‘Your Show of Shows’ a Classic Reminder of Television’s Potential

A Sid Caesar and Imogene Coco signed photo from Your Show of Shows went to auction in February 2003.

By Jim O’Neal

In the fall of 1949, inside a room on the 23rd floor of NBC’s Manhattan headquarters, an ensemble of comedy writers were preparing to give Americans a reason to stay home on Saturday nights, glued to their 10-inch televisions. Soon, their efforts would spread fear down Broadway, just as Hollywood was beginning to worry about the effects of television on box-office receipts.

But this seemed different. The sophisticated, rowdy and mainly 20-something staff was about to use the relatively new medium of television to create stay-at-home laughter that surpassed everything that came before. From its premiere on Feb. 25, 1950, the manic energy of Your Show of Shows, starring Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca, Carl Reiner and Howard Morris, turned Saturday nights into a showcase for pure comedic genius.

Aside from launching legendary careers for Woody Allen, Mel Brooks and Larry Gelbart, the 90-minute revue provided a beacon of hope and direction to a medium that needed both.

It had started when NBC’s television programming chief, Pat Weaver, pitched Your Show of Shows in 1949 to Max Liebman, a veteran producer. Since television’s debut in 1946, networks attracted advertisers by allowing sponsors to buy entire timeslots and produce their own shows. A prime example was the Texaco Star Theater featuring Milton Berle.

Weaver had an entirely different concept. His network would air its own shows and sell “spots” of airtime to multiple companies. Liebman had been the first to pair Caesar and Coca when he directed a sponsor-driven program, the Admiral Broadway Revue, and he agreed to produce this new NBC-owned show. He quickly decided to reunite Caesar and Coca and then form the writing team around them.

A dream team as it turned out. Sid Caesar described it best: “This writing staff was pure magic. We were all a little bit crazy, but it somehow produced terrific material.” All that talent converged in the smoke-filled “writers’ room.” It was where the 21-year-old Mel Brooks would punctuate his chronic lateness by screaming, “Lindy has landed!” – much to the open anger of the demanding Sid Caesar.

Lucille Kallen, the lone female writer, is quoted as saying the team literally lived Your Show of Shows, working seven days a week, 39 weeks a year from that office … and loving every minute.

In what would later be known as television’s Golden Age, the incomparable staff created a gallery of memorable sketches, brought to life by Caesar, Coca, Carl Reiner and Howard Morris. There were movie parodies like From Here to Obscurity, Mel Brooks’ 2000 Year Old Man, and the extraordinary chemistry between Coca and Caesar, displayed in the saga of Doris and Charlie Hickenlooper’s floundering marriage. And, of course, Caesar’s portrayal of the “Professor.”

The show was so popular that Broadway movie and theater owners, after experiencing a dramatic box-office decline, pleaded with NBC executives to move the TV show to midweek. Even critics loved it. The notoriously harsh Larry Wolters of the Chicago Tribune wrote, “Sid Caesar doesn’t steal jokes, he doesn’t borrow ideas or material. A gag is as useless to him as a fresh situation to Milton Berle.” Alfred Hitchcock said, “The young Mr. Caesar best approaches the great Chaplin of the early years.”

What effect did the show, running over five years, have on television? Consider this: When it debuted in 1950, there were 4 million sets in American households. When the final curtain fell on the Hickenloopers and company, over half of the nation’s 48 million homes had a television.

Coincidence? Perhaps, but it’s also a reminder of what television at its very best could be … before the “vast wasteland” encroached.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

News Reporting Has Come a Long Way, but Kinks Remain

A sketch of Edward R. Murrow, signed, by artist Johnny Raitt is among six sketches of famous newscasters that went to auction in July 2010.

By Jim O’Neal

In the past year, several prominent newspapers and TV networks have corrected or retracted provocative political stories that were factually wrong. Critics are prone to blame the insatiable appetite to feed the 24/7 news-cycle beast and, increasingly, a news organization’s rush to be first. This has been compounded by the steady transition from costly field correspondents to much-less expensive panelists sitting around a table in the TV studio offering personal opinions.

Most of these discussions start with “I think” or “In my opinion,” which by definition blurs facts with subjective comments. Unbiased, factual reporting is mixed into a lethal cocktail that blurs reality and has inexorably led to an environment where charges of “fake news” are routine. Then social media further distort issues and reality. People can now easily shop for any “facts” on TV or the internet that support their opinions. However, the “need for speed” is not a recent phenomenon.

