Sci-fi lands at Historic Mounds Theatre

Patrick Sheehy, 51, who plays Orson Welles as a reads through the opening monologue of “War of the Worlds” during a rehearsal at the Historic Mounds Theatre. A fan of Welles, Sheehy has worked on other pieces by the famed dramatist and jumped at the opportunity to play him again. (Patrick Larkin/Review)

“War of the Worlds” director Derek Dirlam stands with Sal Niteo, tech and utility man for the play. The two dreamed up their own concept for a theatrical presentation of the classic radio broadcast after seeing the success of other radio theater plays at the Historic Mounds Theatre on Hudson Road. The two see radio theater as a potential niche for the performing arts facility. (Patrick Larkin/Review)

Classic radio drama ‘War of the Worlds’ getting a reprise on the East Side for its 75th anniversary

The eerie feeling, the goose bumps, the intrigue and the suspense of a classic piece of science fiction will be landing at the Historic Mounds Theatre this April.

A take on the sensational 1938 radio broadcast show “War of the Worlds” by Orson Welles will be presented at theater for three weekends starting Friday, April 19, to celebrate the 75-year anniversary of the original airing.

Director Derek Dirlam and audio-visual whiz Sal Niteo, both regulars at the theater, have put together a multi-faceted theatrical take on the radio version.

Using the original script, but adding projections, a live sound artist known in the trade as a Foley artist, canned sound effects and a surprise twist, they are hoping to attract both those familiar with the backstory and newcomers.

They’ve recruited the help of Patrick Sheehy, 51, an Orson Welles fan and a veteran of the radio theater format. Sheehy, a Woodbury resident, was a member of the now defunct Rochester Radio Theatre Guild that put on old-time radio shows in a theater setting down in Rochester. Recruiting him was not much of a challenge.

“(‘War of the Worlds’) is one of my all-time favorite radio broadcasts,” Sheehy explained.

They got the idea for the show after seeing the success of other radio-themed plays they’ve done at the theater, such as last December’s “A Christmas Carol.”

Not seeing a lot of other radio-style dramas in the Twin Cities, Dirlam views the genre as a potential niche for the theater.

The play’s stage will be a three-tiered display, featuring a radio broadcast setup with chairs and old-fashioned microphones in the foreground. The audience will see performers reading the scripts, as if they were watching the original radio broadcast.

Alongside the performers will be a Foley artist, who will be “building the sounds from scratch,” Niteo explains.

For example, to create the sound to accompany the Martian spacecraft, the Foley artist will use a Mason jar with only a metal ring on its lip. Turning the ring around the jar creates an eerie, metallic ringing, Niteo says.

To top it off there will be a 26-by-10-foot video projection displayed behind the performers. The projections are there for added flavor, and for coloring the scene changes, Niteo says.

There are “certainly a lot of moving parts” in the production, he says.

The play’s setup will be relatively authentic to the period, Sheehy says, explaining that radio shows around the time of the original broadcast were often performed in front of a live studio audience. In that vein, the play should run just over an hour including intermission, which is about the length of the original broadcast. And for authenticity’s sake, it helps that the Historic Mounds Theatre is decked out with a ‘50s retro vibe, Sheehy adds.

Sorry folks, no live extraterrestrials

Despite the immersive multimedia experience they are going for, the production team will specifically avoid showing the audience what the space aliens look like.

“There will be no depictions of actual martians,” Niteo says, laughing.

“We have a no dancing Martians policy,” Dirlam adds.

Niteo went on to explain that about eight years ago there was another reproduction of the play at the Historic Mounds Theatre, which was perhaps more campy. When they said they’d be putting on their own rendition, people reacted by saying, “Oh yeah, with the dancing Martians,” Niteo says.

The two hope to avoid this type of goofiness, and instead intend to maintain a more serious tone to their production.

“The story certainly was not a very jolly story,” he explains. “We really want to create that sense of anxiety and fear that the book and radio broadcast created.”

They felt showing actors dressed as Martians would take some gravity out of the production. Why not leave it up to the audience to picture the extra terrestrials, they figure.

“People’s imaginations are going to be more incredible than anything we come up with,” Dirlam says.

Stirring panic

For those not familiar with the show, which first aired on Oct. 30, 1938, it created quite a stir.

Welles’ dramatic broadcast, set in a realistic news bulletin format, described a Martian invasion of New York and other parts of the East Coast live on-air.

Many of those who listened to the broadcast tuned in late, after an immensely popular radio comedy, thereby missing the beginning of the program, where Welles explained the show was fiction. They thought they were hearing a real news bulletin.

“They all tuned in about the time that the news reporter arrived at the farm in New Jersey where the Martian spacecraft had landed,” Sheehy says.

Considering the fact that the broadcast medium was relatively new, and the public was on edge with the brink of World War II in sight, one begins to see how the show could have caused a panic among some listeners.

Kirbie Moore, who’s temporarily helping out at the Mounds, recalls a great-aunt telling him about her experience with the pandemonium. She was working in a restaurant in downtown Los Angeles called the Melody Lane, “a famous old restaurant that had a pipe organ in it,” he says.

“She said people were running into the restaurants to get off the streets. It was real. She said she’d never seen such panic,” he says with wonder. “She said you would have thought the Germans had crossed the Atlantic.”

Accounts do differ on how much panic the broadcast caused and if the sensationalistic journalism of the time may have overblown the extent of listeners’ reactions.

For instance, the dramatic opening line of a New York Times article that ran on Halloween day in 1938 goes like this: “A wave of mass hysteria seized thousands of radio listeners between 8:15 and 9:30 o’clock last night when a broadcast of a dramatization of H. G. Wells’s fantasy, “The War of the Worlds,” led thousands to believe that an interplanetary conflict had started with invading Martians spreading wide death and destruction in New Jersey and New York.”

Whatever the true effect of the broadcast, the piece was the talk of the nation. It cemented Orson Welles, writer and director of the famous film “Citizen Kane,” into the history books as a dramatist.

Patrick Larkin can be reached at or at 651-748-7816.

If you go ...

“War of the Worlds” will begin its run at the Historic Mounds Theatre  on Friday, April 19, and continue Saturday, April 20, and again Friday April 28 and Saturday April 29, and Friday May 3 and Saturday May 4. All these shows begin at 7 p.m.

The show closes with a final date on Sunday, May 5 at 2 p.m. Admission is $6 for children ages 12 and younger, $10 for seniors and students, and $15 for adults.

The Historic Mounds Theatre is located at 1209 Hudson Road, just east of Earl Street and north of Interstate 94.

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