I’ll Explain Later…
It is October 31, 1968. I’ll get back to that in a few minutes. Since we’ve slipped back twenty years, we are, of course, talking once again about War of the Worlds. I’ll get back to Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future soon enough, but it’s a new year and I was traveling over the holidays, so I need something easier, and besides, I’m almost out of Captain Power and need to play for time so that I’ll have something else to write about when it’s done.
WWKB-AM 1520 is an ESPN Sports Radio broadcaster out of Buffalo, New York. But prior to 2013, it had been a progressive talk-radio station, before that an oldies station, before that, business talk radio, after sports, after country music, after “hot talk”. But long before that, before ABC was bought by Capital Cities and got out of the radio business, they were WKBW-AM, companion station to Buffalo’s ABC 7. The radio station, originally a religious station (WKBW, later appropriated as “The King of Buffalo”, originally stood for “Well Known Bible Witness”), predated the TV station, but with the arrival of TV and the waning of the golden age of radio, it transitioned into the more modern “top 40” format in the late ’50s, until FM radio pretty much put an end to AM top 40 stations in the late ’70s. During those years, WKBW was one of the power players in east coast pop radio — their high-power transmitter gave them a tremendous range, reportedly getting better reception in Boston than Boston’s own local top 40, was regularly received in Stockholm, and in 1967, a WKBW-exclusive Monkees performance was recorded off-air in Morocco, because mumble mumble ionosphere mumble mumble.
But the reason we care (well, the reason I care) is because in the ’60s, “KB Radio” was well-known for its Halloween specials. In 1968, program director Jefferson Kaye noticed that they were coming up on the thirtieth anniversary of the infamous Mercury Radio Theater production, and thought it would make a good subject for this year’s special. It had been done before, in 1944 in Santiago and 1949 in Quito. These were adaptations of the Howard Koch radioplay, adjusting the names, locations and current events to fit the locality. And that’s how Jeff Kaye’s version started out. But he had a problem: it was 1968, and KB Radio wasn’t in the business of making original drama. WKBW was a prominent station and its stable of talent at the time was certainly top-notch, but they were disk jockeys and news reporters, and that kind of acting just wasn’t their thing. Not to be deterred, Kaye decided to try something different. Something that sounds really risky to me, but it was a gamble that paid off.
They got rid of the script. Instead, Jeff Kaye and director/engineer Danny Kriegler produced an outline of the various events that would make up their Martian invasion, based on the events recounted in the 1938 version, and simply told their radio personalities to deliver it as though it were news. Which sounds on the surface ridiculous: take a bunch of people who aren’t trained as actors and have them do improv? And yet, somehow, miraculously, it works.
Dan Neaverth opens the show with a lengthy disclaimer, for all the good it will do, giving some background on the 1938 broadcast, and explaining how it was made, “With the techniques that were in use at that time,” and that they had therefore decided to approach it, “Not how we can copy it, but how it would be covered by a modern newsroom in this day and age.” He goes on to speak to the quasi-mythical “panic” that the 1938 broadcast generated, and how in those days, radio announcers held a “strange charisma”, that what, “A radio announcer said was true was. The same could be said for newspaper, the only other mass media at the time.” If you read my article on the 1938 War of the Worlds, you’ll know I have my misgivings about that interpretation of events, the way it casts the people of 1938 as credulous dupes like something out of that movie The Invention of Lying. But what Neaverth says next plays more to what I think is the truth of the 1938 panic: “WKBW radio has been promoting the show over the last three weeks, every hour 24 hours a day, you all know what is about to occur. This was not true when the original was broadcast. So place yourself in that position: sit back and pretend that you do not know what is going to happen. And perhaps at the end of this broadcast, you will begin to understand what took place thirty years ago tonight. This is Dan Neaverth speaking.”“So place yourself in that position: sit back and pretend that you do not know what is going to happen. And perhaps at the end of this broadcast, you will begin to understand what took place thirty years ago tonight.” Some lies aren’t meant to deceive; sometimes, it’s an invitation. Thirty years earlier, Orson Welles had invited the nation to come live in a world where the unstoppable invaders at the doorstep were from Mars. In 1968, WKBW invited listeners to try it again.
