Orson Welles at the mike.
On Halloween 1938, the day after the radio panic, 76-year-old Earl Dock of Grovers Mill took rabbit gun in hand and showed reporters how he fended off the "Martians."
Listen to a recording of "War of the Worlds" at this site.
|1938: Space invaders|
|By JON BLACKWELL / The Trentonian|
Ladies and gentlemen, I have a grave announcement to make. Incredible as it may seem ... those strange beings who landed in the Jersey farmlands tonight are the vanguard of an invading army from the planet Mars!
The broadcast news that Sunday night, Oct. 30, 1938, sounded real enough to the young man in Plainsboro. Up and down his block he banged on doors, shrieking: "The Martians have landed in Grovers Mill! It's on the radio!"
Panic struck the youth choir rehearsing within the Plainsboro Presbyterian Church when they heard his message of doom. Grovers Mill was only a few miles south, and, if you believed the bulletins, the Martians with their death rays had already incinerated the place, killed thousands of humans and begun advancing north at a spectacular clip.
But Mabel "Lolly" Dey, a 16-year-old girl playing the piano, kept calm.
"I bowed my head and prayed and thought to myself, 'If it has to be the end of the world, I couldn't be in a better place," Dey, now 76, recalled. "I'm in the house of the Lord."
Like young Lolly Dey, as many as 2 million other people from coast to coast thought they were under attack from outer space.
If only they had checked carefully against their Sunday paper's radio section.
There, under the listing for 8 p.m. programs, was the entry for CBS — "Play: 'War of the Worlds,' Mercury Theater."
"War of the Worlds" was a pure Halloween spoof, and the destruction of Grovers Mill was as fake as the alien beings with drooling faces and slimy tentacles. How the radio hoax got believed was largely due to the creative mischief of a single showman: Orson Welles.
At age 23, he was a bad boy of Broadway, prodigious in his drinking, eating and sleeping around. But he was also a "Boy Genius," a director hailed for innovative stagings: "Macbeth" starring an all-black cast, "Julius Caesar" in modern dress.
His talent for radio drama was in demand, too, as the sinister voice of "The Shadow" on radio, and as the mastermind of CBS' "Mercury Theater," a Sunday night show featuring adaptations of classic plays and books.
Welles was fascinated with radio as a powerfully direct medium for entertainment and news. When Hitler threatened war in September 1938, Americans tuned in to hear the chilling news of English schoolchildren donning gas masks for war drills. Then the British prime minister declared he had achieved "peace in our time," and everyone breathed easier. At least for a time.
By the fall of '38, Mercury Theater was getting trounced in the ratings. Its competition at 8 p.m. Sunday was NBC's ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his smart-aleck dummy, Charlie McCarthy. Welles needed an attention-grabber. He found it in "War of the Worlds."
"War of the Worlds" was an H.G. Wells science fiction novel written 40 years earlier about a Martian invasion of England. It was exciting stuff, but Orson Welles wanted more urgency, more immediacy. He ordered his scriptwriters to update the setting to modern-day America and present it in a novel form — as a news broadcast.
Screenplay writer Howard Koch had only a week, and a $75 paycheck, to write the scenario. For realism, he placed the cosmic battle in what he thought of as the very prosaic state of New Jersey. On a road map, he dropped a pencil to determine the precise landing site: it fell on Grovers Mill, a hamlet in West Windsor Township.
At 7:58 p.m., Oct. 30, Welles slugged down a bottle of pineapple juice, mounted a podium in the center of his New York studio, clamped on a set of headphones, and gave his announcer the signal to start the show.
Maisy Curtis was just settling into the couch of her living room in Merchantville. She had kissed her fiance goodnight about 7:45 and saw him off as he drove back to his home in Hightstown, where he taught school. Now she, her mom and two sisters tuned into the radio and stopped the dial when they heard some breezy Spanish-style dance music.
Breaking into the music, an authoritative voice announced:
Ladies and gentlemen, we interrupt our program of dance music to bring you a special bulletin ... several explosions of incandescent gas, occurring in regular intervals on the planet Mars ... moving towards the earth with tremendous velocity.
What did it mean? Well, here was "Professor Richard Pierson, famous Princeton astronomer," a man with a voice very similar to Orson Welles, to explain it. Nothing to worry about, he said, since there's no life on Mars.
But another bulletin crackled through, something about a meteorite landing with the force of an earthquake 20 miles north of Trenton. Live from the Wilmuth farm, there was reporter "Carl Phillips."
The object doesn't look very much like a meteor ... It looks more like a huge cylinder ... the metal casing is definitely extraterrestrial ... Ladies and gentlemen, this is the most terrifying thing I have ever witnessed! Someone's crawling out of the hollow top!
In her living room, Maisy Curtis' father stirred uneasily. Someone mentioned something about Maisy's boyfriend passing near Grovers Mill. Would this delay his trip home?
