Koshinski’s Korner is usually sports related, but this week I have a special Halloween story for readers. The year was 1968 and the broadcast of WKBW’s version of the H.G Wells story “War of the Worlds”.
KB’s classic Halloween radio production has grown in stature, especially over the past fifteen years, receiving national attention. In fact, KB’s War of The Worlds has been featured in several books, national cable TV specials, national articles and on numerous radio collection web sites.
It all began in the fall of 1968 and the approaching 30th anniversary of Orson Welles classic radio dramatization of H.G. Wells’ science fiction novel. KB Program Director Jefferson Kaye had planned to update a local version of War of the Worlds as a tribute to that 1938 classic. Welles had made history with his Mercury Theatre on the air broadcast which had caused panic and had become the most famous radio broadcast of all time. In an attempt to recreate a similar broadcast, Kaye had no idea what he was getting into and how far reaching the effects would be.
WKBW was a giant at the time, a 50,000-watt AM powerhouse that could be heard along the Eastern Seaboard at night. KB was already known for its creative Halloween night specials and the original stories produced by Kaye and Danny Neaverth, but War of the Worlds was a much bigger undertaking.
Jeff Kaye had written a script and together with engineer Danny Kriegler attempted to produce and direct the production. The story line was well known, Martians invade the earth, and like the ’38 version by Welles, the radio station would report on that invasion. However, Jeff Kaye soon found out that his KB staff of reporters and disc jockeys were not quite up to the standards of the original Mercury Theatre on the Air actors.
Faced with airing a collection of amateurish readings by his staff, Kaye decided to allow the reporters to be themselves and have them report on the invasion as though it was actually occurring. Reporters such as Jim Fagan, Don Lancer and Joe Downey along with DJ Sandy Beach and WKBW TV anchor Irv Weinstein were armed with the details of events they were to report on and then told to just be themselves. This new approach not only worked better than following a written script, it scared the hell out of thousands of listeners.
I was 14 years old in 1968 and promptly at eleven o’clock on Halloween night I lay there in a darkened bedroom as Dan Neaverth wrapped up his hosting of various spooky stories. What came next was a pre-recorded introduction to War of the Worlds; complete with an explanation of what KB was about to attempt. Next came an actual news report by Joe Downey with a seemingly innocent final story about mysterious explosions on Mars. From there DJ Sandy Beach took over and for the next ten minutes did his usual music show with an occasional mention of those strange explosions on the red planet. Then in the middle of White Room by the band Cream a traffic bulletin cuts in warning of a tie-up on Grand Island, the chaos was about to begin.
At this point thousands of listeners were still waiting for some kind of spooky Halloween show and now impatient that nothing was happening, began to call the station. Jeff Kaye and Dan Kriegler were in the control room and because of time restraints Kriegler was actually adding live sound affects to the taped production. Kaye told the callers that the War of the Worlds had indeed begun and just be patient and listen. Minutes later, in the middle of Hey Jude by the Beatles, listeners were hit with a dramatic news bulletin announcing a massive explosion on Grand Island. To some however, this dramatic interruption was so realistic that they forgot they were listening to a Halloween program and believed an actual disaster had occurred.
The production from there was beautifully crafted with fictitious live reports and coverage of an actual Martian invasion of Buffalo and Western New York. The realistic reporting by Jim Fagan, Don Lancer and Kaye himself created a production that far exceeded anything KB had ever aired on this eve of all hallows. Still, the Martian invasion could be interrupted for regularly scheduled commercial breaks and reminders that this was only a radio dramatization. These disclaimers were ignored by many as if they never aired.
One by one newsmen were killed off and the phones were jammed with callers fearing that what they were hearing was real. It was at this point that Jeff Kaye realized things had gotten out of hand and he wanted to interrupt the program to calm listener’s fears. Director Dan Kriegler, fully absorbed in the production at this point would have none of that. Fearing that Kaye’s interruption would harm the integrity of the production, the two began to argue. So determined was Jeff Kaye that he threatened to yank the large reel-to-reel tape off its spindle and end the program unless Kriegler allowed him to go on the air. Now faced with the realization that Kaye would actually do it, Kriegler allowed him to cut in and give a live disclaimer telling everyone this program was only a dramatization. Yet, the calls still came in and listeners up and down the East Coast began phoning relatives in Buffalo to see if they were okay.
Finally, at about ten minutes after midnight, we hear one of the productions most telling moments. WKBW’s TV anchorman Irv Weinstein had placed himself atop City Hall and was directing Jeff Kaye to call his wife to let her know he was alright. Irv spoke too soon however as seconds later he became one of the victims of a Martian war machines dreaded death ray.
