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Comments on ‘The American Experience: The War of the Worlds Broadcast (10-29-13)’

By Ron N. Butler

Tonight (2013-10-30) is the seventy-fifth anniversary of the night St. Orson scared the Ovaltine out of America using only his voice, the Columbia Broadcasting System, and a mayonnaise jar.

Let me translate that for you: On the night of 30 October 1938, an adaptation of H.G. Wells’ ‘The War of the Worlds,’ presented on Orson Welles’s ‘Mercury Theatre’ radio program, resulted in widespread panic across America.  Somebody might have even killed himself.

That’s the story, anyway.

Practitioners of the semi-lost art of radio theater in early-twenty first century America (I’m one) love that story.  It is the ultimate high bar of achievement against which the effectiveness of any radio drama is measured.  “Reach Out and Touch Someone,” indeed!

WGBH - The War of the Worlds

 And that’s the story WGBH’s “The American Experience” segment set out to tell.  There was a little background on Orson Welles, on how Howard Koch came to write the adaptation, and on the production in the studio.  (All the stuff I’d like to hear more about.)  But the focus of the show was on how and why millions [sic] of Americans came to be hiding in their cellars breathing through wet towels, or (alternatively) legging it out for Canada.

That’s the story, anyway.

And “TAE” told it with interviews, archival photos / footage, and re-creations.  How well, the story was told —  That was a mixed bag.

The technique of having actors read excerpts from letters written by people who listened to the show as if they were those people being interviewed did not work for me.  People do not write the way they talk.  (OK, I know some people who write exactly the way they talk.  But public education was better back in the ‘30s.)  It was very stilted; I felt for the actors.  And why film them in black and white?  To make those segments feel more “authentic”?  My wife (who was not paying close attention) asked if these were actual interviews from 1938.  Not even close…

(I believe I recognized many of the “documentary’s” shots of people listening to the radio as being recycled from old movies and TV shows.  It would be an interesting trivia game to identify them.)

And it would have been a kindness to some of the interviewees to move the camera back.  At least six feet.  Into the next room for some.  Or assign them a makeup artist.

There was lots of exposition by one of the interviewees on the automatic processes of the human brain and memory, explaining that people’s little lizard-brains could not help but react fearfully and irrationally to Welles’s radio magic.  Unfortunately, he is a journalist, not a neuroscientist or psychologist, and was mostly talking through his hat.  (My expert opinion.  As an engineer.)

It was nice to see Orson Welles’s daughter, though she didn’t have much specific to add.

In recent years, there has been considerable revisionism among sociologists (or at least pop-culture historians) that the public panic caused by the Welles broadcast has been exaggerated.  It would have been interesting to have that issue addressed in this program.  It wasn’t.  Which makes this seventy-fifth anniversary program just another rehash.

“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”  That’s not just in the Old West.  You can see it on WGBH, too.


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Writing “The War of the Worlds: The Untold Story”

The following was contributed by ARTC writer Ron N. Butler regarding his experience writing “The War of the Worlds: The Untold Story”. Beware: Here be spoilers.

Hear The War of the Worlds: The Untold Story for yourself LIVE on October 20 at the Marcus Jewish Community Center at 2:30pm and 7:30pm.

By Ron N. Butler

Somewhere in my library (I intend to alphabetize my books after I retire) I have a slim, fragile paperback titled Sherlock Holmes’s War of the Worlds, by Wade Wellman and Manley W. Wellman.  It is a briefer story even than the slenderness of the book indicates; halfway through, it becomes Professor Geo. E. Challenger vs. Mars, following the adventures of another of Conan Doyle’s creations through the Great Martian Invasion.

I’ve read it much more than once and enjoyed it every time. Still —  When you get down to it, neither Sherlock Holmes nor Professor Challenger actually does much to thwart the Martian invaders, to prevent humanity being pushed down a notch on the food chain.  That’s inherent, I think, in the approach the Wellmans took to the material, but still somewhat unsatisfying.

