“Across an immense ethereal gulf,” a voice intoned, “intellects vast, cool and unsympathetic regarded this earth with envious eyes and slowly and surely drew their plans against us.” It was Sunday evening, October 30, 1938. The voice was that of 23-year-old wunderkind Orson Welles, already a radio and stage star on two continents. The words he spoke into the microphone were paraphrased (by Howard Koch, four years later the co-screenwriter of Casablanca) from the first paragraph of H. G. Wells’ groundbreaking 1987 novel The War of the Worlds.
James Venturini, associate artistic director for Lakewood Playhouse, chooses, directs and performs live sound effects for radio-style plays every Halloween season. He’s adapted everything from vintage tobacco ads to The Birds and The Day the Earth Stood Still. Welles’ famed radio drama shares a birth year with the playhouse, so Venturini often uses round-number anniversaries like 2018 to return to the New Jersey battlefield between red and blue planets. He estimates he’s directed the show seven or eight times over the last 20 years.
“I’ve always wondered about that with musicians,” Venturini jokes. “Don’t they get sick of playing the same damn song? … I’m not sick of it at all. I continue to be utterly fascinated by it.” He’s not the only one. Research continues into the intensity of panic created by Welles’ broadcast. However widespread such response may have been, the story has enduring emotional power, especially in years like 1938 or 2001 when baseline anxiety runs deep in America. Venturini believes this is one of those years: “It’s gonna be interesting to see what kind of reaction, what kind of feedback, I get.” He notes the proliferation of fake news and scare tactics online that dupe more people more disturbingly than Welles ever did. “I think it’s gonna make more of an impact than it usually does.”
Lakewood’s live radio shows rehearse a handful of times, then go up as a low-cost benefit for the theater. This year’s cast includes Kathi Aleman, Dayna Childs, Nicole Lockett, David Phillips and Ben Stahl, featuring Andrew Fox Burden as Welles. “The voice is important,” Venturini says of his casting process, adding with a laugh, “A lot of it is about getting along well and having fun, ’cause the pay is lousy.”
11th-Annual Live Radio Show: The War of the Worlds
8 p.m. Friday – Saturday,
2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 12-14
5729 Lakewood Towne Center Blvd., Lakewood