The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Bill Eggert

October 19, 2013

BILL EGGERT | 75 years later, reaction to radio prank still scrutinized

1938 was a seminal year for aliens in this country’s popular culture; aliens of the variety that were out of this world, literally.

In May of that year, Superman made his auspicious debut. Later that year, in late October, a 23-year-old Orson Welles’ scared much of the nation with his infamous Halloween prank of a radio broadcast featuring a vanguard of invading Martians.

The “Boy Wonder” Welles had already made a name for himself in theater and radio (as radio’s resident bogeyman “the Shadow”) but this broadcast on the eve of Halloween in 1938 launched his fame into the stratosphere. It ultimately awarded him an acclaimed spot in Hollywood as a writer/director/actor, all by the tender age of 25. But the Halloween broadcast was clearly a turning point.

The program itself, based on HG Wells’ (no relation) 1898 novel “The War of the Worlds,” was updated to 1938, and done in the form of radio news bulletins updating listeners to a series of ominous events originating in the small town of Grover’s Mill, an actual village in New Jersey.

The production team of the broadcast was spearheaded by Welles, along with future notables Howard Koch and John Houseman.

The actual broadcast is still available on records and CDs, and no doubt even on the Internet. Despite the passage of time, it remains a chilling reminder of the power of the medium of radio, complete with realistic sound effects.

Adding to the confusion was that the first commercial break did not come until 40 minutes into the hourlong broadcast. And listeners who turned in late to the broadcast missed Welles’ introduction to the anthology program, Mercury Theatre on the Air.

Welles and writer Koch spared no expense in making the broadcast as realistic as possible, bringing in the “governor” of New Jersey (urging no panic while putting the state under martial law) and the “secretary of interior” (sounding suspiciously like then-President FDR).

By the time the first commercial break actually happened, the Martians had not only wiped out the state militia of New Jersey, the flying saucers had sprouted giant tripod-like legs to roam the countryside, killing locals in their path via “heat rays” (pre-laser beams?) and a poisonous black smoke.

By the end of that 40 minutes the Martians were actually wading across the Hudson River with those giant legs to destroy all in Manhattan with the black gas.

Sociologists and journalists have had a 75-year-long field day dissecting and analyzing the public’s reaction to this legendary broadcast.

While acknowledging Welles and crew’s convincing thespian skills in presenting this realistic drama, many feel that the events in Europe (Hitler’s  saber-rattling) had Americans on edge that year and felt listeners believed it was the Nazis, not Martians, invading America.

Five years ago I wrote a Halloween column describing in detail Johnstown’s reaction to the broadcast.

It was very mild, although our town is several hours from New Jersey, so possibly Johnstowners felt they were far enough safely away from the chaos. New Jersey, on the other hand, had jammed the highways with cars of escaping residents.

Recently, some researchers claim the chaos was overstated. But it caused enough of an impact that Welles and crew were almost arrested by local authorities and demonized by the press. Clearly shaken, Welles pleaded ignorance of intentional panic, and was quite contrite and remorseful.

In the end the press had decided that Welles had actually performed a public service, by alerting the authorities to how unprepared we were in the event of an actual invasion.

But what happened in the sleepy hamlet of Grover’s Mill, N.J., ground zero for the invasion? It appears that most residents slept through the “invasion.”

However, a handful of farmers who did get wind of the broadcast searched the countryside for the Martians.  

In the darkness they did find a large object standing on tall legs and promptly shot at it. In the morning light the “alien being” was still standing. What the farmers had shot the night before was a wooden water tower… Both Welles (Orson) and Wells (HG, still alive at that time) would have no doubt enjoyed the irony of that anecdote.

Bill Eggert is a Johnstown resident. He writes an occasional column.

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