The Wellmans’ stories take their cue, too , from Wells’ original story.  Wells was making a point (something to do with the barbarous way “civilized” imperialists treated the “lesser breeds” in those days, I think), but to do it he made his countrymen rather, well — pushovers.  The British military forces are routed by one or two encounters with the Heat-Ray and the Black Smoke, and civilization disintegrates inside a week with the entire population fleeing pell-mall for Scotland or France.

Between that young writer and us however lies the Twentieth Century, the history of which  makes us skeptical of the simplicity of Wells’ narrative.  Less than twenty years after the serialization of The War of the Worlds, the armies of the First World War faced the Earthly version of “Black Smoke.” Contrary to the promises of its inventors, it did not sweep all before it and end the stalemate on the Western Front (though it did add to the slaughter).  The Second World War showed that almost nothing could drive a city’s inhabitants out of their digs, even if their “digs” were literally “dug” — basements and cellars under piles of rubble.  The web of civil society proved surprisingly tough, first in London and Coventry, eventually in Berlin and Tokyo.

Similarly, the Century of Technological Warfare abounds with Wonder-Weapons that did not live up to their billing: Poison gas (see above).  Bombing airplanes that did not “always get through,” and had a persistently hard time delivering explosive ordinance within miles of a target when they did.  “Land ironclads” that succumbed to a spiraling competition between the thickness (and weight) of their armor vs. the shaped-charge anti-tank weapon.  The seemingly simple process of moving troops from ships to shore took years and many millions of dollars to reduce to a routine.

These were the two notions in the back of my mind a couple of years ago when I considered writing a radio script along the lines of the Wellmans’ pastiche.  What with other projects, though, it just never happened.

After DragonCon 2012, however, Bill Ritch asked me if I would consider writing a War of the Worlds script for our 2013 show.  For one thing, 2013 would be the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Orson Welles Mercury Theatre panic broadcast.  We also had a possibility that one or more DragonCon guest-actors would like to perform with us.

“A new, straight-up adaptation of the Wells novel?” I asked.  (We don’t do re-creations, so a simple production of the Howard Koch script was not what Bill had in mind, I knew.)

“Whatever you want,” he answered.

Oh!  In that case, I have this idea…

Let’s get back to the “two notions.”

First, Earth is not Mars, even Wells-ian Mars.  England in June looks idyllic to us, but it would be an alien environment to a Martian.  All that water, for one thing.  Wells has his Martian fighting-machines wading confidently across rivers and into the sea.  But what do Martians know of muddy, boggy river bottoms vs. stony channels as footing for huge machine feet?  And what does saltwater do to the joints of a walking machine designed by engineers used to near-zero humidity and water confined to canals?  And I assure you that saltwater and aluminum (or “aluminium,” the principal structural material of the tripods, per Wells) do not play well together.

Ah, aluminum.  Wells describes at least one summer thunderstorm in the course of his tale.  Contemplate the surprises in store for the pilot of a hundred-foot-tall aluminum fighting machine standing taller than the trees in the middle of a thunderstorm…

Second, I wanted to write about someone who fought back.  By preference, someone from A. Conan Doyle’s universe.  It would have to be a man (or woman) of action.  Highly intelligent.  Broadly educated.  Possessed of accomplices, a support network and resources that would not run away at the approach of the Martians.  And, because the situation is truly desperate and the stakes are literally global, ruthless.

I think one name presents itself above all others.

I didn’t say he had to be a nice guy.

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The Dancer in the Dark – Coming soon!

Dancer in the Dark - digital

Coming soon from the Atlanta Radio Theatre Company – The Dancer in the Dark – a five-part serial by Thomas E. Fuller from the Atlanta Radio Theatre Company.

Presented live in a one-hour format for years, if you think you’ve heard The Dancer in the Dark, you haven’t heard anything yet!

