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WAR OF THE WORLDS (ORSON WELLS RADIO PLAY)

Updated: Nov 5, 2022



The War of the Worlds, written by H.G. Wells (1898) has always been a favorite alien invasion story and has seen so many adaptations over the years, from T.V. shows and drama's, films, and even a musical. But lets talk about that infamous adaptation, the radio broadcast that panicked America, directed and narrated by actor and future filmmaker Orson Welles. The show was the 17th episode of the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) Radio series The Mercury Theatre on the Air, and was broadcast at 8pm on Sunday, October 30, 1938 as part of a live Halloween episode. The H.G. Wells original novel tells the story of a Martian invasion of Earth set in the outskirts of London, England, but was adapted to radio by Howard Koch, who changed the setting from 19th century England to the then modern day United States, with the landing site of the first Martian cylinder changed to Grover's Mill, a small village in West Winsor Township of New jersey.


The broadcast was an hour long and the format consisted of multiple live news bulletins which interrupted the program of dance music from Ramon Raquello and his orchestra. The skit involved on the scene reporters and scientific bodies who reported on the events of the Martian cylinder that had landed in Grovers Mill. The Martians then attack and destroy the New Jersey State Militia and then go on to attack other cities throughout the country, including New York. Despite periodic announcements that the show was a fictional performance, many listeners believed that the events were actually happening.


An impassioned Welles emoting into a microphone. Ramon Raquello and his orchestra can be seen sitting nearby.

The shows second part of the broadcast was a monologue by Welles explaining the aftermath of destruction and finally that the Martians had been killed, by "putrefactive and disease bacteria against which their systems were unprepared".


To end the show, Welles went back to his normal persona and announced that the broadcast was a Halloween joke, stating...

"This is Orson Welles, ladies and gentlemen, out of character to assure you that The War of The Worlds has no further significance than as the holiday offering it was intended to be. The Mercury Theatre’s own radio version of dressing up in a sheet and jumping out of a bush and saying Boo! Starting now, we couldn’t soap all your windows and steal all your garden gates by tomorrow night. . . so we did the best next thing. We annihilated the world before your very ears, and utterly destroyed the C. B. S. You will be relieved, I hope, to learn that we didn’t mean it, and that both institutions are still open for business. So goodbye everybody, and remember the terrible lesson you learned tonight. That grinning, glowing, globular invader of your living room is an inhabitant of the pumpkin patch, and if your doorbell rings and nobody’s there, that was no Martian. . .it’s Hallowe’en."


Orson Welles meeting with reporters in an effort to explain that no one connected with the War of the Worlds radio broadcast had any idea the show would cause panic.

Approximately six million people are believed to have heard the broadcast and there are conflicting reports on the number of people that actually panicked. The front page of the New York Times the next day had the headline "Radio Listeners in Panic Taking War Drama as Fact". The article stated:

  • Thousands of people called the police, newspapers and radio stations within the United States and Canada seeking advice on protective measures.

  • In Newark, in a single block at Heddon Terrace, more than twenty families rushed out of their houses with handkerchiefs and towels over their faces.

  • In Indianapolis a woman ran into a church screaming "New York destroyed, it's the end of the world. You might as well go home to die. I just heard it on the radio."

  • Legend also has it that some local residents in Grovers Mill opened fire on a water tower thinking it was a Martian (we tried looking for the water tower but it is on private land and obscured by trees).

 

GROVERS MILL

DATE(S) VISITED: JULY 4, 2019
LOCATION: GROVER'S MILL, NJ
MAP

Grovers Mill is an unincorporated community located within West Windsor Township, in Mercer County, New Jersey. The community was made famous in Orson Welles' 1938 radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds, where it was depicted as the first landing site of a Martian invasion, on October 30 of that year.



In the radio broadcast, on scene reporters and scientific bodies report on the events of the Martian cylinder that had landed at Grovers Mill. When the alien invaders emerge from the cylinder they then begin the first attack using the Heat Ray.


"At least 40 people, including six state troopers, lie dead in a field East of Grovers Mill. Their bodies burnt and distorted beyond all possible recognition."


The New Jersey State Militia are then ordered to surround the landing site, only to be then wiped out, thus beginning the massacre of mankind.

 

MARTIAN LANDING SITE MARKER

DATE(S) VISITED: JULY 4, 2019
LOCATION: GROVER'S MILL, NJ
MAP

This wonderful piece of art was put together in 1988 to mark the 50th Anniversary of the radio broadcast. Artist Thomas Jay Warren was hired to sculpt this monument which was unveiled as part of a four day celebration which included a parade and a Martian Panic bicycle race.


The monument is a 7.5 foot high slab of bronze that has a 3D bas relief depicting a passionate Welles emoting into a studio microphone, whilst a family sit at home listening to their radio in terror. But most of all, I love how it also seems like Welles is projecting his voice and imagination into the image of the tentacled Martian fighting machine that towers over them all (which also has the appearance of a water tower don't you think).


Thomas Jay Warren in the process of creating the plaque

As you can imagine, the monument unveiling drew a big crowd of fans, including New Jersey's governor at the time, Thomas H Kean. Unfortunately, Welles died in 1985, but an elderly Howard Koch did manage to attend the celebration. He told a reporter that he was pleased when his pencil point landed on a town named Grovers Mill. "I liked the sound," he said.



The wording on the monument reads:


On the evening of October 30, 1938, Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre presented a dramatization of H.G. Wells The War of the Worlds as adapted by Howard Koch. This was to become a landmark in broadcast history, provoking continuing thought about media responsibility, social psychology and civil defense. For a brief time as many as one million people throughout the country believed that Martians had invaded the earth, beginning with Grover's Mill, New Jersey.



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