The year is 1938 The family is gathered around the “crystal set” in your home in New England” getting ready to listen to a radio play and a spot of dance music from the “Meridian Room” in the “Hotel Park Plaza” in downtown New York. An announcement is aired stating that “The Columbia Broadcasting System and its affiliated stations present Orson Welles and the “Mercury Theatre on the Air” in “The War of the Worlds” by H. G. Wells. Orson Welles one of the foremost broadcasters of the era comes on air as himself setting the scene for the play about to follow: it goes like this: “We know now that in the early years of the twentieth century this world was being watched closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own…” Orson Welles finishes his introduction; a weather report purporting to come from the Government Weather Bureau fades in. This is quickly followed by “the music of Ramon Raquello and his orchestra”. Nothing out of the ordinary at this point. Suddenly the dance music is interrupted by a special bulletin announcing that a professor at the Mount Jennings Observatory in Chicago, Illinois reports seeing explosions on Mars. The dance music resumes once more, then a further interruption… This time a news update – an interview with astronomer, Professor Richard Pierson at the Princeton Observatory in Princeton, New Jersey. And so it goes on – the reports getting ever more frequent and urgent as a cylindrical meteorite lands in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey. “Reporter” Carl Phillips relates the events as the crowds gather around the object. He reports that The meteorite unscrews, revealing itself as a rocket machine. Inside is a tentacled, pulsating, barely mobile Martian ….. Crackle… Radio silence
Next thing you hear is Carl Phillips reporting that this creature has just incinerated the crowd with Heat-Rays.
He shouts about incoming flames.
Cut off in mid-sentence regular programming breaks down as the studio struggles with casualty updates, firefighting and the declaration of martial law. And the like.
Now you hear what is supposed to be Franklin D. Roosevelt addresses the nation
The world is at war with the Martians…
Cue mass hysteria and panic……………….
No internet, no way of corroborating the story except to run out on the street to consult with neighbors who were probably also listening to the broadcast.
This is a time when the “radio” was King and a trusted source of news, weather, radio plays and music
There was no TV
Very few telephones and no fax
Information is “fed” to you via Pathé newsreels (at the local movie theatre), through newspapers either delivered (at a certain time) or from newsstands.
That was it – Not hard to imagine how believable this scenario might have been in those days.
Unbeknownst to the listeners sitting at home, all of this programming is coming from the same studio – that run by “Mercury Theatre on the Air” headed by dramatist Orson Welles who in a bid to increase ratings (and take away listeners from a competing channel) on the eve of Halloween has produced this elaborate “hoax” Remember despite the fact that this whole broadcast was introduced as an adaptation of a radio play; if you missed the introduction, you’d have had no clue that it was just a radio play. Welles also deliberately used radio silences to enhance to authenticity of the so-called “reporting”.
And so in the high-tech age of the 21st century when many members of a modern audience might have trouble imagining a world where radio plays were “the word” in daily entertainment , The “Art of Time Ensemble” – at the Enwave Theatre – did an amazing job of bringing to life this timeless classic of theatrical persuasion and human paranoia. A re-enactment of Orson Welles’ studio scene (as a staged radio drama) during the 1938 “broadcast” of the 1898 novel The War of the Worlds.
The performance opens with a first half dedicated to the music of Bernard Hermann, the Academy Award-winning composer who worked with Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock among others. After the intermission the stage is turned into a reproduction of a 1938 radio studio; all on stage in period suits and smoking (herb) cigarettes in a bid to recreate the smoky atmosphere that would have been prevalent in any office/studio and home during the late 1930’s.
This production comprised 5 actors, a small orchestra and the all important Foley artist.
The Foley artist was a key part of the silent movie era where sounds had to be dubbed in during post production and essential for the studio performances of radio plays. They were/are responsible for creating the authentic sound accompaniments or plays and movies using a variety of clever and often everyday devices, e.g.
A pair of gloves sounds like bird wings flapping
A heavy staple gun combined with other small metal sounds make good gun noises
A metal rake makes a great fence sound (it can also make a great metallic screech when dragged across a piece of metal
A heavy phone book makes great body punching sounds
Frozen romaine lettuce makes great bone or head injury noises
Cellophane creates crackling fire effects
And so on……..
Foley artists are still used to over-dub sounds in movies today.
With the musical first half of the show, accompanied by a brilliantly edited montage of Hitchcock music clips (that Hermann scored the music for) and the second brilliantly re-enacted Orson Welles “War of the Worlds” piece, this was a compelling and unique theatre experience.
This was a world premiere of the show – Look out for it – This MUST end up touring!
Over and Out