The Unexplained: Fright Night on Radio

Orson Welles originally gained fame and notoriety with his radio productions.

Orson Welles became more and more intrigued by making the narration of scripted stories seem like live news broadcasts and created War of the Worlds.

If you love Perry Mason, you are bound to know one of Perry Mason’s foils and maybe you remember his name.  Lieutenant Tragg was played by Ray Collins.

Ray Bidwell Collins was an accomplished character actor that appeared in over 900 stage roles.  He was a veteran of Broadway, films, theater, television, and radio.  He began acting on stage at age fourteen and got the bug.

Lieutenant Tragg and attorney Hamilton Burger tried their best to run Perry Mason off the rails, in most of the television episodes.

Ray Collins just happened to be a personal friend of Orson Welles.  He even landed a part in Citizen Kane – as Kane’s rival.  He often played bulldog-y parts where He would just not let go.

The friendship of Collins and Welles was cemented in radio.  They did quite a bit of radio together, especially when Collins joined the Mercury Theater Company in Hollywood.

Sara Marie Hogg

Orson Welles was the main star of The Mercury Theater On The Air, a series.  The radio series had been on the air for only seventeen weeks and was a very low budget production, struggling for sponsors.

Orson had done several productions, but he became more and more intrigued by making the narration of scripted stories seem like live news broadcasts.  He had gotten the idea by listening to the BBC’s, Broadcasting the Barricades put on by Ronald Knox in 1926, and Air Raid, a drama, starring his friend, Ray Collins, very recently in 1938 – three days prior to the big event.

War of the Worlds was broadcast on October 30, of 1938.  Who knows what conversations Welles may have had with Collins before he planned his narration of the H. G. Wells classic about an invasion from Mars.

The production had carefully worded disclaimers at the beginning and end of the broadcast, but if you tuned in late, you would miss the beginning.  This night’s broadcast was unusual because it would have a delayed intermission–there would not be a break to let the listening audience know that it was halftime of a production.

Welles had studied other realistic productions and realized that good sound effects were part of the key to realism.

1930’s radio sounds effects were accomplished by hand cranked wheels with fabric scraps or brushes attached, electrical air or wind machines, copper thunder sheets, water containers with straws to blow bubbles, innertubes and balloons with air in them for various air noises, griddles on hot plates awaiting drops of water for hissing noises, gravel chutes that dropped pebbles into water or on hard surfaces, wooden platforms to amplify footsteps, or horses hooves (often coconut shells halved), and 78 rpm records with recorded animal or human crowd sounds.

Some bells and horns were activated by pushing buttons and the technicians were called button pushers.  Wood saws could accomplish various sounds and crumpling cellophane sounded like a burning fire.

When they had a rehearsal of War of the Worlds on the 27th of October, they made a recording of it.  Orson thought it was too dull to hold the attention of the listening audience.  He immediately began thinking of inserts to jazz it up.  One method would be to add eyewitness accounts of the Martian landing and he added news flashes that interrupted the dialogue with excitement and urgency.  They changed whatever names and places they needed to, to avoid litigation.

They rehearsed again on the 29th and tweaked up the sound effects with those of echoing cannon shots, boat horns in NY Harbor, and the roaring of crowds.  There were sirens and alarms in the distance.  Orson specifically wanted the house band to play Debussy and Chopin quietly in the spaces between the action.  It created an otherworldly eeriness.  Listeners heard the sounds of artillery and war machines as Grovers Mill,  New Jersey was invaded by Martians.  In the book, it was England that was invaded.

The next day, when Orson Welles heard the reports of all the panicked people who had tuned in too late to hear the initial disclaimer, he had a press briefing to insist that he had no intention to scare people at all.  It was for entertainment.  In following years he seemed to waver a bit on that point.

In the infamous broadcast of The War of the Worlds on October 30, of 1938, Ray Collins had at least three parts:  he was Mr. Wilmutt, he was also Mr. Harry McDonald, VP in charge of radio operations, and he was the 4th studio announcer from the roof of the broadcasting building.

I am convinced he also did a few of the sound effects, here and there, because he wanted to.

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