Joe Downey takes over for the eleven o’clock news. By which I mean, he actually delivers the real eleven o’clock news. So…
It is October 31, 1968. Yesterday, Soyuz 3 returned to Earth, its mission a partial failure after it proved unable to dock with Soyuz 2. Today, President Johnson has announced an end to bombing in North Vietnam“President Johnson has taken a big step on the road toward peace in Vietnam. Tonight, he ordered a total bombing halt in north Vietnam. Johnson also announced that the Paris talks will be expanded to include the Saigon government and the political arm of the Vietcong. Mister Johnson made it clear that productive talks can continue only if Hanoi respects the DMZ and commits to stop shelling South Vietnamese cities.” (The war scare was over), though the peace which seems forthcoming at the time falls through, possibly due to the intervention of presidential hopeful Dick Nixon, who didn’t want Johnson getting the credit for ending the Vietnam war. Davey Jones marries for the first time, to Dixie Linda Haines. The marriage will last until 1975. On TV tonight are new episodes of The Flying Nun, That Girl, Daniel Boone and Ironside. Tomorrow, dutifully marching toward the cancellation NBC has already predestined for it, Star Trek will air “Day of the Dove”, one of the more spectacular and iconic episodes of the third season, and the one that kinda invented the Klingons, since their appearance here is really the first time they act anything close to the characterization of their culture that would be carried forward into the post-TOS era. Here is what Josh Marsfelder has to say, in the hopes that after you’ve read it, you will come back and read this instead of going on with something more interesting in your life. In local news, Governor Nelson “Rocky” Rockefeller ceremonially broke ground on the construction of a six-hundred million dollar State University Of New York at Buffalo campus. (More men were back at work). A raid at a cab company in Lackawanna led to numerous gambling arrests, and then there’s Mars.
Downey reports, with no discernible change in tone from all the real news of the day, observations at the Mount Palomar Observatory of a series of explosions on Mars. “The observatory’s director, Dr. Benjamin Spencer, says that although they appear to have as much energy as hydrogen bomb blast, they are undoubtedly of natural origin. Dr. Spencer describe the explosions as looking like
(quote) Tremendous jets of blue flames shooting out into space (end quote).” The news report is bookended by incredibly condescending commercials for the Peace Corps, suggesting listeners come, “Build something. Like Latin America, Asia and Africa.” After the weather and another Peace Corps ad, Downey hands off to Sandy Beach.
Nowadays, Sandy Beach is a midday right-leaning talk host on Buffalo’s WBEN-AM 930. Back in the ’60s, he was WKBW’s nighttime DJ. The default mode of top-40 disk jockeying has evolved a lot since War of the Worlds, but I think a late ’60s nighttime DJ is pretty close to the platonic form of disk jockey. DJing was a lot more performative back in the 60s. A year or so ago, one of my local stations fired a long-time morning DJ, replacing him with a syndicated show that was fine, but never took off. But the frontman for the new show, early on, talked about the switch a little, and explained that the previous host was a very talented example of an older, more stylized kind of morning DJing, and that they thought that this market was looking for a more modern approach, That approach involved a lot of trying very hard to be “real”, while relating amusing anecdotes from their own lives and stories from social media, taking a lot of listener calls, and being really really judgmental (Seriously. Drive-time DJs are, as a class, possibly the most judgmental human beings imaginable. Though I’ll grant you, I might get a little judgy too if my job was to listen to callers’ stories. Protip: If you feel compelled to call a local radio station to set up an elaborate prank call to determine if your husband is cheating on you, it’s already time to call the lawyer). But here, back in the 60s, it’s much more about sounding really hip, really groovy, really with-it, and really stoned. It was the era of Doctor Johnny Fever and Venus Flytrap and Wonderful WINO and even DJs who were not fictional, such as Wolfman Jack and Skinny Bobby Harper.
