How The War of the Worlds Changed Our World

It seems odd to think that a fictional radio broadcast could change the world, but 75 years ago this week – Oct. 30, 1938 to be exact – The Mercury Theatre on the Air’s War of the Worlds did just that. And the influential program had its roots right here in Wisconsin. Well, it’s creator and auteur, Orson Welles, did.

The now legendary, late actor and director was born in Kenosha – and long had a love/hate relationship with his Midwestern home, as the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel‘s Duane Dudek noted in a report on the 70th anniversary of his groundbreaking broadcast.

“‘I have been to Kenosha in recent years,’ Welles replied in the letter, and found it ‘vital and charming.’ But years later, he told Welles scholar and Milwaukee native Joseph McBride: ‘I’m not ashamed of being from Wisconsin. Just of being from Kenosha. It’s a terrible place.’” Dudek’s article recalled. But Welles also seemed proud of his Wisconsin heritage, declaring himself ”‘almost belligerently mid-western, and always a confirmed badger.” (Read Dudek’s full piece to learn more about Welles’ Wisconsin connections and his fascinating career.)

“War of the Worlds” and the reactions of audience members who fled in fear of what they believed to be a real Martian invasion would take the young entertainer to new heights that would eventually see him also financing, writing, directing and starring in Citizen Kane – a film many critics hail as the greatest ever made.

Tonight at 8 on American Masters, explore the creation of War of the Worlds and the hysteria it created. (Watch a video preview below.)

And, click here now to listen to a terrific Wisconsin Public Radio Wisconsin Life audio essay from Isthmus editor and TV critic Dean Robbins about the real story behind what on the surface was just a playful Halloween radio broadcast that went on to reveal the real power of mass media.

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