‘War of the Worlds’ causes havoc, grief

Imagine in this age of instant communication and awareness that someone could put out a totally false story, tell it as if it were true and create a wave of panic across the United States of America.

Well, the world wasn’t always this well-connected. There was a time — and it wasn’t all that long ago — when something like that actually happened.

“War of the Worlds: American Experience” will revisit an event that turned a 23-year-old budding actor into an international superstar.

It airs Tuesday at 8 p.m. on Panhandle PBS.

What happened? It’s quite simple, really.

The late Orson Welles was an aspiring actor back in 1938. He and his radio producers concocted a story. It was one for the ages. Welles went on the air to tell the world that Planet Earth had just been invaded by Martians. He provided the narrative in the sternest voice imaginable. Only a handful of people knew the story behind the story.

Many of those who didn’t know the truth of its fiction reacted tragically.

Some folks threw themselves out of high-rise buildings, plunging to their deaths. They didn’t want to be held captive by creatures from outer space. Some folks reportedly confessed to crimes. Others turned to God.

The whole thing was an experiment of sorts — and it blew up in the faces of those who pulled it off.

“War of the Worlds” did not end the career of young Orson Welles. It rocketed him instead to international fame and acclaim. He would go on to star in many films, including that many critics consider to be the greatest American film of all time, “Citizen Kane.”

Imagine a world in which a star is born amid what amounts to a bizarre and tragic practical joke.

Could it happen today? Probably not. Then again …


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