Sandy Beach starts off his show on “Kaybee Baybee” by speculating that the “blue flames” from Mars might be an impressive marketing stunt by the natural gas industry before playing “Eleanor” by The Turtles, this week’s #9 on the Billboard Hot 100 (Also in the top ten are “Midnight Confessions”, “Girl Watcher”, and “Harper Valley PTA”, and it kinda seems incomprehensible that all those songs happened at the same time. So too for Jimi Hendrix’s definitive cover of “All Along the Watchtower”, which is spending its last week on the chart at its peak position of #20). Sandy jokes about fortifying his house against trick-or-treaters, then plays a commercial for a local music store, which is selling 8-track players for $49.95, which is a lot of money back now, even if they do throw in the speakers for free. I bring it up because the One Stop Tape Center of 1130 Main Street is one of the sponsors of War of the Worlds, as they explicitly tell us during the commercial, not that it is going to make a lick of difference. Sandy Beach has an announcement from NASA when he returns from commercial, cautioning space-watch facilities to expect unusual observations and communications difficulty, which he uses as the jumping-off point for a riff about Jeff Kaye’s inter-office memos.
That’s probably the first thing beyond the style that this new adaptation brings to the story over the 1938 broadcast. Keep in mind, that there was no such thing as a space program in 1938. There wasn’t even an Air Force (The Air Force would not become a separate branch from the Army until 1947, coincidentally, right around the time of the Roswell UFO incident…) There was no cold war to speak of. There was no such thing as a nuclear weapon. There wasn’t even such a thing as World War II. Here in 1968, it’s pretty much the height of the space age. I mean, it’s 1968. We’re less than a year from man walking on the moon. The Apollo Command Module has already done its first test flight. By 1938, the closest we’d come to space travel was when Balloonist Jeanette Piccard and her husband, Balloon-designer Jean Piccard (Yeah. His namesake) piloted the airship The Century of Progress to the stratosphere. In 1968, pretty much everyone on Earth who wasn’t too busy with the basic scrabble for mere existence was looking to the heavens, and for the first time in human history, the possibility of travel to one of those big round things in the sky was something scientifically plausible and eminent rather than speculative fiction.
Cream’s “White Room” (Number 15) is interrupted halfway through for a KB News special bulletin “KB Commuter Call: We have a condition red. All available firefighting equipment is rushing to Grand Island where an explosion has set off a series of fires. Traffic on the Grand Island bridges has been halted. All onlookers and motorists are asked to stay clear of the area.”. Sandy doesn’t react immediately to the bulletin, instead taking the piss out of fellow WKBW DJ Stan Roberts. A commercial clearly identifies this as a dramatization of War of the Worlds while advertising a sale on “monster shoes”, a then-popular wide-toed, clunky-heeled style at AM&A’s. After singing along to the KB Radio jingle, Sandy relays a request from the news department for listeners not to call in for information about the Mars explosions. I gather that the performance was prerecorded, so this was the folks at the studio anticipating rather than reacting. Sandy also makes a dig at newsman Henry Brock. I’m starting to get the feeling that most of Sandy Beach’s shtick is based around insulting his coworkers.
Right after the really good two and a half minutes of “Hey Jude“, this week’s Billboard #1, before the interminable 800 minutes of “Na na-na na-na-na na”s, KB Total News breaks in again to attribute the earlier fires on Grand Island to a meteor impact. “KB Total News Bulletin: It’s been reported that a large meteor has smashed into the ground along the East River Road on Grand Island setting off a series of fires. Several lives have been lost. KB Total News director Don Lancer on the way to the scene. Repeating: A large meteor is reported to have smashed into the ground on Grand Island, killing several people and touching off a series of fires. This has been a KB Total News Bulletin. Full details at KB Total News straight down the line on the half-hour” They’re going to spend a lot of time on the fire. I imagine that part was easier for them to perform, since, y’know, WKBW’s news reporters had probably covered those before. Unlike in 1938, this version of the story puts the initial meteor strike in a populated area. I think this is the only adaptation that makes that decision, and, again, qualifying it with the fact that they keep broadcasting disclaimers, I think that’s one of the things that sells this version. They manage to escalate the tension before introducing the fantastical elements. If you were actually seriously trying to hoax people, this is how you’d do it: you’re already tense and already invested. You’re not in the mental mode to go, “Oh, this is just a dramatic presentation” because you’ve already started accepting what you’re hearing as true before you had to make the big commitment to believe in an alien invasion.
