Don't Touch That Dial

PBS celebrates 75th anniversary of 'War of the Worlds'

Don't Touch That Dial

The world is not ending.

We are not under attack.

The martians are just in your head … (probably).

On Oct. 30, 1938, young Orson Welles took to radio waves to perform an adaptation of H.G. Welles The War of the Worlds, a novel that had been released 40 years prior.

Over the course of the evening's Mercury Theatre on the Air commercial-free show, a meteorite lands in New Jersey, an alien scorches innocent bystanders with a ray gun, a militia is destroyed … You know the rest. But the show's real legacy was the morning after: Audience reactions spiraled into panic and outrage as listeners were duped into believing the events were real.

It was a key event in the timeline of radio history, but it's not all in the past. Even now, three-quarters of a century later, an anxiety-ridden American people can easily fall for ridiculous reports online or on TV.

And so, speaking of TV: American Experience is screening a documentary on the historic evening, called (conveniently) War of the Worlds. It features interviews with cinema historian Peter Bogdanovich, Welles' daughter, and more, and dives into the mail that Welles received in the days and weeks that followed. The special presentation, which was shot in part at the Commodore Perry Estate in the Chronicle's backyard, airs tonight, 9pm, on PBS.

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