Triggered by the oldest of journalism’s preoccupations – the desire to be first with a dramatic story – Edward R. Murrow, William L. Shirer and their network, the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), made broadcast journalism history on March 13, 1938. What set the stage was CBS founder and CEO William S. Paley’s realization that his radio network had just been soundly beaten again by the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) and their reporter “Ubiquitous Max” Jordan, with his eyewitness account of Austria’s fall.

Worse, the fault was Paley’s. Until Jordan’s story and its effect on America, Paley had supported news director Paul White’s decision not to use network employees for hard-news reporting. To their increasing chagrin, men like Murrow and Shirer were forced to cover truly soft stories like concerts instead of Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich’s actions and intentions. Paley had had enough. He asked White to call Shirer and tell him, “We want a European roundup tonight.” The broadcast would cover the European reaction to the Nazis’ Austrian takeover. The players would include Shirer in London with a member of Parliament; Murrow in Vienna; and American newspaper correspondents in Paris, Berlin and Rome.

They had eight hours to put together what had never been done before. As Stanley Cloud and Lynne Olson describe in their book The Murrow Boys: “Never mind that it was five o’clock, London time, on a Sunday afternoon, which meant that all offices were closed and that all technicians and correspondents and members of Parliament they would need were out of town, off in the country or otherwise unreachable. Never mind the seemingly insuperable technical problems of arranging the lines and transmitters, of ensuring the necessity of split-second timing. Never mind any of that. That was what being a foreign correspondent was all about. It was part of the code of the brotherhood. When the bastards asked if you could do something impossible, the only acceptable answer was yes. Shirer reached for the phone and called Murrow in Vienna.”

Beginning at 8 p.m., with announcer Robert Trout’s words, “We take you now to London,” Murrow, Shirer and their comrades proved radio was not only able to report news as it occurred but also able to put it into context, to link it with news from elsewhere – and do it with unprecedented speed and immediacy. They set in motion with that 30-minute broadcast in March 1938 a chain of events that would lead, in only one year, to radio’s emergence as America’s chief news medium and to the beginning of CBS’s decades-long dominance of broadcast journalism. The broadcasts by Murrow and his team during the London blitz and over the entire course of the war set the standard for broadcast reporting style and eloquence.

We have come a long way since then, but it’s not clear to me if we’ve made any progress.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Put on Your Trivia Hat … it’s Time for the Academy Awards

A rare six-sheet poster for The Grapes of Wrath (20th Century Fox, 1940), measuring 81 by 81 inches, sold for $35,850 at a July 2007 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

The 89th Academy Awards are set for Sunday:

►Three films won 11 Oscars: Ben Hur (1959), Titanic (1997) and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003).

►Three films had 14 nominations: All About Eve (1950), Titanic and La La Land (2016).

►Cabaret (1972) won eight Oscars … but not Best Picture.

►Katharine Hepburn has the most Best Actress Oscars … four (yes, more than Meryl Streep).

►Henry Fonda is the oldest actor (76) to win an Oscar for Lead Role in On Golden Pond (1981).

►John Ford won four Oscars for Best Director … The Informer (1935), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), How Green Was My Valley (1941) and The Quiet Man (1952).

►Peter Finch won Best Actor posthumously for Network (1976).

►Heath Ledger won Best Supporting Actor posthumously for The Dark Knight (2008).

►Peter O’Toole was nominated for Best Actor and lost eight times.

►Joan Fontaine and Olivia de Havilland are the only sisters to each win an Academy Award for Best Actress.

►Walt Disney won 22 competitive Oscars and four Honorary.

►Hattie McDaniel was the first African-American to win an Oscar, for her Supporting Role in Gone With the Wind (1939).

►Midnight Cowboy (1969) is the only X-rated movie to win Best Picture.

►Gone With the Wind (1939) is the first color movie to win Best Picture.

►Cate Blanchett won an Oscar playing real-life Oscar-winner Kate Hepburn in Aviator (2004).

►Laurence Olivier is the only person to direct himself in winning an acting Oscar, for Hamlet (1948).

