Halloween, 1938: War of the Worlds at the Atlas

For Halloween, 2017, the CLTP has put on a fun production of The War of the Worlds – with the script used by Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre Players on the “Night that Panicked America.”

A 1938-era radio in the lobby of the Atlas Theatre

A 1938-era radio in the lobby of the Atlas Theatre

Each season, the Cheyenne Little Theatre Players put on not only a slate of plays, but also an Old Time Radio Show re-enactment. This is done for two performances only, usually on a Friday and Saturday

Although the radio play started out in a standard way, with “the Columbia Broadcasting System and its related affiliated presenting Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre on the Air in War of the Worlds by H. G. Welles,” the play starts immediately afterward to sound like a documentary, with reporters broadcasting the news of gas explosions on Mars, a metal cylinder crashing to Earth near Grovers’ Mill, New Jersey, and the subsequent extermination of the first onlookers to this cylinder and then 7,000 army troops sent to find out what it was. Eventually, all of New York is destroyed before the radio show went to its first commercial.

Those individuals on October 30, 1938 who tuned in to CBS late – apparently because Charlie McCarthy ran a little long that night – didn’t hear the opening introduction and only heard the lifelike news bulletins interrupting the music from various nightclubs in New York.

It all sounded very realistic and some people actually thought that the United States was being invaded…initially perhaps by the Nazis (who in September had just invaded Czechoslovakia) and then as it turned out, by Martians. All those in the New York and New Jersey area who turned off their radios and began to flee the cities never heard that first commercial.

New York Times headline, October 31, 1938

New York Times headline, October 31, 1938

The Friday night (October 27, 2017) production of the Cheyenne Little Theatre Player’s The War of the Worlds was simulcast on KRRR radio.

The cast of this show did an excellent job, with each of them performing at least 2 roles and usually more. Dave Delicath and Charles Seyfang employed a number of New York/New Jersey accents in their roles as radio announcers and observers of the horror unfolding in Grover’s Mill.

Peter Steiger performed the role of Orson Welles (announcing the title of the production at the beginning) but was a particular delight during the ‘commercial’ for Papa Murphy’s Pizza. (Papa Murphy’s and Brown’s Show Store were sponsors of this broadcast and each received a commercial in the 1938 style.)

Because the radio show was being performed in front of a live audience, the actors had to emote not only with their voices for the radio, but also with facial expressions and arm movements for the benefit of the audience. Dale Williams used several authentic accents as well, with two particular bravura vocal and physical performances, first as a radio announcer on top of a New York skyscraper, his voice vibrating with fear as he tells of the Black Smoke coming closer and closer; then as the ‘Fascist stranger’ (as the original 1938 script terms the role), a former artilleryman who was a survivor of the Black Smoke, and who intends to live on in post-invasion America.

The first half of The War of the Worlds, with the actors working as a team – as announcers, reporters, and artillerymen – to depict the destruction of the East Coast was a lot of fun, with perfect timing displayed. The second half consisted of Pierson, with only a brief interaction with another character (the Black Smoke survivor) and in a way is a bit of a let down after the excitement and urgency generated in the first half – but that’s actually how H. G. Well’s original story played out as well, with the invading Martians defeated not by humans with all their firepower, but by the lowly bacteria that we humans perhaps scorn to our cost!

Cheyenne Little Theatre Player's War of the Worlds poster

Cheyenne Little Theatre Player’s War of the Worlds poster

In the original broadcast, Orson Welles also played the part of Professor Richard Pierson. In the CLPT’s production, Pierson, one of the few survivors of the witnesses to the first attack of the Martians in Grover’s Mill, is played by Dave Hall.

The first half of The War of the Worlds was presented in “news bulletin” fashion.

The second half continues as regular drama, with Professor Pierson narrating his emotions as he leaves the farmhouse where he had hidden while the Martian war machines completed their conquest of the East Coast, and desperately tries to find other living things in the scorched earth as he makes his way toward Manhattan. (It’s here that the ‘Fascist stranger’ makes his few minute’s appearance.)

The play ends with Pierson finding all of the Martian tripods standing motionless, their Martian pilots dead on the ground below them – killed by Earth bacteria against which they had no protection.

“Later when their bodies were examined in the laboratories, it was found that they were killed by the putrefactive and disease bacteria against which their systems were unprepared. . . slain, after all man’s defenses had failed, by the humblest thing that God in His wisdom put upon this earth.”

Finally, Orson Welles again addresses the audience. At this point, in “real life” in 1938, the police have been to the studio pointing out the panic that had ensured in the New York/New Jersey area, and so Welles ends by explaining to the audience that nothing they had listened to was real.

This is Orson Welles, ladies and gentlemen, out of character to assure you that The War of The Worlds has no further significance than as the holiday offering it was intended to be. The Mercury Theatre’s own radio version of dressing up in a sheet and jumping out of a bush and saying Boo! Starting now, we couldn’t soap all your windows and steal all your garden gates by tomorrow night. . . so we did the best next thing. We annihilated the world before your very ears, and utterly destroyed the C. B. S. You will be relieved, I hope, to learn that we didn’t mean it, and that both institutions are still open for business. So goodbye everybody, and remember the terrible lesson you learned tonight. That grinning, glowing, globular invader of your living room is an inhabitant of the pumpkin patch, and if your doorbell rings and nobody’s there, that was no Martian. . .it’s Hallowe’en.

Cast and Roles

  • Dave Hall: Pierson/ Secretary of the Interior
  • Ari Lariez: Mercury Theatre announcer, Gunner operator 5
  • Peter Steiger: Orson Welles, Officer, Operator 4, Wilmuth
  • Dave Delicath: Announcer 2, Observer, Operator 1, Commander
  • Charles Seyfang: McDonald, Announcer 1, Smith, Operator 2
  • Aaron Drury: Carl Phillips (commentator at Grovers Mill crash site), Operator 3
  • Dale Williams: Policeman, Announcer 3 Captain, Stranger, NY Announcer

Members of the production crew

  • Jedediah Huntzinger: Foley artist (sound designer)
  • Karis Rowley: Sound operation
  • Symphony Tarazon: Stage manager

Usually, when CLTP presents these radio dramas, the sound designer/operator has a prominent position, albeit off to one side, so that the audience can see the “magic” of how the sound effects are made. In this production, the sound performer was stationed behind the actors so it was impossible to see how everything was done.

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