Seventy-five years ago, on October 30, 1938, Orson Welles re-created on radio H. G. Wells novel "War of the Worlds", where Martians invade Earth, causing widespread destruction before succumbing to the microbes of Earth. The radiocast was in the form of a documentary - "You Are There" - with eye-witness reports, and was taken to be real rather than fictional by some of the listeners.
This was the age of radio, and a time when family members still gathered together for supper, instead of dining separately and on-the-run. In fact, the family even gathered around the radio set for many of the most popular shows of the era, including Bob Hope, Jack Benny, Charlie McCarthy, and Fred Allen. These were comedy stars of the first magnitude, blazing across the skies of our consciousness, and providing a shared community that was powerful and unique. One such program, known colloquially as the Charlie McCarthy Show (Charlie was a puppet and Candace Bergen's father, Edgar, was the ventriloquist.) was seemingly replaced by the Welles broadcast.
To celebrate the 75th anniversary of the broadcast, now legendary but overtaken by television and film treatments of the Martian invasion, the Stark Naked Theatre Company staged a re-creation of the broadcast, in a single-night performance that was invaluable in presenting a great and vivid moment in the annals of radio, and also providing an added benefit: - with Halloween awkwardly falling on the "almost-weekend" slot, the staging, with a festive, party atmosphere, served as a launch into Halloween.
Philip Lehl, co-executive director of the Stark Naked Theatre Company, was master of ceremonies, and also one of the actors, and he was joined by David Matranga, Bradley Winkler, Andrew Schneider and Amy Garner-Buchanan. The visuals of course were actors speaking into period microphones, but the event was leavened by period music that was authentic and witty, and by some strong sound effects of artillery being fired at the Martians - and Andrew Schneider provided one scream of anguish that was blood-curdling.
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The story begins with scientists at the Princeton Observatory noting activity on Mars, and reporting what seemed to be a meteorite striking the earth about 20 miles from Princeton, with earthquake force. We soon learn that the impact was far more sinister, as Martians emerge and begin a reign of destruction. Some of the most powerful moments of the broadcast were moments of silence, when the presumed account of an eye-witness suddenly ceased, and we came to realize that the Martians had conquered that area with destructive force. One passage, as the Martians advance in Manhattan from Sixth Avenue to Fifth Avenue, created the strong mental image of alien destruction sweeping eastward in the country's largest city.
The broadcast included reminders that this was a fictional re-creation, but many listeners failed to notice these. It's estimated that there were millions of listeners, with some of these panicking in the belief that the events were actually happening.
The original broadcast was delivered by the Mercury Theatre on the Air, headed by Orson Welles. It was an added pleasure to see the genius of Orson Welles honored, who has given us Citizen Kane, considered by some the greatest film of all time, but certainly an engrossing, brilliantly-acted film that introduced new camera techniques in a powerful narrative, with suspense. and an ending that has become iconoclastic. The verdict:
The Stark Naked Theatre Company combined history, theater and a festive atmosphere in a remarkable one-time performance (sponsored in part by the Houston Press) that reminds us of the glory days of radio, of the genius of Orson Welles, and of our willingness to be seduced by the possibility of alien invasion. The re-staging event took place at 7:30 on October 30 at Studio One, 1824 Spring Street. It was both an artistic achievement, and an exciting event.