►Barry Fitzgerald was nominated twice for the same role in Going My Way (1944) … Best Actor and Best Supporting (won). The rules were changed to avoid this in the future.

►The most nominations (11) with zero Oscars … The Turning Point (1977) and The Color Purple (1985).

►Halle Berry is the only African-American to win Best Actress, for Monster’s Ball (2001).

Tatum O’Neal and Ryan O’Neal in 1973’s Paper Moon.

►George Bernard Shaw is the first person to win an Oscar and a Nobel Prize (Bob Dylan matched this feat last year).

►Timothy Hutton is the youngest (20) to win Supporting Actor, for Ordinary People (1980).

►Tatum O’Neal is the youngest (10) Supporting Actress, for Paper Moon (1973).

Best of luck to the nominees.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Early Broadcast Advertising was Shunned … Until Listeners Demanded More

A $12 ticket could get you into the first Super Bowl in 1967. This full-ticket example, a Gold Variation graded PSA NM-MT 8, sold for $26,290 at a May 2015 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

In 1967, the cost to air a 30-second commercial in the first Super Bowl was about $40,000. Nearly two weeks ago in Super Bowl LI, the cost had increased to $5 million and fans were eager to see the latest creative efforts of Corporate America to hawk their products on TV. Ads are everywhere we look. They pop up on our computers and iPads and are common on race cars, golf apparel and sports stadiums. The Nike swoosh is instantly recognized.

It was not always this way, at least on radio.

During the early days, many radio stations had a practice of observing a weekly “silent night” when they would go off the air. However, the trend was definitely in the opposite direction as listeners were seeking more programming than the stations could produce. This led to hybrid programs combining content with advertising. Early high-profile examples included The Maxwell House Hour (the No. 1 coffee in the U.S.), General Motors Family Party, and The Ipana Troubadours from Bristol Myers toothpaste.

But the issue of regulation hovered over radio like a dark cloud. Some argued for total government control as was the practice in Britain. An even more vigorous debate erupted over commercial advertising. Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover asserted it would kill radio. After all, how many listeners would stay by their radios to learn about the advantages of one soap over another? (Quite a few, it turned out.) He argued for the industry to adopt self-policing policies to curtail advertising excesses.

However, broadcasters were salivating over the new revenues and wanted even more. Finally, in 1926, an NBC variety show was interrupted for a special promotional announcement from Dodge cars and it encountered little audience objections. From this point forward, commercial breaks during regular programs were the norm.

Advertising became an integral part of radio broadcasting and never hesitated again.

Some early sponsors did worry about being too aggressive and carefully chose tasteful, discreet language … “Swift & Co has a few practical hints on how to lower your meat bills.” That quickly changed once they discovered consumer-crazy citizens of the 1920s were eager to embrace radio advertising. Far from being insulted, people desperately wanted to hear the messages. They wanted to stay hip, keep up with the latest technologies and the most modern forms of behavior.

A hundred years later, I have a smart phone with more computing power than an Apollo mission, that can hold all my music and trace my ancestry. But after spending most of my life chasing larger screen TVs, I do object to watching my programs on my watch!

Must be a generational thing. Times change.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Hamilton-Burr Duel Remains a Puzzle of American History

alexander-hamilton-warner-brothers-1931-one-sheet
Warner Brothers’ 1931 film Alexander Hamilton was based on the play that opened on Broadway in 1917. This original poster for the movie sold for $5,975 at a July 2016 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Alexander Hamilton was born in the West Indies, arriving in America in 1772 to pursue an education. Aaron Burr was born in 1756 in Newark, N.J. When they met for their famous duel, Hamilton was a former Revolutionary War General and had been the first Secretary of the Treasury. Burr was a respected soldier, former U.S. Senator and the vice president of the United States.

Their duel is still controversial and somewhat puzzling. Why would two prominent Americans end up early one morning in a situation where one would be killed and the political career of the other effectively ended?

Burr has steadily become one of the great villains of American history. But before the duel, he was an impressive man. Contemporary reports asserted he was open and kind, and wrote letters to his servants, solicitous about their welfare. He had fought to eliminate slavery throughout the country and is credited with helping end the practice in New York in 1799.

Before the contentious election of 1800, Burr and Hamilton were friends who enjoyed dining together and their two daughters were also friendly. Yet the two men, among the most prominent lawyers in New York and the entire country, found themselves enmeshed in the code duello, a system of honor no better than current street rules for gangs in Chicago or Los Angeles.

