It’s been nearly 76 years since Orson Welles tested the airwaves with his “War of the Worlds” radio program. The one-hour show famously sent some into hysteria after some listeners believed the broadcast theatrics meant an actual Martian landing on Earth.
This week, Louisville gets to relive the historic show.
Fern Creek High School on Thursday night will recreate “War of the Worlds,” combining the school’s theater department with the city’s only licensed student-run radio station on campus.
The first performance will air live on 92.7 The Tiger at the exact time it aired on October 30, 1938.
“We said, ‘What can we do that only Fern Creek High School can do?’ Every drama department, every theater department in the city could come and bring you ‘Oklahoma’ or ‘Hair Spray,'” said Brian Miller, Fern Creek High School’s theater and radio teacher.
“We’re the only ones that can do this and lay claim to an actual live broadcast.”
During the late 1930s, the U.S. was recovering from the Great Depression, Hitler was rising to power and the Hindenburg had crashed the year before. With all those happenings in the world, people loved the radio—it’s where they got their information and entertainment.
There was no television, and nothing like “War of the Worlds” had ever been tried before.
“It’s just been fun reading through and listening and reproducing old material, material that isn’t around anymore. It’s like viewing an entirely new culture,” said 16-year-old Thomas Tatem.
Tatem plays Orson Welles, who before becoming an acclaimed filmmaker directed and narrated the “War of the Worlds” radio drama, which was adapted from H. G. Wells’ novel of the same name.
Miller is a fan of “War of the Worlds” and knows his school’s radio station is special. He calls it one of Fern Creek High School’s strengths.
“Really it’s a combination of theater, music and radio. But we’ll have close to 40 performers on this stage live here on the night,” he said.
Miller says theater departments serve as an additional conduit for teaching other important subjects.
This production shows students how people lived their lives in 1938, and things they might not otherwise experience, like families gathering around the radio to listen.
Tenth-grader Alexander Jenkins plays the husband of a frantic woman who is among those who think the “War of the Worlds” invasion is real. Being in the production helps him think about this sort of context, he said.
“I think it’s more fun this way,” he said. “It’s like, you pay attention more and get more details like you actually get to see people dressed up and everything.”
Twelfth-grader Shelby Fogarty, who plays Jenkins’ wife—her character ends up reporting to police what she heard on the radio.
Fogarty said she sees a modern parallel.
“Probably seeing things on the Internet and then everyone is kind of believe that those are true,” she said. “It’s kind of like people all believe it and then they’re like, Oh, that’s not real.”
Fogarty said she expects every generation to go through something similar.
“History usually repeats itself,” she said.
The show will start with orchestra music from the school’s band.
“The premise of the original broadcast was that it was an orchestra concert that kept getting interrupted,” Miller said.
The production will open at 8 p.m. on Oct. 30 at the Fern Creek High School’s theater and air on 92.7 FM The Tiger. There will be another showing on Saturday.