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October 21, 2013

BREAKING NEWS: The Martians are coming

Crosley Radio Players bring Orson Welles’ infamous adaptation to Terre Haute

TERRE HAUTE — It was the show that panicked radio listeners in America 75 years ago, and for one night, it will, once again, be heard in Terre Haute.

On Halloween night, The Crosley Radio Players will present a live re-creation of the Mercury Theatre version of H.G. Wells’ “The War of the Worlds.” The show is scheduled for 8 p.m at Harmony Hall, 1257 Lafayette Ave.

A cast of 15 will include voices and faces from Terre Haute broadcasting including Tom McClanahan, Bruce Wesley, Kevin Berlen and Steve Hall. Jerry Arnold, a member of the Indiana Broadcasting Hall of Fame, is the director of the group.

“It was the first show that really showed the power of electronic media,” Arnold said in an interview just before Thursday’s rehearsal at West Vigo High School started.

 It was the day before Halloween, on Oct. 30, 1938, when listeners heard on the radio that a huge meteorite made impact in New Jersey, and that New York was under attack by Martians.

It all sounded real.

It wasn’t.

What the listeners heard was a radio drama adaptation of a science fiction novel, “The War of the Worlds,” written by H.G. Wells in 1898. The radio show — aired 40 years later — was an episode of the series, “The Mercury Theatre on the Air,” and was directed and narrated by actor, Orson Welles, who later became a famous filmmaker and actor.

The drama written and performed to sound like a real news broadcast with places recognizable to the listeners.

“Mercury Theatre was called a ‘sustaining show,’ meaning they had no sponsors. … They took no commercial breaks. That only added to the realism,” Arnold said.

Because listeners believed there was an invasion from Mars going on, a mass panic and outcry ensued. Thousands flooded police stations with phone calls, and there were reports of some people requiring medical treatment for shock and hysteria.

All as a result of a radio show.

“It was probably the first opportunity that radio really had to show how powerful it can actually be,” Berlen said.

The Crosley Players — a group that re-creates original radio plays — will use live sound effects such as a car horn and air tank (to create the sound of escaping, hissing poison gas that the Martians used in the story). There will also be period-correct microphones, which Wesley owns.

“We do them as close to the way they were originally done as we can,” Berlen said.

The cast will read from a script because “that’s the way it was done originally,” he said.

Even the time of the performance is an attempt to stay true to the original 8 p.m. broadcast.

A 5-foot, World War II vintage, carbon-arc searchlight will be set up outside Harmony Hall to “search the sky for Martians,” a release said.

Don Jones of Harmony Hall said he was “real pleased” to have the group at the theater.

“I’m sure these guys are going to give it everything they have to re-create the original as best as is possible,” he said.

Music will be performed live by the West Vigo High School Band.

“I think it’s great to be involved as a school group,” band director Chris Gelb said. “It’s always important to be involved in community events, and we’ve been lucky enough to have a great partnership with The Crosley Players.”

The students will also learn about history and will get performance experience, Gelb said. “There’s so many different things that can be incorporated into their educational experience.”  

Band member Tristan McCullough is happy to gain the experience.

“I was really looking forward to the experience of doing this,” McCullough, who plays the tuba, said.

“It’s really cool. I’ve never done anything like this. It’s interesting to watch it all [come] together,” the junior said.

The band worked with The Crosley Players four years ago in the same show at the Indiana Theatre for the program’s 71st anniversary.

“With as many [things] as these kids have competing for their time and their interest, it just warms my heart that so many of them are interested in participating,” Berlen said.

“It’s just a great experience for the kids and a great experience for us,” Berlen said.

It is also a chance to remember the glory days of radio.

“I think radio still has a place in today’s society. People listen to radio all the time,” particularly in cars, Berlen said.

Combined with some good, old-fashioned drama.

“Those two [will] come together. ... [The show] will reach another audience, and there will be a whole new generation that will be introduced to radio,” Berlen said.

Tribune-Star Reporter Dianne Frances D. Powell can be reached at 812-231-4299 or dianne.powell@tribstar.com.

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