It had started in February 1804 at a political dinner when Hamilton had supposedly called Burr a “dangerous man” unfit to lead. A doctor, Charles Cooper, leaked the comments to an Albany newspaper, which printed them. When Burr confronted Hamilton, Burr was told to ask Dr. Cooper, and then several more letters were exchanged, each one slightly more hostile than the previous.

Eventually, Burr challenged Hamilton to the duel in June 1804 and they agreed to meet in Weehawken, N.J., the exact spot Hamilton’s son had been killed in a duel three years earlier. The time was to be 7 to 7:30 a.m. on July 11 and both men were using modified pistols of over .50 caliber, more lethal than World War II heavy .50 caliber machineguns.

These guns were designed for killing, not dueling!

Hamilton was hit in the lower right side, fell, was carried to a boat waiting in the Hudson River and taken back to a friend’s house in New York. He died 36 hours later and his funeral was very impressive – a procession of his coffin on a carriage and his general’s uniform proudly on top. It was a memorable date, July 14, Bastille Day, and the 15th anniversary of the French Revolution.

Burr was indicted for murder, but never tried. In 1805, President Thomas Jefferson dropped him from the presidential ticket and Burr’s career careened into a deep spiral, his honor tarnished forever.

The infamous code duello had claimed two more victims.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

As America Played, Europe’s Dictators Set Stage for World War II

This 1939 edition of New York World’s Fair Comics, featuring a blond Superman on its cover and graded CGC VF/NM 9.0, sold for $25,300 at a July 2002 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Spring 1939 was a season of triumph for Europe’s trio of new dictators. Francisco Franco finished up his work in Spain at a cost of 1 million dead. Benito Mussolini seized Albania and Adolf Hitler marched unopposed into Prague and claimed the rest of Czechoslovakia. Neville Chamberlain and his Munich Pact would be enshrined in the hall of naïveté for eternity. Another diplomatic fantasy dashed.

War fever was ratcheted up a notch, but most of the world pretended not to notice.

In the United States, people sought escape in entertainment, particularly in New York, where the flashy World’s Fair offered them a glimpse into “The World of Tomorrow.” The pavilions of 33 states, 58 countries (minus Nazi Germany) and 1,300 companies filled the imaginations of visitors with modern marvels like television, nylons, robots and man-made electricity.

The popular General Motors “Futurama” exhibit drew 28,000 visitors daily and featured their vision of life in 1960, where everyone would be fit and tan, take two-month vacations and drive cars powered by “liquid air.” Visitors left with a button reading “I have seen the future” — wandering the 1,200 acres like members of a congregation that had witnessed a divine miracle.

The 1938 film Love Finds Andy Hardy marked the second pairing of the popular Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland.

In June, the King and Queen of England came to America and their parade in New York attracted over 3 million people (second only to Charles Lindbergh) and another 600,000 in Washington, D.C. Eleanor Roosevelt famously served them genuine American hot dogs when they finally made it to the White House.

Fantasy also reigned at the movies, where Walt Disney in 1937 introduced his first full-length cartoon, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and was hard at work on an animated paean to classical music, Fantasia. But the hottest box-office draw in 1938 was the freckle-faced teenager Mickey Rooney and his small-town exploits as Andy Hardy. Then came the most anticipated event in movie history, the premiere of Gone with the Wind and its epic romance in Civil War Georgia.

Awash in fairy tales and cartoons, science-fiction and nostalgia, people had little patience for bad news. However, when it started, there seemed to be no end. A surprise agreement between Germany and the Soviet Union and on Sept. 1, 1939, the killing began. After a faked Polish invasion of Germany, they unleashed 1½ million German soldiers in “response,” backed up by the most powerful war machine ever known to man.

Fantasy time had ended.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Martial Artists with Supernatural Powers Proved No Match for Eight-Nation Alliance

The 1963 film 55 Days at Peking, starring Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner and David Niven, dramatized the siege of Peking during the Boxer Rebellion.

By Jim O’Neal

August 14 is an important date in Chinese history.

