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‘War of the Worlds’ Arms for 2nd Attack

Times Staff Writer

It isn’t often that people go to a picnic only to find an invitation to die at the hands of laser-toting Martians.

But about 70 adults and children who planned a quiet day at a park near here recently did, indeed, find themselves “exterminated.” They were the moaning victims of vicious extraterrestrials who co-star with Jason Robards in a remake of Orson Welles’ classic radio broadcast “War of the Worlds.”

The new hourlong drama (the original was only 45 minutes long) has been updated and is scheduled to be heard on public radio stations exactly 50 years after the original broadcast. It will air Oct. 30 over KUSC-FM (91.5) in Los Angeles.

As Princeton astronomer Dr. Richard Pierson, Robards is as real as the picnicking extras cast as the hapless residents of Grover’s Mill, N.J., where the Martians first landed in 1938, courtesy of Welles and CBS.

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It was on Sunday, Halloween Eve, Oct. 30, 1938, that a national radio audience listened to Welles’ “Mercury Theatre of the Air” and heard what sounded to many like live coverage of an invasion by Martian aliens.

Fortunately, the Martians are as fanciful this time as the originals were, who hissed and hummed and zapped themselves into America’s imagination via radio that 1938 Halloween eve.

“Fake Radio War Stirs Terror Through U.S.” read the headline in the New York Daily News the following day.

In an essay that “War of the Worlds” script writer Howard Koch wrote several years after the broadcast, he noted that ". . . the submerged anxieties of tens of thousands of Americans surfaced and coalesced in a flood of terror that swept the country. Between 9 p.m. Eastern Standard Time and dawn of the next day, men, women and children in scores of towns and cities across the nation were in flight from objects that had no existence except in their imaginations.”

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Director David Ossman collaborated with Koch on the script for this 50th anniversary production and promised disclaimers before and after the 1988 broadcast. But, he added with a mischievous grin, there were obvious disclaimers before the original broadcast too, when Welles and his “Mercury Theatre of the Air” informed the audience that they were listening to a radio dramatization of H. G. Wells’ classic science-fiction tale.

“I don’t think anybody’s going to be fooled this time,” Robards said in an interview during a rehearsal break. “For one thing, it’s a public radio audience, and people who listen to public radio are pretty sophisticated.”

Still, the new production will have a sound quality going for it that will be better than anything Welles could ever have imagined, according to cast and crew.

As producer (and Ossman’s wife) Judith Walcutt puts it, this new “War of the Worlds” will have all the added advantages of movie sound reproduction that the original did not--a kind of “cinematic radio theater,” she calls it, based on digital technology that allows the readings by Robards--or the screams by the dwindling population of Grover’s Mill--to be “shot” outdoors just like a movie.

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“But I have the advantage here of not having the damned cameras around all the time,” said Randy Thom, sound designer for the production. As a result, the entire “War of the Worlds” remake was recorded in less than a week and is currently in post-production mixdown. It should be “in the can” before the end of the month, according to Thom. In contrast, because of the need to work around film crews, Thom said, the sound track for a feature film can take months.

Thom, an Academy Award-winning sound technician for George Lucas’ Lucasfilms Ltd., used a state-of-the-art portable Sony digital audio tape recorder for the first time in the outdoor “scenes” of “War of the Worlds,” including the Grover’s Mill death scene. Most of the “War of the Worlds” remake was recorded outdoors at Lucas’ 2,600-acre Skywalker Ranch just west of San Rafael, where Thom works as head of Lucas’ Sprocket Sound subsidiary.

In fact, about 150 Skywalker Ranch employees were supposed to be the Grover’s Mill victims, but they got their directions wrong concerning when and where to show up for the massacre, according to publicist Elaine Davies.

So Ossman asked the picnickers if they would volunteer.

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“They got the death scene perfectly, from grandparents to toddlers,” Davies said. “It was a happy ending to the death scene because only about three people from Skywalker showed up. So we got the sound and they got to be in a historic radio program. Everybody died happily every after.”

The remake of the classic broadcast is underwritten by matching $40,000 grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and McGavren Guild Radio.

In addition to Robards, the current production includes Steve Allen as a network newsman broadcasting “to the last” and retired CBS News anchor Douglas Edwards commenting on the “end of civilization.”

Further fuzzing the line between fantasy and reality is the inclusion of National Public Radio reporters Terry Gross and Scott Simon in the cast. Entertainment writers from Associated Press, People, the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, all of whom were covering the production in San Rafael last week, were also brought into the cast as reporters covering their final news story before being killed by Martians.

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There is something of a happy ending, however. In the story, the Martians are finally victims themselves, dying of common bacterial infection. As Koch wrote in both his original and revised script:

” . . . when their bodies were examined in 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.”

Produced by Walcutt and Ossman’s Seattle-based Otherworld Media, “War of the Worlds” is the first of a series of holiday radio drama specials that the couple plan to produce. The second in the series, tentatively scheduled for a Christmas air date, is “Gulliver’s Travels.”


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