By Jim Wyss
(Publicado originalmente en el diario Miami Herald Americas el 21 de febrero de 2014)
BOGOTA, Colombia — When the green men from Mars landed in the central plaza of Cotocollao, Ecuador, a stunned nation listened as one of the country’s most famous radio personalities was vaporized by a death-ray, and firefighters and police rushed to the sleepy village to confront the invaders.
By the end of that night, 65 years ago this month, the announcer would still be alive but at least six others would be dead as irate mobs discovered they had fallen for a radio hoax — and embarrassed security forces either refused, or were unable, to come to the broadcasters’ aid.
When Orson Welles produced his now infamous version of “The War of the Worlds” in 1938, it generated a firestorm in the United States as thousands were duped by the realistic radio drama that depicted an alien invasion of Grover’s Mill, N.J.
But the program, based on H.G. Wells’ classic science fiction novel, had a lesser-known and more deadly ripple effect throughout Latin America, where radio pioneers tried to emulate its success.
In 1944, in Chile, an adaptation of the radio drama was blamed for panicking thousands and giving an electrician in Valparaiso, named Jose Villaroel, a fatal heart attack, according to a Newsweek article from the time.
“Once more a radio dramatization of H.G. Wells’ imaginative novel, ‘The War of the Worlds,’ had convinced a gullible citizenry that the earth’s gig was up,” the magazine reported.
But in the tiny Andean nation of Ecuador, the stunt was pulled off so convincingly that even the authorities seem to have fallen for the story — with tragic results.
Jorge Ribadeneira was 19 when Radio Quito staged its own version of the alien invasion. It was Saturday night, and the station was broadcasting a live concert when the musicians were interrupted to announce that an enormous cylindrical object had crashed just north of the capital.
Moments later, Leonardo Paez, one of Quito’s best known musicians and radio personalities, was rushed to the scene. As Paez broadcast “live” from Cotocollao’s central plaza, a long “green arm” emerged from the alien craft, and then Paez was fried by a bolt of light.
Ribadeneira, now 83, recalls frightened family members rushing home with news of Paez’s death. Ribadeneira said he was almost certain it was a radio drama, but he couldn’t get his relatives to listen. When they went to visit neighbors, their worst fears seem to be confirmed.
“There were people running around all over the streets and the army and police were heading toward Cotocollao,” Ribadeneira said. “My family came back home tremendously frightened.”
Soon, Ribadeneira’s family had joined the throngs of other Quitenos trying to get out of the city as the radio reported that the alien clash with the armed forces was expected to release a toxic cloud.
In a sense, Ecuador’s alien invasion was staged by the long hand of Orson Welles. Six years after the original was aired on the Columbia Broadcasting System, the script was adapted into Spanish for the Chilean market by William Steele, a former writer of the U.S. radio drama “The Shadow.” Orson Welles, it turns out, was the original voice of the Shadow, and Steele would undoubtedly have been familiar with his work. A few years later, a young man named Eduardo Alcaraz would take the Chilean script to Ecuador, where he found a brilliant radio actor in Paez.
Paez was only in his 30s at the time but had already made a name for himself as an artistic powerhouse. He was a poet, playwright, reporter, radio actor and songwriter who composed some of Ecuador’s most emblematic music. His classic “La Tuna Quitena” is still played during festivals.
In the wake of “The War of the Worlds” tragedy, Paez would receive much of the blame. At the time, he was accused of priming the ground for panic by planting stories in the local newspaper and failing to warn the audience that they were listening to fiction.
“There are so many stories about him, but most of them are just legends,” said Ximena Paez, 63, the broadcaster’s daughter. Ximena says her father never tried to hide the fact that it was a radio play, but that the owners of the station tried to frame him as they downplayed their own role in allowing the program to air.
What is known is that on the night of Feb. 12, 1949, the city was seized by panic as the show kept upping the stakes. Radio Quito patched in other broadcasters who were also “reporting” the arrival of alien craft, and an actor playing the archbishop of Quito only fueled the hysteria. But there were also real acts that added to the effect. With President Galo Plaza Lasso out of town, someone apparently ordered police and firefighters to head to Cotocollao. The Red Cross followed suit, according to Ribadeneira, who wrote a brief history of the event.
It didn’t take long for the radio station to realize that it had overplayed its hand, but when it shut down the show and tried to reassure the audience it was just a dramatization, it only enraged the crowd. Soon, a mob surrounded the radio station in downtown Quito, which also housed El Comercio newspaper, and set it ablaze.
“We saw an enormous fire,” Ribadeneira recalls. “And we could hear the announcer, whose name was Luis Beltran, calling for help. He was saying ‘Please let the firefighters through,’ but the people wouldn’t let them pass.”
Other reports say that the police couldn’t respond because they were in Cotocollao.
Ximena Paez said her father always believed that security didn’t react because they were embarrassed over having fallen for the hoax. Most of the key players, including Paez, Alcaraz and Beltran, survived. But at least six people died, including the radio’s pianist and violin player. Paez’s girlfriend was also killed in the fire, according to Ribadeneira’s account.
For Orson Welles, “The War of the Worlds” was a turning point. The event turned him into an international sensation, and he spun his fame notoriety into a distinguished movie career that included the making of the classic “Citizen Kane.”
The legacy of Alcaraz and Paez is more complicated. Ecuador launched an inquiry into the event — and according to Ribadeneira and others, Alcaraz fled justice to Mexico, where he worked in the movie industry until his death.
Reports from the time say Paez fled to Venezuela to escape the law, but that’s not accurate, his daughter said. She gave this account: After going into hiding for about three months, Paez was eventually exonerated. In fact, he continued working for an additional six years in Ecuador, winning national theater awards, before moving to Merida, Venezuela, in 1955 to give his children an education. After that, he returned to Ecuador on several occasions, including in the 1980s.
In Venezuela, Paez continued to be a prolific writer and musician. When he died at 80 in 1991, he had an unfinished poem in his typewriter.
Ximena said her father never hid his role in “The War of the Worlds,” but that it was a bittersweet memory for him.
“He was proud of it because it was such a good artistic production that people believed it — and that was his job as a radio actor,” she said. “But it was a tragedy because people died.”