Gathered around radios all over the country, families listened in horror as the otherworldly invasion commenced.
On the night of Oct. 30, 1938, Orson Welles and Mercury Theatre on the Air was performing their adaptation of the famed science fiction story “The War of the Worlds.” Presented as a series of news bulletins, the performance played out as if Martians had actually attacked earth.
Listeners unaware that it was a performance were fed report after report of fighting, death and an assault on New York City. Panicked calls flooded the radio studio, mobs took to the street, and law enforcement tried to stop the broadcast.
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Audiences know now that the terror was make-believe. But the fun and fright of the original broadcast will be live again Friday at the Historic Artcraft Theatre.
The New Mercury Theatre Players will present a live radio-style performance of “The War of the Worlds.” Using a collection of hand-crafted wind machines, miniature doors and other old-fashioned “Foley-props,” people can experience the horror that first saturated the airwaves in 1938.
“It’s a classic sci-fi tale of Martians and what’s really out there,” said David Windisch, public relations director for the Artcraft Theatre. “You can get familiar with the story, and then visualize how it can change. That’s what will be nice about hearing it told on stage, is that you can interpret it yourself while the actors are doing it.”
This will be the second radio-style performance by the New Mercury Theatre Players at the Artcraft.
The series had been born out of improv and acting sessions at the Artcraft led by Peter Spellos, a New York-based actor. He knew local filmmaker Bill Dever through past projects, which led to the acting workshops in Franklin.
With a cast of actors ready to put their skills to use, Spellos and Artcraft representatives decided there needed to be a performance.
In December, the group had done a similar show based on “It’s a Wonderful Life.” But “The War of the Worlds” will fit more naturally into a radio-style show.
“Back in December, the audience really enjoyed having a story they were familiar with but told in a different way,” Windisch said. “Most people know the radio broadcast of ‘The War of the Worlds,’ so they’ll be able to see how that transpires live and onstage.”
The New Mercury Theatre Players will recreate that broadcast live, though in this version, the audience will be fully aware of the fiction being presented.
Gerry Pauwels will direct the production. A veteran of the Bloomington theater scene, Pauwels has acted in a number of films shot in and around Franklin, including “Camel Spiders,” “Gila!” and “Monster Cruise.”
“The War of the Worlds” was originally a science fiction novel written by H.G. Wells first published in 1897. The story was one of the first to revolve around creatures from space attacking mankind.
Since its release, it has been adapted numerous times in comic books, films and television series. Recently, Tom Cruise starred in the remake in 2005.
“You go back and look at the source material that was written; it’s a fantastic piece of science fiction literature. Then each version is told in a different ways,” Windisch said. “It will be a rather interesting way of revisiting a classic tale.”
But the radio broadcast is what seared the story into the American psyche. When Welles and his troupe performed it, they made thousands of people believe that the Martians, with their heat rays and poisonous black smoke, were laying waste to the East Coast.
The actors used sound effects such as talking into a tea-cup to sound like a bomber pilot speaking over the radio. They strategically used sheet metal and sirens to add to the panic.
The cast effectively made it sound like the news was coming from live reports taken on scene. All of it combined convinced many that aliens were here.
That legacy is what makes it so popular still, Windisch said.
“The story behind the original broadcast is one of the tie-ins,” he said. “It’s an intriguing piece of Americana history.”
“The War of the Worlds”
What: A live radio-style performance of the 1938 broadcast of “The War of the Worlds,” performed by the New Mercury Theatre Players.
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday
Where: Historic Artcraft Theatre, 57 N. Main St., Franklin
Cost: $10 for adults, $6 for students and seniors