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'War Of The Worlds' Radio Broadcast Is 75 Years Old

7:21 AM, Oct 30, 2013   |    comments
'War of the Worlds' radio broadcast statue via USA Today.
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GROVERS MILL, N.J. -- Six-year-old Bob Sanders was not fooled by the Halloween Eve broadcast of The War of the Worlds of 1938.

"Dad said, 'Sit down and enjoy. Something unusual is going to happen," said Sanders, 81.

"And it did."

Martian invaders had landed in Grovers Mill, according to the radio program, which included disclaimers that many other listeners missed.

Sanders, who still lives in the Grovers Mill section of West Windsor Township, was at home with his family when Orson Welles and the CBS Mercury Theatre on the Air performed their version of H. G. Wells' The War of the Worlds. Sanders recalled looking outside the window and seeing a traffic jam in the normally sleepy hamlet.

"Fathers put their families in a car and took off for parts unknown," Sanders said. "Other people came to see what they (the Martians) looked like."

Superstorm Sandy isn't the only mischief-maker marking an anniversary in New Jersey this week. Wednesday is the 75th anniversary of The War of the Worlds broadcast.

There's something about Mars

Why Mars? The planet is relatively close to Earth (34.6 million miles on the closest approach), and the surface condition is closer to Earth's than that of any other planet in the solar system. However, something in humans supposes that if life were on Mars, the beings would tend to be violent. Around 3,000 B.C., Babylonians associated the brick-red dot in the sky with their god of death, and Romans named their update of the Greek god of war after the planet.

Years later, 19th-century amateur astronomer named Percival Lowell thought he saw evidence of a canal-building civilization on Mars. The Boston millionaire was so convinced that he went to his death in 1916 believing in Martians.

After Lowell promulgated the idea of a canal-building civilization on Mars in the late 1800s, science-fiction writers began developing stories about war-mongering Martians. In 1898, H.G. Wells published The War of the Worlds, in which Martians invade Earth. In 1917, Edgar Rice Burroughs presented the first of his Mars-themed pulp novels, which featured plenty of four-armed green Martian monsters.

By the time the 1930s came around, New Jersey was ripe for a Martian landing.

"There was lots of strange stuff going on in New Jersey between World War I and World War II," said Marc Mappen, historian and a former associate dean for academic affairs at Rutgers University. "There was the Halls-Mills murder case, which began in 1922, the Picatinny Arsenal blew up (in 1926) ... and the Lindbergh (baby) kidnapping (in 1932) became the 'Trial of the Century'."

Yet, if there was one dress-rehearsal event for The War of the Worlds broadcast, it was the 1937 Hindenburg disaster at Lakehurst Naval Air Station, which is about 25 miles from Grovers Mill.

"Howard Koch (a member of the Mercury Theatre of the Air) listened to the recording of the Hindenburg explosion," Mappen said. 'The (Hindenburg) announcer was very calm until the whole ship exploded, and in (The War of the Worlds) broadcast, they used the same kind of tone."

Vulnerable times

In 1938, the United States was a country was on edge due to years of economic depression and the winds of war swirling in Europe, which would soon engulf the world. World War II began less than a year after the broadcast, and America was attacked by Japanese bombers at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

"In 1938 ... we were hearing all the stuff about how planes would drop bombs on our cities, and America would be defenseless and so there was anxiety," Mappen said. "The American public was anxious about the situation around the world."

This was the setting when Welles and his troupe took the air. The format of the faux show was music by "Ramon Raquello and his Orchestra" in the Park Plaza Hotel in Manhattan, interspersed by simulated news bulletins, beginning with a report of explosions on Mars that led to a Martian invasion targeting Grovers Mill.

Once in Grovers Mill, the Martians spread forth, hitting Plainsboro, Jamesburg, Basking Ridge, Watchung and Morristown before taking New York City. A water tower, which still stands behind a home near Van Nest Park in Grovers Mill, was mistaken for a Martian spaceship.

William Dock, then a resident of Grovers Mill, shot at the tower, according to local folklore.

"In the moonlight, he saw the water tower up there, and 'Pow!,' " Sanders recalled.

The War of the Worlds caused hysteria across America. It's been estimated that of the 6 million people who heard the broadcast, 1.2 million believed Earth actually was being invaded.

"The broadcast ... disrupted households, interrupted religious services, created traffic jams and clogged communications systems," reported The New York Times on Oct. 31, 1938. "In Newark, in a single block at Heddon Terrace and Hawthorne Avenue, more than 20 families rushed out of their houses with wet handkerchiefs and towels over their faces to flee from what they believed was to be a gas raid. Some began moving household furniture."

The broadcast illustrated the power of mass media and its ability to ignite mass hysteria.

"I think it's the granddaddy of sensational episodes," Mappen said.

Could it happen again?

Yes, speculates Cliff Galbraith, a Red Bank-based comic book artist and promoter of the Asbury Park Comicon. The conditions are ripe in this era of diversified media, which has the public gathering its news from multiple, often dubious, sources, he pointed out. This spring, the Twitter account of the Associated Press was hacked, and a report of an explosion at the White House was posted in April. The Dow Jones industrial average dropped by more than 150 in the minutes after the fake tweet.

"(The next The War of the Worlds) will come from a direction we're not expecting," Galbraith said. "It will put fear into people."

Akin to the fear of those duped by the 1938 "The War of the Worlds" broadcast?

"We said, 'They're all nuts,' " Sanders quipped.

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