Another commercial for “Monster Shoes” is told in the form of a Halloween narrative, about a witch cursing some shoes, only to have her plot foiled when the misshapen shoes proved popular with the teens. Sandy Beach asks listeners to neither drive out to Grand Island nor call the WKBW newsroom. Before he can play another record, newsman Henry Brock repeats pretty much the same news we just heard, and while Sandy gets a chance to let Buffy St. Marie sing a few bars of “I’m gonna be a country girl again,” (which didn’t chart until 1971, and even then, only broke the top 40 in the UK) before Don Lancer, who is stuck in traffic, calls in from the field.
Jeff Kaye opens up the WKBW news room, and Sandy Beach gives one last recap of the story before tossing to the newsroom. Even the formidable KB Total News Theme Song doesn’t buy Jeff enough time to get everyone set up in the newsroom, and he’s left having to tell Joe Downey on-the-air that his microphone is hot. Downey reminds us of the what and where, adding the new information that telephones to Grand Island are down and other communications are poor. Henry Brock is trying to get a report from the Sheriff’s office — Downey actually interrupts himself to ask Henry if he’s gotten through yet. He hasn’t, and Downey is left pretty much just stalling until he does. The deputy they finally get hold of confirms multiple deaths and fires, but can’t confirm a body count. He mentions a military presence on the scene, confirms three power outages, but can’t speak to looting. In a weird technicality, Joe Downey wasn’t able to hear the report from the Sheriff’s office, and has to ask Brock for a recap.
Before he gets very far, though, Jim Fagan calls in from the field. He’d been interviewing a Dr. Moore from Niagra University about the Martian explosions, and conscripted him to come have a look at the meteor. That would make Moore and Fagan this production’s equivalents of Carl Phillips and Professor Pierson, though the roles are considerably different here. Moore is a lot closer to Oglvy from the original book, and the reporter’s role is spread out across the whole KB News team.
Doctor Moore is a bit of an odd character. In his very first line, he seems oddly fixated on Fagan’s choice of words, and wants to make sure to clarify that the explosions on Mars could not possibly be hydrogen bombs (Fagan had called it a “Hydrogen bomb-intensity explosion”). He denies that the impact on Grand Island could be an “extraterrestrial body”, theorizing instead that it is a meteor. Fagan: Doctor Moore, can you tell us if that was an extraterrestrial body that landed on the island?
Moore: I would think not, sir, at the moment. As I say, I have not as yet seen what has happened on the island. We’re going to be getting there in a few minutes, but certainly, it’s possible. But I would doubt it. That would be just my candid opinion before I have seen it. That’s kind of weird and awkward, firstly because if comes off like Moore thinks meteors are terrestrial in origin, and secondly because his denial is kind of limp — no “The chances of anything coming from Mars are a million to one,” rather a kind of cautious reluctance to commit. He’s also a bit cautious about pronouncing it a meteor, though he does consider it likely, as, “There are many meteors that have landed on various parts of the Earth in the past many years.”
Moore is far and away the worst part of this so far, offering really only one useful comment (he proposes that it might actually be multiple meteors given the scope of the damage). But before you judge too harshly, consider the context. In the scope of this presentation, I think you can redeem the Moore character by interpreting him as a professor who is crap at giving interviews. It would have sold it, in my opinion, if Fagan had expressed some chagrin at Moore’s fumbling, though that probably would have seemed unprofessional.
Hank and Jim exchange traffic information from their respective locations on the East River Road and the Robert Moses Expressway south of Niagra Falls. Unconfirmed reports claim Governor Rockefeller has mobilized the national guard. Irv Weinstein, news director at WKBW’s TV counterpart and coiner of the phrase “It’s eleven o’clock. Do you know where your children are?”, wants to coordinate the TV news team and commandeers Henry Brock’s newscast for a moment, by which time Don Lancer has finally made it to the crash site.
