Friday, November 1, 2013

War of the Worlds: Rediscovered

Paul Stewart, radio and movie actor
I'm going to keep my comments brief today, making way for Randy Riddle, a collector of old-time radio who recently discovered a new version of the 1938 War of the Worlds panic broadcast. What? A new recording? Sure is. The history of the panic broadcast and the recordings circulating today is too much to include in a single blog post. But thanks to Randy, we have something new to look forward for.

And yes, if this all appears a bit too much "geek," we apologize. But it's way cool!!!

And now, ladies and gentlemen, Randy Riddle.

(clap, clap, clap, clap, clap)

I recently picked up on ebay a six-disc, twelve-side lacquer recorded at 78 rpm of the Mercury Theatre broadcast of "The War of the Worlds." The set is a dub, either from another 78 rpm set or from a 16" lacquer.

Although the set has some sound issues, it does include some very brief parts missing from all of the circulating copies.

Known copies of "War of the Worlds"
A bit of history is in order.  Several posts archived here sum up what we know and don't know about the provenance of existing copies of the program.  CBS, apparently, has an original lacquer of the show - it's unclear if they had transcription recording capabilities "in house" or if it was done "off-site" during the original broadcast.  Michael Biel, in one of the archived posts, talked with an engineer who said he recorded the original discs at CBS when he was new in his job there and was ordered to "smuggle them out" of the studio.

After the broadcast, there are indications that some copies were made for a Congressional committee and/or the FCC, but we don't know the format (16" or 12") or particulars of what discs were made and what happened to them.



We know that another 16" unlabeled lacquer surfaced at an auction in 2001 from the estate of old time radio collector Ralph Murchow.  This green label Presto disc was not authenticated, but sold for $14,000.  It's not clear where the disc originated - it might have been one of the Congressional committee/FCC copies, another copy made at a local station or a dub made from CBS's archive copy.  The type of Presto lacquer was commonly used in 1938, so it could have originated from the period of the original broadcast.  (You can see more info on Presto's early years here.)

All of the circulating copies of "War of the Worlds" originated on a tape that surfaced in 1968.  By coincidence, a tape copy of the program was made for the Library of Congress that year, mono, running 7.5 ips - the source disc used for this tape copy isn't known.  Was it the CBS archive master, the Murchow green label Presto set, or another undocumented version?

Regardless, the copies of "War of the Worlds" circulating now all came from the same tape that surfaced in the late 60s, perhaps a dub of the Library of Congress tape.  The cds in circulation were copied from the lps of this tape that were released in the 1970s and the lp and cd releases have noise gates or other analogue or digital tricks to minimize the surface noise of the original tape.

Background on this set
In this post is a new dub made direct from the 78 rpm 12-sided set that I recently obtained.

According to the seller, it came from a book dealer specializing in rare books and celebrity autographs in the City of Orange, about twenty minutes from Los Angeles.  The set originated in the estate of Jimmy Star, a reporter for the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner and "Film Daily", an industry magazine.

The set has the name "Paul Stewart" written on the cardboard container for the set.  Stewart was one of the Mercury actors who appeared on "War of the Worlds".  He was later a founding member of AFTRA and well respected "behind the scenes" in the Hollywood film community, working in films and television well into the 1980s.

Did Stewart have the set made for reporter Jimmy Star for some reason, perhaps as a gift, a souvenir, or for some story he was working on?

There's no documentation with the set to be sure.  Based on the sound quality, it sounds as if it came either direct from the 16" masters or a really well-done dub of one.

The discs themselves all have white paper labels just like the picture above.  One was a little loose and I peeled it back - the discs are aluminum based and are green label Presto brand.  The set came in Audiodisc "glass base" generic sleeves - the discs themselves could date from near the time of the original broadcast or after WWII.  The disc type - Presto green label - and the way they were cut leads me to think they were done in a professional facility.



The original recording that is the basis for the set appears to be taken directly from the CBS studio or a line from the studio - there's no local station ids, the program is complete, and I don't hear "line noise" indicating it was a "line check" from a local station.  The surface noise is different from the 60s era copy circulating now - perhaps this copy and the 60s tape came from the same disc, dubbed to 78 rpm before it became damaged, or perhaps they came from different copies.

Sound quality and extra material on this set
It's unfortunate that the sound quality of this disc set varies so much on each side, with bright clear sound at the beginning of each of the twelve sides and more muffled sound as the inner groove is reached at the end of the sides. The set also suffers from palmitic acid leaching - a white powder that comes out of the lacquer coating and causes surface noise.  Some parts sound better than the circulating copy; some sound worse.

Despite the varying sound quality, the set is the most complete version of "War of the Worlds" available and includes some brief segments not in the circulating copies.
  • At the 30 minute mark, there's a short extra bit at the part where the announcer says "One moment please ladies and gentlemen … We've run special wires…."  This previously unheard part is some "behind the mic" fumbling by the announcer with another cast member - on circulating copies, this segment got lost in a side change.
For some time, we've been puzzled by a couple of missing lines from the existing recording. 
  • About 40 minutes into the piece where Welles as Professor Pierson says "I look down at my blackened hand…"  In the version that exists, part of the line is missing and sounds like Welles might have not said some of the lines in the published version of the script.  With the missing lines in this new copy, it sounds like the original master used for the circulating copies has a "skip" that was disguised with a bit of editing.
  • At 57:25, there's also a line in the original script not heard on the circulating recordings where Welles says "Strange to see from my window the University spires dim and blue through an April haze."  This might have been another "skip" in the master used for the circulating copies.
  • This new version also includes the original full-length CBS station break, which runs about 15 seconds.  In circulating versions, the silence for the original station break was edited out.
There might be other short bits not in the circulating version that I missed.

Orson Welles at the microphone.
Wrapping up
If you have any thoughts on the possible origins of the disc set or other bits of the show you've never heard before, let me know in the comments.

Our mp3 was dubbed direct from this undated 78 rpm, 12", 12-sided lacquer.  Slight scratch removal was applied to the original file and the "side joins" were edited as closely as possible to the original - each side change of the disc had overlapping sentences or phrases, so you may notice a side change in the middle of a sentence.

Note - This file may take a bit to download.  I've encoded it at a max 128 kps bit rate with the highest quality option.  It's just over 50 mb.  CLICK HERE TO LISTEN

Small added notation: There is enough information to give cause and belief that what Randy has turned up is Paul Stewart's personal copies, which Stewart, may years ago, once told the Cincinnati Old-Time Radio Club that he once owned a recording of the rehearsal for "War of the Worlds."

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