Fifty years ago this month, a Buffalo radio station paid tribute to one of the medium's most legendary on-air dramas, a recreation of H.G. Wells' novel War of the Worlds. WKBW Radio marked the 30th anniversary of Orson Welles' Mercury Theater 1938 broadcast by revisiting an invasion from Mars as if it were happening in Western New York. Later this month, a new documentary will be released celebrating WKBW's version, and why many say it remains a gold standard among War of the Worlds tributes.
Jefferson Kaye, who was WKBW's program director in 1968, was fond of Welles' radio presentation of War of the Worlds and wanted to mark its 30th anniversary. But existing copies of the original broadcast were edited, he explained in a previous documentary aired in 1998 by WNED-TV.
"It was available on LP (long-playing record) but a lot of the suspenseful elements were taken out, so we discarded that," he explained in that documentary.
The original script, he further explained, was copyrighted and CBS, which owned the rights, would not grant permission to WKBW to use it. So, Kaye then decided to rewrite the story.
It was set in Western New York, with Grand Island as the location where the first "meteor" struck. Sandy Beach was hosting his usual time slot, playing music, when the first "bulletin" was aired announcing an explosion and multiple fatalities. Real WKBW news reporters Don Lancer and Jim Fagan presumably arrived on the scene and reported that what was believed to be a meteor was instead an intact cylinder with something active inside.
They later described the emergence of a monster, and then a beam which began killing the population, including the reporters. Soon after, the "Martians" were also releasing a poison gas which also wiped out scores of humans, or so the reports indicated. As the broadcast continued, Lancer, Fagan, Henry Brock, Irv Weinstein and numerous others met their demise, leaving Kaye alone in the newsroom.
Of course, there was no attack from Mars and the participating reporters were all healthy and safe and continued their respective careers. But as Kaye and Daniel Kriegler, who directed the WKBW production, prepared the Buffalo broadcast they learned their news reporters weren't sounding convincing by going off a script. Only Irv Weinstein, who went on to become a television news icon in Buffalo, had prior experience as a radio voice actor. Kriegler, in that same 1998 documentary, explained that he and Kaye realized they'd get a more authentic sounding performance if they let their news reporters simply be their own selves, off-script.
"When real newsmen were allowed to do real newsmen's stuff, make up their own lines - you'd tell them what the story was - the details of the particular scene, we all like a bunch of children said let's pretend that it is real and they reported it," Kriegler said.
And that is what helped make the WKBW broadcast of War of the Worlds such a success, say those who participated in an updated documentary, WKBW War of the Worlds - 50 Years Later, that will premiere in the North Park Theater in Buffalo on Tuesday, October 30.
"WKBW had a large news team and were very aggressive as a news team," said Bob Koshinski, who produced the new documentary. "If Jim Faigan and Joe Downey and those fellas told you there was an explosion on Grand Island, people believed it. It was the believability that set the show to a whole other level. It wasn't just a dramatization any longer, it was something that was happening in real time in people's minds. Radio was theater of the mind and everyone's minds took them to a place that was pretty scary."
Adding to the legend of the original 1938 broadcast were the tales of many listeners who, perhaps tuning in a little late, didn't realize they were hearing a radio play and thought Earth really was under attack. Longtime WKBW morning host Dan Neaverth did not participate in the dramatization but did deliver announcements ahead of it, advising the listening audience that what they were about to hear was a recreation of War of the Worlds. He told WBFO he wanted to get home to listen to the broadcast with his family but, along the way, came across some folks who, like in 1938, fell for the gag.
"I stopped at a doughnut shop in Orchard Park and the woman behind the counter was talking to two gentlemen, and I heard them saying 'did you see what's going on over in Grand Island? A spaceship or something landed over there,'" Neaverth said. "They were getting all excited about it. I said excuse me, that's just a dramatization, that's not real. And then, of course, being macho guys they turned around and said 'yeah, we knew that.' They didn't know that."
By the 1960s, radio was rigidly formatted and programming such as plays and dramas had made their way to television. Pat Feldballe, host of WBFO's weekend blues programming and a teenager when WKBW aired War of the Worlds, is scheduled to participate in October 30's screening at the North Park Theater and says it was a courageous effort by WKBW to break its programming to present their Halloween treat.
"When you think about the audience, KB Radio was me. I was 17 years old. I wasn't thinking Orson Welles or the glory of dramatic radio, I was thinking hey man, I want to hear the hits," he said. "It was a risk, I think, for the audience and for Jeff and for the station. But bless them, they did it."
WKBW War of the Worlds - 50 Years Later will also air on WNED-TV at 12:00 a.m. November 1, just as Halloween night comes to an end.