Lancer interviews a lineman, who reports power outages on streets that suggest that the impact site is right around here, though Jim Fagan, having approached from the other direction, sees leveled houses from two and a half miles away on Whitehaven Road. Fagan is close enough to see the crater, while Don Lancer manages to get a look inside it. Here, about thirty-six minutes into the broadcast, is where things finally take the turn we’ve been waiting for: It’s not a meteor. “It’s not– It’s not a meteor, Henry. I’m standing on the edge of the crater, and I can look right down into it. There’s clouds of white-hot steam rising from the face of what looks like some kind of metallic cylindrical object. It’s a very large object that’s lying in the bottom of this crater. Thus far, there’s been no one around that I’ve been able to talk to to find out what it might be. It’s hot. Intense heat around this crater at the present moment, and I just don’t — I can’t describe it all that well.” There’s a sort of two-tone high-pitched whine coming from the crater too, and boy do I wish there weren’t, because it’s awful to listen to and makes the dialogue hard to make out. Don’s signal crackles and drops out suddenly just as he’s being yelled at by the authorities to move back.
As they struggle to get hold of Don or Jim, you can hear some desperation from the newsroom, and Jeff Kaye, in the background, orders them to play a commercial to cover the lack of information. It’s the eight-track player again, along with another disclaimer no one is listening to. Jim Fagan, at the opposite side of the crater, reports having seen Don Lancer lose his footing and fall into the crater, though he doesn’t seem badly hurt. Since this is 1968 and not 1938, Henry Brock posits the obvious hypothesis that the thing in the crater is space debris — again history rears its head, because, as I mentioned, a Soyuz capsule literally just returned to Earth. The fact that it bears no markings, appears to be intact, and is making that terrible sound weighs against that idea, but no one’s sure.
Don Lancer reports in with a few bruises, and sounding kind of chagrined about his tumble (Also, Youtube’s automatic captions interpret his description of his injuries as “Feel like a whore”). When he compares notes with Jim, Fagan suddenly reveals that there’s a visible crack on his side of the object, and something is emerging. “My God, Don, there’s something crawling out of the top of this thing. Something or someone. I can see two discs of some sort. They’re eyes — it appears to be eyes. It might well be a face for all I know. Something’s wriggling out of this capsule. Wait a minute, wait a minute. They’re tentacles, that’s what they are, I can see them now, the police lights are on them. This thing is large. It glistens like– It’s soaking wet. That face. I can hardly look at it, Don, I can hardly look at it. The eyes are black. The mouth, it’s V-shaped, it’s dripping saliva. It’s finding it very difficult to move, but it’s now beginning to move. It’s weighed down by something, I can’t say what it is. This thing is rising up. I’ve got to get out of here. The crowd’s moving back. I’m moving back, I’m getting out of here.” Fagan’s description is the closest that this production comes to the dialogue from the 1938 play. Back at the studio, Brock assumes the field reporters are pulling his leg, but Fagan reiterates that some sort of “monster” is in the pit. Brock suggests that he interview Dr. Moore, but Fagan sees Moore and an army lieutenant moving toward the pit with a white flag. I notice that twice in a very short span, this version of the story trusts the audience to work out very specific details that the ’38 play had Carl Phillips state directly, first that the “something” weighing the alien creature down was gravity, and second that the white flag is a flag of truce. Moore receives the same fate as Oglvy in the novel, rather than Pierson’s lucky escape in 1938, incinerated as the first victim of the heat ray. Fagan decides to leg it, and Don, from his comparatively safer vantage point, gives a panicked report of the carnage as the heat ray (Again, 1968, he describes it as being “like a laser”) cuts down the retreating crowd, including Jim Fagan. Don has to be warned off rushing to his fellow reporter’s aid by the alarmed protestations of Jeff Kaye, who orders him to fall back to a safer position.