In the turmoil of the late 19th century, it was almost predictable that governmental efforts would be mounted to try and alleviate the growing dominance of the West in internal commerce policy. The Imperial government made some late-ditch efforts that all proved ineffective and the chaos came to a climax by yet another internal revolution that was dubbed the “Boxer Rebellion.”

This was an effort mounted in 1899 by a semi-secret society known as “The Righteous and Harmonious Fists,” whose singular goal was to expel foreigners. It was composed mostly of young men with martial arts skills and a remarkable belief they had supernatural powers that would make them impervious to bullets and weapons of the enemy.

The Imperial government was variously opposed and supportive, uncertain whether it represented a means of salvation or a risky provocation of the foreigners. After the Boxers’ fists proved to be vulnerable to bullets, they had their answer. The Eight-Nation Alliance (Japan, Russia, the British Empire, France, the United States, Germany, Italy and Austria-Hungary) was successful in crushing the rebellion – invading and occupying Peking on Aug. 14, 1900 – and proceeding to extract more trade concessions and over $300 million in reparations.

In 1963, Charlton Heston and a boozy Ava Gardner appeared in a mediocre movie, 55 Days at Peking, that did not do well, even though it still shows up occasionally on cable. One interesting tidbit is that it was filmed in Madrid and the casting called for 6,200 Asiatic-appearing actors. Oops … there were only about 2,000 in proximity so over 4,000 were recruited from Seville, Toledo and at least three cities in France. Many of them were owner-operators of Chinese restaurants and when they shut down to be in the movies, a major shortage of Chinese food quickly developed.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Fun Facts: Tarzan of the Apes, Satchel Paige, Mickey Mouse

This Tarzan of the Apes one sheet for the 1918 film featuring Elmo Lincoln sold for $19,120 at a November 2009 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Some random tidbits for a Friday:

►The first adult actor to play Tarzan in the movies was Elmo Lincoln (1918) in Tarzan of the Apes. (Gordon Griffith played him as a child in the same movie and actually appeared first on screen). Lincoln was in two later Tarzan movies in the 1940s, both uncredited, and then died of a heart attack in 1952 at age 63.

A 1948 Leaf Gum Co. Satchel Paige #8 card realized $38,240 at a November 2015 Heritage auction.

►On Sept. 25, 1965, Leroy “Satchel” Paige officially became the oldest player in MLB by pitching three innings for the Kansas City A’s. Paige pitched a one-hitter with Carl Yastrzemski of the Red Sox getting the only hit off the 59-year-old Satch.

A Mickey Mouse stock poster (Celebrity Productions, 1928) realized $101,575 at a November 2012 Heritage auction.

►In 1929, Mickey Mouse (previously Mortimer Mouse) speaks for the first time in The Karnival Kid. Carl Stalling subbed for Walt Disney and provided the voice for that first line – “Hot dogs … hot dogs” – as Mickey played a hotdog vendor for the first and only time.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

In Mid-1930s, News Joined Entertainment to Shape American Culture

The Fibber McGee and Molly radio show premiered in 1935 and aired for nearly 25 years.

By Jim O’Neal

In the mid-1930s, neither of the two big radio networks – NBC and CBS – had a news department. All they did was air a couple of daily five-minute news broadcasts that were supplied by the Press Radio Bureau. But toward the end of the decade, the country began to count on getting its news from both networks.

It became a standard evening ritual in houses. People gathered around rather large radio sets when it was time for the news and there was little conversation until it was over. They listened to commentator H.V. Kaltenborn with coverage of the Spanish Civil War, including the crackle of genuine gunfire … a real first on the radio.

In fact, as radio brought news into people’s homes, it began affecting public opinion on things going on in the world. So when something important happened in Europe, the country was eager to listen. Prior to this, they were mildly interested, but didn’t feel that they were intimately involved. Now, they were fascinated.

When Adolf Hitler annexed Austria, there was a full hour of coverage with correspondents in Paris, Berlin, London and New York acting like today’s Anderson Cooper. Then, in 1939, came the Czech crises, which was a major radio event and the country was enthralled by it … listening as much as possible. The minute-by-minute coverage monopolized the attention of the country and it was a great novelty to hear Hitler speak or British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain returning from Munich waving a paper and saying, “This means peace in our time!”

To hear the actual words was simply amazing.

It is no exaggeration to say that radio brought the country together, all at the same time, everyone listening to the same things. And the country liked being tied together that way. In the morning, people would say, “Did you hear that last night? What do you think?”

