'Star Wars' was a surprise hit -- for radio

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A long time ago (1981) in a studio far, far away (California), there was "Star Wars: the Original Radio Drama."

Quaint, right? The very idea of taking the biggest visual spectacle in the history of filmmaking and showcasing it on your grandpa's favorite form of entertainment, why, that was just nutty. As it so happens, brilliantly nutty.

"Star Wars: A New Hope" was re-released Wednesday by HighBridge Audio in two versions. The "light" features the good guys on the cover, with a matching Topps collectible trading card. As for the "dark," need we even say who is front and center?

Each downloadable MP3 set features the 6.5-hour, 13-episode radio serial, as well as bonus interviews and original promotional advertisements. The project began in 1980 when George Lucas donated the rights to KUSC, the NPR affiliate at his alma mater, the University of Southern California.

By then, "The Empire Strikes Back" was further gilding the film series' reputation. The radio drama became a popular fund-drive feature for public television stations nationwide, including WQED-FM, which ran it on Saturday mornings.

"A phrase has come to mind in working on this project: 'You may think you've seen the movie; wait 'till you hear it,' " said director John Madden, in an audio "making-of" feature.

Both Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker and Anthony Daniels as C-3PO signed on for the 10 days of recording, which was crucial to the series' sense of authenticity.

Ann Sachs (Princess Leia Organa), Brock Peters (Darth Vader) and Perry King (Han Solo) capably fill in for their screen counterparts, and the radio drama benefits from having John Williams' sweeping score and Ben Burtt's Oscar-winning sound design.

Fun fact: In a 1983 follow-up radio version of "The Empire Strikes Back," John Lithgow provided the voice of Yoda.

The series holds up well. Adapted by sci-fi writer Brian Daley, most of the extra scenes flow nicely around the mythic story and rarely feel padded. An early scene set on Alderaan, for example, helps further explain her deep hatred for the Empire.

Even those who don't know Aunt Beru from a Bantha can enjoy this exercise in the theater of the airwaves.

Maria Sciullo: msciullo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1478 or @MariaSciulloPG.

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