[esplayer url = “” width = “80” height = “20” title = “The Dancer in the Dark Theatrical Trailer”]

The way is prepared…and the Dancer is coming.

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Website news

The site’s been live less than a week and we’ve already had to delete a spam comment from the forums.  To combat this, we have just installed a new anti-spam plugin to the site, which is self-described as “fairly aggressive.”  While we are trying to eliminate spam, we definitely DO want to hear from our listeners.  If you’re having trouble registering or commenting because of the anti-spam measures we’re taking, contact us and let us know so we can take appropriate action.  Thanks!

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Welcome to the new!

Creating art is time-consuming. Even moreso when the entire organization runs on an all-volunteer basis, as ARTC does. And so certain things get prioritized, and some of them fall pretty far down on the list. Back in 2005, Daniel Taylor redesigned the ARTC website and he did such a good job that we let the last eight years go by without any significant changes.

But, just as we’re bringing the style and feel of the old-time radio dramas into the present day, the time has finally come for us to acknowledge the advent of new technologies, new techniques in web publishing, and to update our look. And thus, we have now, the brand new!

What are you going to find here? Among other things…

  • Mobile-friendly responsive design: Hey, we get it. You’re busy and you don’t always have time to sit down at your desktop, or even your laptop, to check out the latest in audio drama. That’s why the new site sports a brand new responsive design that will conform to the capabilities of your favorite mobile device! Even our streaming now works on iOS!
  • 508 compliance: Our art is, in our opinion, an excellent resource for the visually impaired. So why not the website, too? We’re new to this aspect of online publishing, so if you’re a member of the visually impaired community or work with someone who is, we’d be glad to hear your suggestions, tips, and feedback that will help make this site the best it can be for you!
  • Updated shopping experience: Timelier introduction of new products to our mail order system. Direct links to and, our online distributors. Integration with PayPal.
  • Timelier updates in general: You know what’s bad about HTML? Not everybody knows it. But the new website is built on WordPress, which means not everybody in ARTC has to be an HTML programmer to be able to update the website. This means more updates, more content, and more opportunity for ARTC to demonstrate how audio drama and sound in general impact your daily life!
  • Forums! Let’s talk! Tell us what you think of the latest podcast, let us know what you want to hear from us next, tell us about an awesome audio drama you heard that another company produced, or just let us know how your day is going. Registration is required, but it’s not difficult and we’re committed to keeping your information private, so it won’t go wandering off into dangerous territory.
  • All the same content you grew to love from the old! Found that essay about Rory Rammer and the 3,000 year old writer? It’s here. Podcasts? We’ve got ’em. In fact, we’re moving all the podcast content right here so you don’t have to keep track of multiple URLs. Writers guide for Bumpers Crossroads? We’ve got your back. It’s all here, and easier to find than ever thanks to that newfangled tagging and categorization everybody’s talking about.

And so much more! The site is completely functional right now, but we’ve got big plans coming up to make the experience richer, make discovering our history easier, and keeping up with our present and future more exciting.

So take a poke around and let us know what you think. If you find a broken link or something else that just doesn’t work quite right, let us know and we’ll get on it right away.

Thanks, and remember…There is Adventure in Sound!

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221b Con

Come hear Holmes in an entirely new light – through the magnifying lens of the mind’s ear, where things might become a little distorted.  First, we’ll have another episode of Dr. Will Ward, Science Wizard: Sherlock Gnomes by Dave Schroeder, and then we’ll do our own take on one of the most famous duos in history with Dr. Geoffry Stanhope, Investigator of Occult Phenomena: The Maker of Dreams by Thomas E. Fuller.  And in between… a little from Mr. Doyle himself.  April 13-14, 2013.

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There is Adventure in Sound!

Welcome, everyone, to the Atlanta Radio Theatre Company podcast.  It’s been a long time coming, but we’re finally ready to get this show on the road.

