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On 50th Anniversary, Grovers Mill Celebrates ‘War of the Worlds’ Broadcast

October 26, 1988

GROVERS MILL, N.J. (AP) _ The Martians are coming again, 50 years after Orson Welles scared the bejabbers out of hundreds of thousands of Americans who believed a War of the Worlds had broken out on Halloween eve.

The hysteria over the radio broadcast clogged telephone lines and roads as the gullible thought huge cylinders carrying Martians were landing throughout the country, wiping out military forces with heat rays and poisonous gas.

Some who sheepishly recounted their terror said they headed for the hills after hearing the fictional newscast. Others said they grabbed their guns and headed for Grovers Mill to fight the invaders. Others just prayed.

Millions heard the broadcast; one survey gave the listenership at 6 million, another at 12 million. Of those who tuned in, according to the surveys, up to 1 million believed it was real, despite disclaimers before and after the program.

After 50 years, many people in Grovers Mill and surrounding West Windsor Township are tired of rehashing the tale every autumn.

Douglas Forrester, a state pension director and former West Windsor mayor heading up plans for the 50th anniversary celebration, said it’s a good time to think about why ″War of the Worlds″ caused such consternation.

″It was a worldwide event, and it raises intriguing questions about human psychology, civil defense, the power of broadcasting, media responsibility and what kind of relationship we might have with other beings from another world,″ Forrester said. ″There was a cascade of alarm that was just unstoppable.″

Freda Remmers, a Kean College media professor, said many believed the broadcast because the popular show Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy on a competing network ran a few minutes long and those who tuned in late to the Mercury Theatre missed the disclaimer.

With radio’s sophistication growing, listeners were becoming accustomed to hearing reports from Europe about the deepening threat of war, she noted.

The fear that someone might believe the broadcast was discussed beforehand, she noted, and the CBS network requested 38 script changes inserting factual errors to tip off the audience. For instance, the network asked the reference to the U.S. Weather Bureau be changed to the Meteorological Bureau.

Despite the fame that the Martian scare achieved, similar panics occurred in Chile in 1944 and in Ecuador in 1949 when the script was translated into Spanish and broadcast, with the invasion site moved to those nations, she said.

Forrester, 35, said he was reluctant to get involved in the anniversary celebration until his wife, Andrea, persuaded him it would be a good way to raise money to preserve the pond and farmland where the ″invasion″ took place.

″Celebrating a Martian landing sounds pretty weird, and West Windsor is supposed to be a sophisticated place,″ Forrester said. ″And every year for 50 years people have been asked to explain why they made fools of themselves that night.″

″War of the Worlds″ was the product of a talented group. Welles later gained his greatest fame as a film director with ″Citizen Kane.″ His partner in the Mercury Theatre was the actor John Houseman. The script was adapted from H.G. Wells’ novel by Howard Koch, who won an Oscar for the screenplay of ″Casablanca.″

Organizers of the anniversary celebration, which will run Thursday through Sunday, plan laser shows and fireworks that will recreate a Martian landing. Also scheduled are astronomy displays at a planetarium and panel discussions on space travel.

Thousands of children dressed as Martians and adults in military garb will re-enact the conflict, and some who heard the original broadcast will tell their stories.

In the Mercury Theatre broadcast, Welles told of massive Martians with metal feet, black eyes gleaming like snakes and dripping, V-shaped mouths.

″Ladies and gentlemen, this is the most terrifying thing I have ever witnessed,″ gasped an actor playing a reporter who was supposedly at Grovers Mill.

The aliens were heading toward New York City at express-train speed, straddling the Pulaski Skyway and ″wading the Hudson river like a man wading through a brook.″

When the monsters reached Manhattan, they rose ″like a line of new towers on the city’s west side.″ Fleeing citizens were ″dropping like rats″ into the East River, clogging bridges and jamming overloaded boats.

A few days later, New York Tribune columnist Dorothy Thompson said Welles and the Mercury Theatre deserved a medal.

″They have proved how easy it is to start a mass delusion,″ she wrote. ″Mr. Welles and his theater have made a greater contribution to an understanding of Hitlerism, Mussolinism, Stalinism, anti-Semitism and all the other terrorisms of our times than all the words about them that have been written by reasonable men.″

Forrester believes there are valuable lessons to be learned from the bizarre incident. ″I don’t believe our population is any more sophisticated today than it was 50 years ago, and that is very sad,″ he said.

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