The Night Martians Came to New Jersey

updated 10/31/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 10/31/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

Fifty years ago this Sunday, on Oct. 30, 1938, 23-year-old Orson Welles was in a CBS studio in New York City, making last-minute changes in the Mercury Theatre radio show scheduled to air that evening at 8. A kinetic, variously talented prodigy who was the troupe's co-producer, director, and principal actor, Welles had ordered a script based on H.G. Wells's novella The War of the Worlds. An account of a Martian invasion of Earth, the hour-long drama would be presented in the form of news flashes interjected into a fictitious program of live dance music. Despite its clever format and sensational scenario, the show seemed slow, and Welles and his group felt uneasy.

During its few weeks on the air, the Mercury Theatre radio show's ratings had been poor, but this time Welles's doubts about holding his audience were unnecessary; the sci-fi fantasy was to spark a bizarre nationwide panic that would create a permanent respect for the power of broadcasting. It would catapult Welles, his partner, John Houseman, and writer Howard Koch into Hollywood's welcoming arms, and it would establish a lasting place in American memory for the little town of Grover's Mill, N.J., where Koch's "aliens" landed their spacecraft.

Half a century later, the memories of Welles's Halloween eve shocker remain vivid. On the golden anniversary of Welles's broadcast, a round of special events has been scheduled to mark the moment in history. This Sunday, Oct. 30, public radio stations throughout the U.S. will broadcast an ambitious remake starring Jason Robards and embellished with special sound effects by Randy Thorn, who won an Oscar for The Right Stuff. A six-hour audio anthology of Welles's Mercury Theatre masterpieces, Theatre of the Imagination, will be issued by the Santa Monica-based Voyager Company. And the people of Grover's Mill (pop. 1,000) will be staging a four-day shindig. Already, residents of the little community 50 miles south of New York City are selling bumper stickers proclaiming 'The Martians Are Coming Again'.

Bartenders are serving Martian punch (Midori, vodka and fruit juice, garnished with melon balls). And there will be other forms of well-planned frivolity, including a bike race, a dinner dance and a Martian-landing parade with a best-alien-costume contest. Still, notes the head of the Grover's Mill organizing committee, "It's a commemoration more than a celebration. It's hard to think of trying to celebrate a panic."

In one sense Orson Welles's radio program went completely according to plan. At precisely 8 p.m., a CBS announcer welcomed the audience of about a million to the Mercury Theatre production of War of the Worlds. A Latin dance band swung into action only to be interrupted by a series of chilling bulletins: Alarming atmospheric disturbances had been observed on Mars; "a huge, flaming object" believed to be a meteorite had fallen on a farm in Grover's Mill. A roving "reporter" described the aliens' emergence: "Ladies and gentlemen, this is the most terrifying thing I have ever witnessed.... Someone's crawling out of the hollow top.... There, I can see the thing's body. It's as large as a bear and it glistens like wet leather. But that face. It...it's indescribable. I can hardly force myself to keep looking at it."

Listeners who switched over from other programs sat by their radios stunned; without hearing the introduction, many took the urgent reports as God's truth. As the drama continued, they were told that hideous invaders had wiped out the New Jersey militia, the Army and the Air Force; that President Roosevelt had declared a national emergency; that New York City had been taken over by aliens as tall as skyscrapers. Though members of the audience, which rapidly swelled to 6 million, were assured four times by an announcer that they were listening to a work of fiction—and though Welles stated in an epilogue that "[This was] the Mercury Theatre's own radio version of dressing up in a sheet and saying 'Boo!' "—about a million people missed the message.

By all accounts, Welles was shocked by the panic that ensued. "He hadn't the faintest idea what the effect would be," says Houseman. CBS was inundated with calls; newspaper switchboards were jammed. Hysterical mobs took to the streets in New York and northern New Jersey. It was reported that only a husband's intervention saved a Pittsburgh woman who tried to poison herself rather than die at the hands of Martians. Welles himself later told the story—perhaps apocryphal—that the actor John Barrymore was drunk when he heard the broadcast and, convinced the world was coming to an end, ran into his backyard and threw open the door to the doghouse where his two Great Danes were kept. "Fend for yourselves!" he was said to have thundered.

Henry Sears, a carpenter whose parents owned an inn and tavern near Grover's Mill, remembers the scene as one of bitter confusion. "I was sitting upstairs over the bar doing my homework and listening to the radio," says Sears, then a teenager, now 63. "And all of a sudden come this break—a news flash—that the Martians had landed...at Grover's Mill. I listened again and kept hearing some more, then I unplugged the radio and took it down to the bar. There were about eight or so local customers, most of them farmers. I made them stop their checkers games, and I asked them to please listen to this. I was impressionable and believed what I heard, and so did everyone else.