Henry Brock is so thrown by events that he flubs the name of his station — Kaye can be heard in the background correcting him. Martial law is established in Erie and neighboring counties as reports come in of additional Martian capsules in Toronto, Oshawa, Erie, Pitsburgh, the Finger Lakes, Branford and Dunkirk. They have yet to get scientific confirmation that the earlier explosions on Mars are related to the capsules, but make no effort to play coy about the fact that everyone’s pretty well figured that out by now. Someone in the background, possibly Jeff Kaye, says “Forty-six dead,” presumably to an unheard official on the telephone, a few seconds later, Brock reports that number. From his new position at a Sheriff’s department command post, Don Lancer calls in to report on a rocket attack against the Grand Island capsule, but it does no good as the Martians deploy the first tripod war machine. “There’s some activity — there’s something going on. There comes– There comes– It looks like a bowl. A silver bowl turned upside-down, with long, thin legs under it. It’s rising into the air. It’s huge. It’s about fifty feet in the air. … It looks like a flying saucer with long, stilty legs, and it’s moving at a fantastic rate. Here comes a jet. The jet is making a pass on this thing, on this saucer. It’s fired it’s rockets– The rockets bounced off! They bounced off! They’ve exploded right in mid-air. It’s shooting at the jets. It’s got one jet! It’s passing back. The beam is continuing, it’s passing back. It just cut another one, it cut another one right in half, it blew up in mid-air. And– And it’s coming in this direction.” After the tripod destroys a helicopter, Don decides it’s time to leave. There’s a touch I really like here in the confusion where as Jeff Kaye tries to go on with his report, Don breaks in one last time to confirm that he is running away. Jeff stumbles over his report as he receives news of a thousand-man contingent from the army and national guard being wiped out by the tripod, and also reports confirmation of Jim Fagan’s demise. John Irving, a TV reporter, reports on the demolition of the Grand Island bridge (I will not repeat what the automatic subtitles make of that, because I do not want indexers categorize me unfairly, but it is pornographic and possibly racist.), and breaks into a panic as he sees people now trapped on Grand Island chance jumping into the Niagara river, only to be swept away by the rapids. Despite the demolition of the bridge — its second span blown up with civilian traffic still on it — the tripods (For there are now at least three) ford the river.
Don Lancer was fortunate to make it over the bridge just ahead of the demolition, and reports on the battle between three tripods and heavy artillery. Much like the ’38 adaptation, one machine is felled by artillery, prompting the others to release poisonous black smoke — Lancer at first assumes it to be a smokescreen, but is proven wrong when he sees soldiers collapse on exposure. He’s cut off with a single cough as the gas reaches him.
By this point in the broadcast, it had become clear to the live-action Jeff Kaye (rather than the prerecorded one) that no one was bothering to listen to the frequent disclaimers, and they’d created actual panic. Despite the objections of Dan Kriegler, he interrupted the broadcast to give an explicit, live disclaimer. “What you are listening to is a dramatization of HG Wells’ War of the Worlds on WKBW, 1520 on your Buffalo dial. I repeat: it is a dramatization: it is a play. It is not happening in any way, shape or form. What you are listening to is a dramatization of HG Wells’ War of the Worlds as being portrayed on WKBW 1520 Buffalo. The time is two and one-half minutes before twelve o’clock.” Live-Jeff repeats “This is a dramatization,” one final time, actually talking over his own prerecorded self, who offers a slurry of information from multiple sources which builds toward the idea that the Martians are not attacking homes or communities, but instead are focused on disrupting transport and communication infrastructure, pulling up power lines and punching holes in highways. A UPI machine operator in Dunkirk sends a message declaring himself the last person left in the city and dutifully teletyping his own death (Maybe ‘e was dictatin’). Irv Weinstein, the last reporter left in the field, calls in from the top of city hall — Jeff and Irv are now the last two reporters in town, their respective newsrooms having evacuated. Jeff is sounding pretty shellshocked at this point, asking Irv for a match to light his lousy (or “quality” if you go by the captions) cigarette. Irv still holds out hope that his mobile unit reporters have just lost contact, but Jeff very resignedly says he hasn’t heard from anyone, “Since the battle at Grand Island. I know Lancer and Fagan are both dead, and I’ve got to assume the rest of the crew are gone too.”
Until now, the reporting has been very local, but Jeff — who at this point is more having a conversation with Irv than actually reporting — mentions that Los Angeles and San Francisco have been abandoned, despite the fact that Martian sightings have so far only been made on the east coast (It’s possible I misunderstood this part. I think the idea is that they’ve given up on the east coast and are evacuating the West Coast in anticipation of more attacks later). Irv becomes aware of that two-tone whine nearby. He asks Jeff to call his wife and let her know that he’s okay.
