The Night the Martians Invaded New Jersey

A monument erected in Grover's Mill, N. J. to the Mercury Theatre broadcast of October 30, 1938.  Background image in the public domain.

A monument erected in Grover’s Mill, N. J. to the Mercury Theatre broadcast of October 30, 1938. Background image in the public domain.

Today marks a historic anniversary.  It was 75 years ago, on October 30, 1938, that the planet Earth was invaded by troops from the planet Mars, who defeated the entire New Jersey militia, as well as inflicting large numbers of state police and civilian casualties, from their landing point in the Jersey hamlet of Grover’s Mill.  They went on to cut a swath of destruction (long since healed) all the way to the city of Princeton.  It was at about that point that the invaders themselves succumbed to superinfection from terrestrial bacteria, thus sparing the planet from further destruction.

The events in question transpired this way–

(Knock comes at front door) “Oh, excuse me….  Mmhmm?…  What??…  But–…  But–!…”  (Sigh)  “Oh, all right….”)

Well, actually, the planet wasn’t invaded.  But a whole lot of people thought it was; and that was the beauty — and the scary power — of the thing….

Orson Welles, photographed by Carl van Vechten

Orson Welles, photographed by Carl van Vechten

The invasion was spearheaded completely by radio, the mass media of 1938, was led by a 23-year-old actor, producer and director named Orson Welles, and was inspired by the 1898 novel The War of the Worlds, written by H. G. Wells (no relation, as the two men later attested together in a 1940s radio interview).  The production was created for the CBS radio show The Mercury Theatre On the Air, which had begun just three months before and had picked up no sponsors to insert commercials; in the parlance of the time’s industry, it was a “sustaining show.”  The writers of the radio play, Howard Koch and Anne Froelick, restaged the location from England to New Jersey, and brought the events forward to contemporary times.  They used the dramatic concept of presenting the play’s first half as a series of “live radio broadcasts,” beginning with a little music supposedly from a local hotel ballroom, then breaking in with a news headline of an object landing in the New Jersey countryside following an “explosion of incandescent gas” on the planet Mars.  The action moved to the site of the landing, where Welles, as “Professor Pearson of the Princeton Observatory,” gave his observations on the object.  Then the object is opened by the occupants, who proceed to use a “heat ray” to kill most people surrounding their cylinder.  The remainder of the first half-hour became a series of bulletins, interspersed with seeming radio tie-ins to various Army or Army Air Force units trying to fight the advancing invaders.  One of the most dramatic portions of this first half was a broadcaster speaking from the roof of the CBS building, describing the advance of the Martians across the Hudson River from over the Palisades, finishing with the announcer dropping from a gas attack from the Martians.  The half ended with a single, lonely ham radio operator calling for anyone to respond to him.

The second half of the broadcast was a much more typical dramatic presentation, with Welles as Professor Pearson describing in diary form his progress across the New Jersey countryside; and this should have been a clue to many people that this was just a radio play, along with the fact that so much action had been compressed into so short a time in that first 30 minutes.  However, the situation was a little trickier than that.  As noted, The Mercury Theatre had no commercial breaks, so that first half sounded eerily like a real news broadcast.  One of the actors even gave an announcement as the “Secretary of the Interior,” whose voice had a scary resemblance to President Roosevelt’s — at Welles’ direction.  Many listeners spun their dial over to the local CBS station from Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy on NBC during Dorothy Malone’s musical number, and so came in late on the show, and thus didn’t catch the opening narration.  People were also preconditioned to believe in live news bulletins, especially following events such as Herbert Morrison’s on-the-fly radio description of the explosion of the German dirigible Hindenburg, which had been recorded on acetate record disk and played on radio across the country.  Some suggested that the country was on edge with war jitters, due to radio news coverage of the beginning movements in Europe of what became World War II.

The panic was later alleged to be massive, and widespread across the country.  I remember my own mother and father, who lived through those times, telling me stories about what the news said happened that night.  Many people did take the broadcast seriously, leaving the radio before the first half had completed, and so missing the more “normal” second half.  The CBS switchboard was flooded with calls; people were apparently trying to evacuate from the “oncoming juggernaut” in the New York and New Jersey area; and the name of Orson Welles was a household word the next day.

Welles had done something that changed people’s attitude toward radio (and, later, television):  he had, though inadvertently, demonstrated just how powerful and forceful mass media could be, how it could break past our sophistication and intelligence and grab hold of our imaginations with a force that could not be ignored.  As John Houseman, then a member of Welles’ Mercury Theatre troupe, and the co-producer of the show, remarked in 1986, The Mercury Theatre On the Air had about a 3.2 Hooper rating, while Charlie McCarthy had nearly a 40; yet it was The Mercury Theatre that threw America into a swivet.  To this day, any American dramatic program that smacks of even edging toward such panic-inducing power carries frequent disclaimers that it’s not for real — the networks are taking no chances.  A further illustration of this single show’s power:  it has been re-enacted several times on a local basis.  I remember my local AM radio station in Battle Creek, Michigan, then WKFR, doing this in the 1970s, with the Martians coming at the broadcaster (standing on top of the Michigan National Bank building, where the station was housed) from across the Kalamazoo River.  John de Lancie, the actor who portrayed “Q” on Star Trek:  The Next Generation, created a version of the broadcast with an early iteration of his Alien Voices troupe of actors, all alumni from Star Trek, starring Leonard Nimoy as “Professor Pearson” and Gates McFadden playing reporter “Carla Phillips” (recasting the role from the male “Carl Phillips” in the original production).


If you’d like to listen to the actual broadcast, go to the Internet Archive, which stores a large and excellent library of transcribed radio recordings from the medium’s Golden Age.  You can also watch a classic television movie made by ABC in 1975, The Night That Panicked America, with Paul Shenar playing Orson Welles with brio and conviction.  And, in 1986, smack on the 48th anniversary of the Mercury Theatre broadcast, ABC’s wonderful one-season program Our World had Ray Gandolf and Linda Ellerbee recapitulating the events of that day, and of that fall, along with reminiscences from people who lived during that time, including Orson Welles.


Posted October 30, 2013 by Harper Ganesvoort in Arts, History, Radiio

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