People didn’t quite see how all those things overseas were going to affect them personally, but it was the greatest show they’d ever been offered, and it helped the country overall achieve the melting-pot effect. Radio played a major role in helping people escape the daily humdrum with the soaps during the day and Jack Benny, Burns and Allen, Bob Hope, and Fibber McGee and Molly at night.

Politics could never compete with The Shadow in my book.

Now we have to listen to both sides of every issue (sometime all sides) from “talking heads” who claim to be experts, who debate every point and counterpoint. Who are these people? How to judge their expertise or veracity when the ether is filled with so many divergent views? If you don’t have an opinion, just pick one and you can amaze your friends with your brilliant insights.

My advice is to watch the Fishing Channel. These folks really know their stuff and you can probably believe most of it … except when you hear “You should have been here last week. They were really biting!”

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Americans Familiar with Getting Over the Gloomy Pessimism

Two scrapbooks with news clips about the 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast, compiled for Orson Welles by a professional clipping service, realized nearly $4,700 at an April 2014 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

The most popular radio show in America in the mid-1930s was NBC’s The Chase and Sanborn Hour. A variety show, it featured the antics of ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his sidekick Charlie McCarthy. By 1938, it was so dominant that competing network CBS could not find a sponsor willing to back a show to go against it.

In semi-desperation, the network commissioned Orson Welles, a 23-year-old director who had thrilled theater critics with his unusual staging of Macbeth, set in Haiti with an all-black cast. He agreed to provide CBS each week with a one-hour, commercial-free drama aired directly against Bergen on Sunday nights.

On Oct. 30, 1938, Welles’ Mercury Theater opted to present a radio play based on H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. However, at the last minute, the young director decided to exploit the reputation of radio as the medium of truth and offered the play as realistically as possible. They began as if they were presenting an evening of ballroom music and then interrupted the band with a sudden announcement that Martians had landed on a farm near Grover’s Mill, N.J. From there, the story unfolded much as a real crisis might, with radio reporters relaying dispatches from the scene.

“Ladies and gentlemen, this is the most terrifying thing I have witnessed…,” sobbed Welles’ correspondent as he encountered the invaders. “There, I can see the thing’s body. It’s large as a bear and glistens like wet leather… the eyes are black and green like a serpent. The mouth is V-shaped with saliva dripping from its rimless lips.”

In the course of a single hour, Welles’ Martians landed on Earth, constructed deadly ray machines, defeated the American Army, destroyed radio communications and occupied large sections of the country. Remarkably, hundreds of thousands of Americans believed every word of it.

Radio stations were inundated with calls from listeners gripped with fear. Train stations were crowded with families demanding tickets “anywhere.” In New York City, theaters were emptied in panic and in Northern New Jersey – the site of the Martian landing – roads were jammed with people in cars packed with precious belongings, fleeing extraterrestrial annihilation.

When Welles signed off at 9 p.m., police were ready to arrest him, but he had broken no laws and the FCC only issued a mild reprimand.

His program had touched a sense of apocalypse that dominated the lives of many people in the late 1930s. Everywhere they looked, there were signs that things were going deeply awry. The American economy had remained stubbornly stagnant; one-third of the people were “ill-housed, ill-clad and ill-nourished,” in FDR’s own words.

Even nature looked like an enemy. Only a month before, the East Coast had endured a storm of such mammoth proportions that it felt like an invasion, as well. The Hurricane of 1938 caused more damage than the Chicago Fire and more deaths than the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Seven hundred people were killed and the homes of more than 63,000 people were destroyed. Forty-foot waves crashed against Long Island, with ocean spray felt as far north as Vermont.

Yet even as people struggled to keep food on the table and their homes on the ground, it was the rumblings of war around the globe that jangled nerves. First, it was Italy seizing Ethiopia, then a civil war in Spain, and the Nazis in Germany making preparations for more war in Europe (again). But this time, most Americans were convinced we would never get involved in these foreign affairs and even had promises of “no American boys in foreign wars” from our leaders.

Twelve years later, after a global war ended with the dropping of two atomic bombs, America would make a fresh start with the glorious 1950s — after all, this is the United States! — and leave all that gloomy pessimism behind us forever.

And so we will again.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].