Since 1984 ARTC has been producing quality audio drama.  I don’t recall when our first live performance was, but we’ve been doing them for a nice long time now and we’ve got a fairly substantial backlog of recordings.  Some of the older ones don’t have the best sound quality, but we were just learning after all, and we’ve gotten a lot better.

You can find us here at Be sure to tell all your friends.

So sit back, relax, and prepare to enter the world of your own imagination through the Magic of Radio.

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A “Rory Rammer” Tape (or Two) — An ARTC Interview

(Though ARTC has been doing live productions of the “Rory Rammer, Space Marshal” series for several years, only now is the Company starting on a tape production. ARTC spoke with Ron Butler, who writes “Rory,” about the project.)

ARTC: OK, so what’s your connection with this project?

RNB: Well, I wrote the scripts –.

ARTC: So? What have writers got to do with production?

RNB: I’m not going to get involved in one of those epistemological, “Which came first — the chicken or the egg?” discussions. At ARTC, the answer is, “More than at most places.”

ARTC: In the movie business, of course, the irrelevance of writers is legendary —

RNB: So is the amount of money you can get even for an unproduced screenplay. However, audio drama writers don’t have money to salve their bruised sensibilities.

ARTC: — but even in audio theater, writers are subject to rewriting —

RNB: Not uncommonly on the spur of the moment. Actors are often of the opinion that they can write better off the tops of their flat little heads than a writer can over a period of days or weeks.

ARTC: — expedient changes of character gender —

RNB: We’ve already talked about “Princess Two Moons,” and I don’t intend to say any more.

ARTC: — casting driven by “star power” rather than fit with the role —

RNB: I’m not sure either “star” or “power” is the right word in some cases.

ARTC: — even whimsical changes of accent. So you signed on as producer of this project —

RNB: As a matter of self-defense, yes.

ARTC: In point of fact, this won’t actually be the first “Rory Rammer” tape, will it?

RNB: In terms of a finished production, that has yet to be decided. The Company did put out a pre-production version of “Queen of the Spaceways” at DragonCon this year, though. There were a limited number of copies produced, and if you didn’t pick yours up then, sorry —

ARTC: What happened there?

RNB: Sonya Arundar, who has been doing electronic effects for our live productions for a number of years now, has turned her hand to tape editing. We had recorded voice tracks for Ted Raimi, Claire Stansfield, and Alexandra Tydings when they did the live version of “Queen” at DragonCon in 2000. Sonya is a big Ted Raimi fan, so she took up the project, got additional voice tracks recorded, and edited the whole thing together as her first piece of work.

ARTC: And there it ends?

RNB: Not at all, we don’t waste work. Current plans are for “Queen of the Spaceways” to be the flip side of one of our “Dean’s List” projects — Robert Heinlein’s “The Menace from Earth” — in a fully-finished form. [Editor’s note: We went with “Luna Shall Be Dry!” for that product. But we haven’t forgotten about “Queen of the Spaceways.”]

ARTC: How can you have a “flip side” on a CD?

RNB: It’s a figure of speech —

ARTC: So if you didn’t get one of the instant-rarity tapes at DragonCon, you really haven’t missed out on anything?

RNB: Maybe, maybe not. Sonya did a “blooper reel” for the pre-production tape, which may or may not show up on the “Menace” version.

ARTC: That doesn’t seem very fair.

RNB: You snooze, you lose.

ARTC: Writers get arrogant when they get a little power, don’t they?

RNB: I couldn’t say.

ARTC: But this isn’t the main “Rory Rammer” production, is it?

RNB: It’s the only one that’s a reality, so far. But I hope to fix that by sometime next year [i.e., 2002].

ARTC: Will this other tape have Ted Raimi as Rory Rammer?

RNB: No. These episodes — which we’ve been referring to as the “Director’s Cut” — should have a consistent Rory and the same Skip Sagan all the way through. There may be guest actors, but not in recurring roles. There might even be a tape with various “guest star” Rories and Skips somewhere out there in the future — but that would be a separate project.
ARTC: Have the actors been set?