Jeff’s teletypes are only producing gibberish now, and he’s received word of a tripod about six blocks away in Delaware Park. Irv is puzzled that people aren’t abandoning their cars in the packed streets below, but when he mentions a “gaseous material”, Jeff identifies it as the lethal, ground-hugging gas that was, “How Lansing bought it, and John Irving too,” and advises Irv to stay well above ground level. Irv sees perhaps as many as a thousand tripods fighting the Air Force before one strides into Niagra Square to destroy communications centers. Jeff warns Irv to abandon his own news room, but Irv claims he’ll be okay — prematurely, as it turns out, as his next words, “It’s turning towards me,” are his last.
After a frantic attempt to get Irv back, Jeff breaks down, chuckling to himself as he declares himself the last man standing. He answers the phone with a wry laugh — it’s someone calling for Irv. “Is anybody else in this building!? What am I going to do? I’m the only one left. I wonder if anyone’s listening. I wonder if anybody’s got a radio that’s operating. You– you have the transistor. And take this mic and– I’ll go outside, that’s what I’ll do, I’ll go outside. Get this thing unhooked from the stand… Weinstein’s dead, they’re all dead. Damn. What am I gonna do? Go outside. All right. Get yourself together, Kaye. Outside. Oh, the air. Air feels good. Look at the cars, look at the cars. What? What’s that? The shooting, downtown? There’s some people. Hey! Hey there! They didn’t even look. Look at the people run. They’re staying off Main Street though. And look at the cars. It looks like a used car lot. God. I can hear it. … Weinstein, Lancer, they’re all gone. But it’s getting awfully close. To Utica Street. I don’t wanna. The lights are all [cough] going out.” Now frantic and with no more news to report, Jeff takes to the street with a portable unit to describe what he can. One by one, the lights down main street start going out as the black smoke rolls in…
Our story done, Dan Neaverth offers a post-script, summarizing the end of the novel, the ultimate defeat of the Martians by the common cold (Though the novel isn’t that specific), and reminisces about the broadcast of 1938, and suggests, “It was a play. And you knew it was a play. But you must have been wondering as you listened, what would I do if it were really happening? Think about it.”
Jefferson Kaye, so the legend goes, slipped a letter of resignation under his boss’s door before he went home that night, intending to fall on his sword for the chaos this broadcast had created. I imagine the legend far outstripped the actual phenomena — Jeff Kaye got to keep his job, and though some sources claim that WKBW was fined by the FCC, if they were, it wasn’t a big enough event to make the easily-accessible historical records. Most of the sources I’ve read say more or less that the panic was huge, but not as huge as the panic in 1938, and we’ve already discussed how mythologized that “panic” was.
And yet, listening to the 1968 version of War of the Worlds, I find myself for the first time really starting to understand how a listener could get swept up in this. Halloween 1968 in Buffalo, New York is a long time ago, now. It’s texturally different from Christmas Day in 2014 in my Mother-in-Law’s house in New Jersey. But I am a child of the eighties, a mere decade-and-change from that broadcast. And of course, WKBW’s War of the Worlds wasn’t set in the 1960s that everyone who wasn’t there remembers — the decade of free love and hippies and mods and peace movements. It’s set in the plainer, simpler 1960s where people had jobs and went to schools and watched television shows and did all the sorts of things that people have always done. The glam changed. The performance changed, and the cultural narrative changed. But in 1988, my parents still had wood veneer paneling in their living room in a style that had been on its way out when the house had been built a decade earlier. Things change less for the boots-on-the-ground than they do for the movers and shakers who write the cultural narrative. Virtually all the things that were new in 1968 were still around in 1988, they just weren’t “new” any more. If you’ve ever watched really properly Z-grade cinema from the ’60s, you might pick up on some of this: there’s a slight uncanniness to it, because when you’re just shooting in the director’s house and the actors are just wearing their street clothes, it doesn’t actually look like the ’60s — they didn’t have the budget to look like the ’60s. It looks like grandma’s house. That’s what this is like. Maybe 1960s Sandy Beach doesn’t sound like my own drive-time radio DJs, but he sounds familiar enough. Henry Brock and Don Lancer don’t sound like today’s newsmen, sure, but they sound like my misty old memories of Dad by the pool many decades ago listening to the coverage of an Orioles game on an AM transistor radio powered by six hundred pounds of D-cell batteries. This sounds like the news. Even right here, in Morris County, in 2014, listening to it on YouTube, there’s a part of me that not quite “wants” to believe this, but more sort of “doesn’t quite know how to process this as fiction.”
