King Kong is Back in 1930s Radio Play; Gorilla Climbs Empire State Building; Air Corps Attacks; Millions Scream

Culture Watch


Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at

King Kong
45th Street Theater
354 W. 45th Street
New York, N.Y.

King Kong fends off attacking Army Air Corps fighters, 1933. Tragically, he did not survive the incident. Credit: Wikipedia.

The Big Gorilla is back!

The Horse Trade Theater Group has again staged its popular radio play drama, King Kong, and using nothing but five actors and a sound effects wizard, has re-created the scary 1933 movie with charm and pizzazz, and a lot of horror, too.

Back in the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s, the radio play was an extraordinarily popular art form in America. Using a small cast of actors and a special effects coordinator, producers put plays staged in studios on the radio with regularity and people loved them. There were several dozen radio play series on the air at any one time during the Depression. They ranged from detective fiction to romance to westerns and to horror stories such as King Kong. They were inexpensive to produce and easy to stage. Millions tuned in to hear them every week. Their great success was their ability, through acting and the wizardry of their special effects, to let the listening audience "see" the story as they sat around the radio in their living room.

As an example, a December 16, 1936 New York Daily News radio listings page showed these radio plays on the air from 4:45 p.m. to midnight that night: Backstage Wife, Helen Trent, Young Hickory, Dick Tracy, Junior G-Men, Billy and Betty, Easy Aces, Amos n’ Andy, Renfrew of the Mounties, and Gangbusters.

Special effects men and women made them click. If you wanted a bad guy tossed through a saloon window by a good guy, the special effects man just dropped a small pane of glass into a trash can. Someone chasing someone else down a staircase? Just bang your palms on a table a few times. Stormy sea? Shake a bowl of water. The effects were simple and inexpensive, but they worked.

Over the last few years, the Horse Trade Group, along with other theatrical companies in America, has brought this piece of U.S. history back to life, along with all the fun that went with it. Audiences now sit in theaters, not living rooms, and watch -- rather than merely listen to -- the radio play unfold, shaking their heads in wonder at the special effects. They all ‘see’ the play and enjoy it as much now as they did in 1936.

At the production of King Kong, you shudder as you ‘see’ the play. I think most Americans know the story from the hit movie, which is run again and again on television. Big Ape falls for beautiful American girl on lost island in the Indian Ocean, is captured, put on stage in New York, breaks loose, kidnaps the girl and climbs to the top of the Empire State building, where the air force cuts him down. Yet, time after time, television ratings for the film, and its remade versions, are very healthy. It is a timeless story and a timeless fright.

The Horse Trade Theater Group recreates history, and the 1930s, nicely. The skipper of the ship bound for the Pacific Ocean, and notorious Skull Island, also serves as the narrator of the story and gives a nice five-minute description of what life was like in the Depression. Then he explains that movies and plays that provided escapist entertainment succeeded because, at least for a few hours, they took viewers out of their awful lives and into the fantasy lives of others (child star Shirley Temple, as an example).

This radio play version of King Kong certainly does that. It is a magnificent recreation of the Kong story with fine acting, sharp direction, syrupy, scary music and marvelous special effects. There was one scene when the ship is leaving New York in which you hear all of the deck hands, the car horns on shore, the chain grinding against the side of the ship as the anchor is pulled up and, in the background, the sound of the waves in New York harbor slapping against the boat. You felt like you were there.

The director, Dan Bianchi, sharpened the movie script, cutting a bit here and there, but kept in the key fright scenes, such as Kong’s battle with the dinosaurs, his capture and the grand finale. The actors portrayed a small selection of people from the movie and did a fine job. The benefit to a staged radio play, of course, is that the actors emote for you -- you don’t just listen to them on the radio. Here, they did that and their fright showed nicely. From time to time, a huge photo of King Kong was flashed on the back wall of the theater to remind you who the star of the show was.

It was a faithful and sturdy telling of the movie’s story, bare bones, and it worked. You were taken back in time to the ‘30s and yanked up the side of the Empire State Building once again as the planes came in.

Dan Bianchi, the head of the Horse Trade Theater Group, is the show’s director, writer and head of the sound design team. He has wrought a near miracle in this version of King Kong. He had powerful performances from Frank Zilinyi as the skipper and narrator, and Kayla Ferguson as the winsome Ann Darrow, the girl Kong fell in love with. Others in the cast are R. Patrick Alberty, Patrick Smith and Eric Whitten.

King Kong played himself.

The play will be at the 45th Street Theater all summer and then move downtown to the Kraine Theater in September. It will be staged at the Zeiterion Theater, New Bedford, Massachusetts, in February, 2013.

PRODUCTION: Produced by the Horse Trade Theater Group. Sound: Eduardo Ramirez; Lights: Alex Hurst. The play is directed by Dan Bianchi.

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