as Falstaff in his Chimes at Midnight, 1965.

Orson Welles as Falstaff in his Chimes at Midnight, 1965.

Featured Image: Orson Welles and Anthony Perkins sharing a laugh on the set of The Trial.

Kathleen Battles is Associate Professor and Graduate Director in the Department of Communication and Journalism at Oakland University (MI not CA).  She is recently co-editor (with Joy Hayes and Wendy Hilton-Morrow) of War of the Worlds to Social Media: Mediated Communication in Times of Crisis (Peter Lang, 2013), a volume that seeks to draw connections between the War of the Worlds broadcast event and contemporary issues surrounding new media.  She is also the author Calling All Cars: Radio Dragnets and the Technology of Policing (University of Minnesota Press, 2010). Her research interests include Depression era radio cultures, the interrelationship between radio, telephones, and automobiles, media and space/time, the historical continuities between “old” and “new” media, and contemporary issues surrounding sexuality and the media.

tape reelWant to catch up on the Mercury to Mars series?

Click here to read Tom McEnaney’s thoughts on the place of Latin America in Welles’s radio work.

Click here to read Eleanor Patterson’s reflections on recorded re-releases of the “War of the Worlds” broadcast.

Click here to read Debra Rae Cohen’s thoughts on vampire media in Orson Welles’s “Dracula.”

And click here to read Cynthia B. Meyers on the challenges and rewards of teaching WOTW in the classroom.

While I’ve still got you here … be sure to join our WOTW anniversary Facebook group. Next month we’re planning exciting events around the anniversary of the Martian Panic on October 30, 2013 from 7-10 EST, and hoping to get as many of you as we can to liveTweet the Invasion broadcast. Sign up to join in!

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