I did not know that this broadcast existed until a week or so ago. When I found out, I kind of rushed to do my research for the article, because it seemed like I ought to cover this one before I covered Breaking News. But about two thirds of the way through, I realized that there’s nothing I wanted to say about this presentation that really made sense without the context of the later one. Because this is the answer to the question, “What the fuck was Rod Pyle thinking?” Rod Pyle knew of this — of course he did. In fact, the copy of the 1971 version of the show I found on YouTube was uploaded by his account. It’s very clear to me now that it’s this version much more than the 1938 one that inspired Breaking News. Like Breaking News, the story ends not with the Martian defeat, but with the destruction of the news studio. And both are slow burns, waiting until past the midpoint to reveal the invaders. And Jeff Kaye’s breakdown at the end is very similar to Dave Douglas’s, even down to the self-admonition to “get it together”.
The weakness of Breaking News seems in this light to be that they used actual actors instead of actual newscasters. I hardly ever believe that they were real newscasters of that this is a real newscast. By contrast, the KB version feels much more natural. Like Breaking News, they repeat themselves a lot, but rather than being simply redundant, you get the feeling that the newscasters are either playing for time or having a hard time believing their own reports. Things get chaotic. They talk over each other. There’s a constant chatter in the newsroom. People say things on hot microphones that they probably didn’t mean to go out. People give conflicting reports. No one ever plays coy or forces themselves to pretend to be skeptical after the point where skepticism would be warranted.
Like I said, though some quirk of negligence, I only discovered this version a few weeks ago (I mean, I probably had seen it mentioned somewhere, but dismissed it as just being a performance of the Howard Koch script). But it’s quickly become one of my favorite versions of the story. Everything I said about Breaking News feeling a bit like a peek in at an alternate universe is true several times over here — this is by its own design and admission very much “What would it look like if a real news team covered a WOTW-style invasion?” And not just “a” real news team, this real news team. I’ve linked in a number of places to Google maps for this article, because so much of the power of this piece comes from how geographical it is. It’s not too different in kind from having the Willis Tower, the Capitol building and the World Trade Center show up in the Captain Power training videos; small things that convey very easily the sense that the setting is a real place — it’s maybe even more powerful here, because, sure, people are always showing major landmarks in major cities to establish a setting. The Empire State Building, or the Chrysler Building, or the Golden Gate Bridge or the Millennium Wheel or the Petronas Towers. But how often do you see “Residential streets in Grand Island in north-to-south order” or “The record store down the street from the radio station” and have them be real places? This production isn’t just geographically grounded, it’s geographically intimate. And because these are real people who really know each other, their rapport is genuine. They’re often talking to each other as much as to the audience.
WKBW would perform War of the Worlds again in 1971, 1973, and 1975. The later versions are substantially identical after the first segment, though each one has been shortened. For the 1971 version, Jeff Kaye replaces Danny Neaverth in the opening monologue, performing Neaverth’s bit, but adding several minutes about the panic in 1968, claiming, among other things, that a local TV news crew had dispatched reporters to Grand Island based on the broadcast, despite having been informed of the dramitization ahead of time. Joe Downey’s news is updated, and Sandy Beach has been replaced by the fast-talking Jackson Armstrong. The 1975 version was apparently heavily mangled to remove characters no longer with the station, and features newscaster Ron Baskin and DJ Jim Quinn. There was also a performance based on this version done by 97 Rock and 103.3 The Edge in 1998.
The entirety of the 1968 and 1971 versions are on YouTube, so I highly recommend you check them out.
- The War of the Worlds, WKBW 1968
- The War of the Worlds, WKBW 1971
- An article by Buffalo-Area broadcaster Bob Koshinski about the production
- Bob Koshinski’s documentary on the making of the WKBW War of the Worlds