The production then comes to a climax as Jeff Kaye; now the last man on the air ends the program by walking out onto Main Street and succumbs to the same poison gas that had been wiping out the population of Buffalo all night. The close is a somber reading by Dan Neaverth that sticks to the original H.G. Wells novel explaining that despite the Martins victory over Buffalo and all of mankind, they too are wiped out by the common germ.
It is now twenty minutes after twelve and inside the station Jeff Kaye does not feel a sense of accomplishment, instead he fears he has scared the hell out of people and would certainly lose his job. Kaye claims he slipped his resignation under the General Manager’s door and went home.
In the morning things were not as bad as Kaye had feared. There was concern on the part of management that this Halloween program had gone too far, but it was the talk of the town. This was the type of publicity that KB thrived on Kaye and Kriegler had succeeded in creating “good radio” as they would put it.
I’m told the FCC did slap KB’s hands for misleading its audience. It is a fact that changes have been made since that broadcast in the FCC regulations to safe guard against a similar occurrence. That did not stop Kaye from retooling another airing of the broadcast in 1971 with Jackson Armstrong replacing Beach as the opening disc jockey.
The panic that was created in Buffalo on that night in 1968 was not nearly as great as that caused by the 1938 Orson Welles original. Still, it was far more than Jeff Kaye and station management had anticipated or should I say, hoped for. In an interview twenty-one years later Dan Kriegler told me they had never intended to scare anyone, just do “good radio”, I didn’t believe him for a minute.
Jeff Kaye is still amazed that people remember the program and the lasting affect that it had, but he can repeat every detail as though it was yesterday. For me as a young teen it was a realization that radio and broadcasting was where I wanted to start a career. It affected many in a similar fashion and is still considered to be one of the most historic broadcasts in the annals of Buffalo radio.
This production was largely ignored through the late 70’s and most of the 80’s. WKBW was sold and the call letters changed to WWKB and the new owners had little interest in promoting the KB golden years. Then in 1988 the 1971 version was re-aired because of the national attention to the 50th anniversary of Orson Welles original classic.
I was then working in sports at WKBW TV and I pestered the News Department to do a piece on the local version that had aired on KB. After days of prodding and pitching they agreed and had Linda Pellegrino do a feature piece on the radio classic and it aired at the conclusion of the six o’clock news anchored by WOW participant Irv Weinstein.
In 1989, I convinced the producer of AM Buffalo, Mike Toppo, to allow me to produce a feature on Jeff Kaye’s original for that program. This allowed me to interview many of the key players including Jeff Kaye and Dan Kriegler as well as affording me the air time to properly tell the story. Those interviews were preserved and re-edited for a 30 minute special I produced on the topic for WNED-TV in 1998. Click here to view that program.
The radio rights to WKBW’s War of the Worlds were passed from Capital Cities to the various owners over the years and are now held by the Entercom station group. The 1971 version has been re-aired numerous times on Halloween and can also be heard on various web sites. A few years ago a coffee table book was published entitled “The Complete War of The Worlds Book”. This publication not only includes the original script of Orson Welles production but a detailed account of the KB version, including a CD with excerpts from the 1971 airing.
In 1998, on the 30th anniversary of the WKBW’s production, John Hagar had 97 Rock and 103.3 The Edge produce and broadcast another local version of the story. Hagar has long been a fan of KB radio of the 60’s and recruited several other “fans” including myself in recreating an updated version. Included were several of the original KB staffers with a now retired Irv Weinstein reprising his role and serving as the last newsman alive. Jeff Kaye performed as a WHAM radio employee out of Rochester who was called to report on the invasion in that city. Kaye was an enthusiastic participant and graciously repeated several of his classic lines from the KB original.
Then on October 19th, 2009, New York Governor David Paterson and the New York State Senate proclaimed Buffalo New York as the War of the Worlds Radio Broadcast Capital of the World. The declaration was due to the fact Buffalo New York has been the home of more unique radio broadcasts of the H.G Wells story War of the Worlds than any other city on the globe.
As many as eight Buffalo radio stations have either produced and broadcast their own original production of the H.G Wells story or have re-aired the classic Orson Welles 1938 original since 1968. Those stations include WKBW, WWKB, WGRF, WEDG, WNUC, WNSA, WEBR and WNED.
The 1968 KB production has held up well over the years and can still be appreciated for the excellent piece of work that it is. In fact WKBW’s version of H.G. Wells War of the Worlds is truly a masterpiece and should be treasured as long as there is radio in Buffalo. Nuff said!
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