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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: ‘War of the Worlds’ radio play scheduled in Kaukauna

Critic At Large

Kaukauna Community Players Readers Theatre

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Kaukauna Community Players Readers Theatre will present three performances of the iconic radio play “War of the Worlds” this week in the library of Kaukauna High School, 1701 County Road CE.

Performances are at 7 p.m. Jan. 17-18 and 2 p.m. Jan. 19.

This is the second year the troupe has presented a readers theater style of theater in which the actors do not memorize their lines. Actors use only vocal expression to help the audience understand the story along with some sound effects, rather than visual storytelling such as sets, costumes, intricate blocking and movement.

Originally broadcast from New York City’s Mercury Theatre in 1938, this infamous radio play is based on the novel by H.G. Wells. The cast reading the script of radio dramatist Howard E. Koch had many terrified listeners convinced that an actual alien invasion of Earth was taking place.

In ways, the broadcast was the ultimate in fake news.

The illusion: The audience is the studio audience for a live, nationwide Columbia Broadcasting System broadcast of the weekly drama show of Sunday, Oct. 30, 1938. The series brought literary classics to the air in condensed form.

The setup of what happened:

The illustrious, young (age 23) and brash Orson Welles (a guy from Wisconsin, by the way) was leading his performance troupe in what was designed to be a Halloween-scare story. Welles was a known entity as the voice of “The Shadow;” his film “Citizen Kane” was yet to come.

Also on the air at the time was “The Chase and Sanborn Hour” hosted by actor Don Ameche (also a guy from Wisconsin, by the way), which was mix of comedy and music.

“The War of the Worlds” radio play included enacted news bulletins to the effect that Martians had landed and were destroying the United States pretty much willy-nilly. There were “live,” and “eyewitness” reports of calamitous happenings.

You know how you flip through TV channels with a remote control? It seems something like that happened with radio listeners on Oct. 30, 1938. Perhaps folks switched from “The Chase and Sandborn Hour” during a music interlude and came upon the “news bulletins” about the deadly Martian attacks. Numerous listeners panicked – for real. A reported 12,500 legitimate news accounts picked up on the national turmoil in the following days.

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