Driving with his girlfriend near Newark, a gas-station operator named Archie Burbank pulled over to listen, uncertain what it meant. And at Princeton, where there was no such person as a Prof. Pierson on the faculty, a group of geology students thought it sounded like the adventure of the lifetime — so they drove off for Grovers Mill, two miles away.
Something's wriggling out of the shadow like a grey snake! Now it's another one, and another. They look like tentacles to me ... The eyes are black and gleam like a serpent. The mouth is V-shaped with saliva dripping from its rimless lips ... There's a jet of flame! It's coming this way!
For an excruciating few seconds, silence. Then, another bulletin: 40 people dead! All of Mercer and Middlesex counties under martial law!
Desperate phone calls poured into Trenton police. Overwhelmed dispatchers tried to calm the men and women on the other line, telling them there was no sign of emergency. One woman in Grovers Mill was inconsolable. "You can't imagine the horror of it!" she shrieked. "It's hell!"
The Associated Press flashed a bulletin to all member papers: Reports of an emergency in New Jersey are false.
Ladies and gentleman, I have a grave announcement to make. The battle which took place at Grovers Mill has ended in one of the most startling defeats ever suffered by an army in modern times.
One hundred and twenty known survivors. The rest strewn over the battle area from Grovers Mill to Plainsboro crushed and trampled to death under the metal feet of the monster, or burned to death by its heat ray.
The young geology students from Princeton arrived at Grovers Mill to see dark sky, twinkling stars and dead silence — in short, no sign of cosmic warfare.
But already, a makeshift posse of farmers with squirrel guns and shotguns were forming around the mill pond off Cranbury Road. One legend has them blasting away at what they thought was a craft from Mars, only to discover in daylight they had been shooting at a water tower.
"I was crying," recalled Maisy Curtis. "I was frantic for my fiancee and I was hearing all about these strange invaders destroying everything. My father disappeared into the bedroom and came back with some rosary beads. We just knelt and prayed."
In her church in Plainsboro, Lolly Dey was praying too, and pondering what was causing this great catastrophe. "I had been learning in high school about Hitler and his plans to take over the world," she said. "And it just made sense that maybe these Martians were Hitler's allies."
The enemy now turns east, crossing Passaic River into the Jersey marshes. ... Their apparent objective is to crush resistance, paralyze communication, and disorganize human society.
Warning! Poisonous black smoke pouring in from Jersey marshes!
Gas! Radio listeners who had followed the European crisis knew what to do: filter the air with a wet fabric. All over New York, damp towels hung from tenement windows. A woman in Pittsburgh tried to swallow poison and was stopped by her husband. "I'd rather die this way!" she screamed.
Near Newark, Archie Burbank and his girlfriend ran to a man's house, asking to be let into his cellar. "I don't have any cellar! Get away!" he yelled back. They drove to a gas station to fill up the tank and drive off as far as they could ... then realized they might want to call the Newark Evening News for information. The man at the newspaper told them it was a radio play.
Welles was still directing from his center podium, furiously cueing actors and sound effects and trying to ignore the cops banging on the studio's front door. CBS executive Taylor Davidson demanded he break into the program to calm down all the scared listeners.
"They're scared?" Welles shot back. "Good! They're supposed to be scared!"
No more defenses! Our army wiped out! This is the end now.
Seeing no sign of the apocalypse outside her church window, Lolly Dey walked the six houses back home. "I told my mom about the Martians," Dey recalled. "But by then, she had the radio on too and we figured out it was all a show."
Orson Welles and his crew sneaked out the back of their studio to avoid the crush of reporters and lawmen who wanted a word with them. The next day, however, he put on as ingenuous a face as possible and apologized. "We are deeply shocked and deeply regretful," he said. Hadn't he known about the panic he was creating? "Oh, no, no, no, no."
The notoriety of "War of the Worlds" gave the boy genius the capital he needed to make his debut movie, "Citizen Kane" — an epic that was named the greatest American film of all time last year in an American Film Institute poll. Scriptwriter Howard Koch would write "Casablanca," the No. 2 movie on the list.
For a long time, the people of Grovers Mill grumbled about "War of the Worlds" as a mean-spirited joke. With time, however, the legend of the Martian invasion grew more remote, humorous, and worthy of commemoration. For the 50th anniversary of the infamous broadcast in 1988, West Windsor erected a bronze plaque at Van Nest Park depicting Welles, his fictional aliens and a frightened family huddled around a radio set.
The guest speaker was Koch, who was hailed not as a hoaxer but as a sci-fi pioneer. Koch, in turn, gracefully said he did the men from Mars "an injustice" by depicting them as earth-destroyers.
"I believe," he said, "if ever living beings arrive at Grovers Mill from another planet, they will have the wisdom to come in peace and friendship."