RNB: Halfway. David Benedict, who did “The Monster” in “Passion of Frankenstein,” will be Rory. The role of Skip Sagan is still up in the air, I’m afraid. Actors — or actresses — who can both sound like an adenoidal teenage boy and say “anaphylactic” or “magnetohydrodynamic” without stumbling are few and far between.

ARTC: Just to throw in a gallopingly obvious idea, have you tried casting a teenage boy?

RNB: Their voices change, unless you take certain — surgical precautions. And it’s proven tough to get parents to sign off on permission forms for such things.

ARTC: Yig. Er — Have episodes been decided on? Do you have enough material for a tape?

RNB: We have suitable material for at least two tapes, maybe three. The episodes for the first tape are (tentatively):

  • “The Phantom Menace”
  • “The Island of Dr. Marceau”
  • “The Planetoid of Doom”
  • “The Lance of Justice”

ARTC: How did you do that?

RNB: Do what?

ARTC: I’ve never seen anyone talk in bullet points before!

RNB: It’s a writer thing.

ARTC: Anything to say about the episodes themselves?

RNB: They’ve all been live-produced before, so their plot summaries are on the Web site. (Is there a link around here someplace? Oh, yeah — here.)

ARTC: Let’s talk schedule. Or is this all vaporware?

RNB: Would ARTC do such a thing? We will be laying down voice tracks between November and January. Ideally, it wouldn’t take that long, but we’re threading the recording sessions for a number of upcoming ARTC tape productions around each other.

ARTC: Other upcoming ARTC tape productions?

RNB: Absolutely. Now, let’s see — Tape editing could start around March. Y’know, the history of ARTC hinges on various bottlenecks. Thomas Fuller, our head writer got stuck writing thirteen weeks of programming once, swore he’d never do that again, and began cultivating other writers. It took ten years, but ARTC now has a respectable little stable of scribblers. DragonCon 2001 was a milestone; there were no Thomas Fuller pieces on the program. A bittersweet thought, that.

ARTC: Other tapes?

RNB: Actors — Well, you’re never short of actors, though you can be stuck for a particular actor for a particular role —

ARTC: About these other tapes —

RNB: Musicians. By the way, I’m hoping Brad Weage will reprise the “Rory Rammer” theme music he’s provided at any number of live performances —

ARTC: Yeah, sure, but about —

RNB: In the case of “Rory,” the tape production has become a possibility only because ARTC has recently grown a crop of new tape editors. Our master editor is still Henry Howard, but Henry can only do so much, what with life and earning a living.

ARTC: Hey!

RNB: I already said Sonya’s working on “Queen.” Bill Ritch just finished up “Man Who Traveled in Elephants” for DragonCon, and is working on “Menace from Earth.” David Benedict — did I mention he’s going to play Rory? — is polishing up “The Passion of Frankenstein,” and may move on to “Solution Unsatisfactory.” And Daniel Taylor is working on “The Canterville Ghost,” I believe.

ARTC: One, two, three…

RNB: Put your shoes back on. Potentially, ARTC could have five new tapes / CD’s at DragonCon 2002.

ARTC: “Potentially…”

RNB: Potentially, we could have put a man on the Moon in 1966, but this is real life. (And that’s another script…) I’ll be overjoyed with three, quietly happy with two.

ARTC: So long as one of them is “Rory Rammer”?

RNB: It’s a producer thing.

[Editor’s note: The voice tracks do exist. “Queen”, “Elephants” and “Frankenstein” materialized: “Rory” has become one of ARTC’s “cursed productions”. Mr. Butler’sreference to “real life” was all too prescient, but we’re determined to get it out sooner or later.]

[Second Editor’s note: Rory Rammer, Space Marshal: Volume 1 was successfully published in 2009.  Volume 2 is in the planning stages as of 05/2013]