the Worlds: Take Two
By David Nicholson, Daily Press (07/18/05)
Tom Cruise and Steven
Spielberg could learn a lot from Orson Welles.
Their film version of “War of the Worlds” made a decent showing at the box office, but had nowhere near the impact of Welles’ radio play. The infamous 1938 broadcast created mass hysteria throughout New York and New Jersey after millions of listeners mistook it for a live news broadcast of a Martian invasion.
This week, producer/director Victoria Racimo is recreating that chilling night with a performance of Welles’ “War of the Worlds” at the Williamsburg Regional Library. The radio play will be preceded by a showing of the documentary, “The Day That Panicked America: The H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds Scandal,” which examines the impact Welles’ broadcast had on the nation.
“When I put myself back to 1938, I realized that in reading the script this was really possible,” says Racimo. “It comes on very slowly. It creeps up on you and, all of a sudden, it seems very real.”
Par of her believability comes from stories she heard from her parents. At the time of the broadcast, her parents had just gotten married and were living in an apartment building in New York near the George Washington Bridge.
“During the broadcast, neighbors banged on their door ad tried to get them to leave,” she says. “But my mother didn’t believe that the broadcast was real, and they stayed in their apartment.”
Welles was only 23 when “War of the Worlds” shook the nation. He and actor John Houseman had teamed up to form the Mercury Theater and present radio versions of classic novels.
“War of the Worlds” was based on the H.G. Wells novel written 40 years earlier, with a screenplay written by Howard Koch. The year after the broadcast, Welles and Koch moved to Hollywood, where Koch made his fortune as the screenwriter of “Casablanca,” “The Sea Hawk” and numerous other films. Racimo contacted Koch’s estate for the right s to the play.
What gave “War of the Worlds” its impact was that the pair departed from the typical radio play format and presented it as a series of news broadcasts. Listening to reports of huge flaming object dropping from the sky on a farm near Grovers Mill, N.J., many who missed the introduction thought they were tuning into a real-life event.
Part of the fun was creating the unusual sound effects that will bring this radio play alive. She and sound effects creator Mike Suerdieck reproduced the sound of Martian ray gun by running a hand drill inside a tin can. The sound of the space ship hatch opening was made by grinding a pestle in a stone mortar. A knife blade inserted into a plastic electric hand fan sounds just like a sputtering plan propeller, and a mallet striking a roasting pan reproduces the sound of church bells.
The cast is made up of nine men playing 27 different rolfes, such as a farmer, U.S. Army general and Secretary of the Interior. The main characters are a reporter named Carl Phillips and a Princeton University astronomer named Prof. Richard Pierson, originally played by Welles.
“I really enjoyed putting our team together,” she says. “I cast for voices and for personalities.”
“What I told the actors is that the stars of the evening are the event and the
sound effects. The relationship is with you and the microphone, not you with
another character. You don’t have the luxury to play opposite another character
to get feedback. It has to come from your imagination.”
“War of the Worlds” is the latest project for Racimo, an award-winning actress, writer and director who divides her time between New York and Williamsburg. Her film credits include “The Mountain Men” opposite Charlton Heston and John Frankenheimer’s “Prophecy.” She’s appeared at Joseph Papp’s Public Theatre in New York and has been a guest on 35 television shows. After “War of the Worlds,” she’ll begin collaborating with playwright Mark Medoff (“Children of a Lesser God”) on a biopic about baseball legend Roberto Clemente.
Several years ago, she discovered the Williamsburg area while visiting friends and eventually purchased a house here.
“I love it down here,” said Racimo. “It’s a growing population, and there’s an influx of sophisticated people.”
Racimo also is impressed with the area’s talent pool. She’s interested in developing a theater company here that would bring together topnotch local talent and professional actors and production teams. Though Williamsburg is somewhat of a retreat for Racimo, she stays busy while here. She directed “Same Time, Next Year” at the Williamsburg Players and the Kimball Theatre and “Anna in the Tropics at the Williamsburg Regional Library. A production of “Slyvia” at the Williamsburg Players closes Saturday the day before “War of the Worlds” is staged.