"One man, Sam Dye, owned a bar. He said, 'Gawl darn, I'm going to get my shotgun, and we're going to get those Martians.' Everyone got their guns and came back. I had my .10-gauge shotgun, and we had an entourage of autos all heading toward Grover's Mill. We didn't much know what we were going to see, but we knew we were bound to see something. We got right up close to the lake, and everybody was milling around and getting excited. I can tell you, people were upset and aggravated, and some of them were disgusted. I think it was a mixed mood.

"I don't think I went to sleep till well after midnight, and that wasn't normal for any kid out there in the country. I just knew it was exciting. It's exciting still, when I think of it."

"After we finished the show," Houseman remembers, "someone told Orson all hell had broken loose. CBS sent dozens of house police into the studio. They snatched our scripts and hustled Orson and me into a back room and kept us there for half an hour. Then they unleashed the press on us. The press made the most of it—they made us believe, for a time, that we were all mass murderers."

Writer Koch, who had simply gone to sleep after listening to the broadcast in his Manhattan apartment, walked across 72nd Street the next morning without the vaguest notion that he had triggered a panic. "I heard people passing by talking and laughing and saying words like 'war' and 'invasion,' " he says. "I thought maybe Hitler had made a move. Then I saw the Daily News headline.

"It was a very odd moment in my life," says Koch, who later won a screenwriting Oscar for Casablanca. "I just stared at the paper in disbelief. How could a thing like this happen?"

Dr. Joel Cooper, chairman of the psychology department at Princeton and author of a textbook in which he analyzes the post-broadcast panic, believes that the public reaction had its own logic. Anxiety was rife in post-Depression America, he says. "On the surface, the broadcast was implausible and contradictory, but that didn't matter. In that one instance, people had an immediate explanation for all the unease and disquiet they had been feeling. And suddenly, they could do something. They could gather their families. They could run."

In the days after the broadcast, as public anger—and bad publicity—mounted, Welles lay low. "He was gone for three or four days," says CBS Chairman William Paley. "He was scared to death. It was a terrible thing for the American public to live through, and he didn't want any part of it—for the time being, anyway."

Soon, though, the anger dissipated. "We suddenly went from villains to heroes in just a matter of days," Koch remembers. An influential newspaper columnist, Dorothy Thompson, turned the tide by praising Welles and his crew. Ultimately, the broadcast would earn Welles a measure of immortality, as well as his own monument in Grover's Mill: On Oct. 29, a citizens' committee will unveil a bronze statue depicting the wunderkind at a microphone and a rapt family gathered around their radio. Inscribed 'One Million People Throughout the Country Believed that Martians Had Invaded the Earth', it will stand as a tribute to the man who gave America one of the most curious footnotes to its history.

The creative genius Welles displayed in "War of the Worlds" came as no surprise to his admirers. From the age of 2, the precocious boy from Kenosha, Wis., had been regarded as a phenomenon—a wildly gifted creature whose curiosity knew no bounds. Treated as an adult by his father, Richard, a prosperous inventor and promoter, and his mother, Beatrice, an accomplished pianist, Orson had grown up in a world populated by painters, musicians, actors and other artists. When he entered school at 10, he had polished off the works of Shakespeare, learned magic from Harry Houdini and distinguished himself as a budding cartoonist. At 16, he ended his formal education and made a successful stage debut in Dublin. By the time he was 21, he had proved himself as a New York theater impresario—starring in triumphant productions, including Dr. Faustus, which he staged with John Houseman. In the next year, he and Houseman launched the critically acclaimed Mercury Theatre, and Welles mesmerized radio audiences as Lamont Cranston, clouder of men's minds in the CBS radio thriller "The Shadow". At 23, he was well on his way to becoming a legend; to him, the task of convincing millions of Americans that the world was coming to an end must have seemed afterward little more than a parlor trick.

But Welles was a man whose flood of talent was difficult for even him to control. Impetuous and demanding, he was a perfectionist who refused to play by the rules. No project seemed too ambitious, no approach too irreverent. He had his own creative vision, and no one, not even the most imposing of Hollywood's power brokers, would be allowed to interfere. Welles was fated to do his best work before he was 26 years old; thereafter, he would earn a reputation as a director whose blue-sky projects were never completed.

A man of prodigious appetites, Welles thundered his way through life, savoring every gustatory and carnal pleasure that came his way. Sharp-witted, amusing, generous, he was a commanding figure who amassed a legion of friends, a trio of ex-wives and at least a few professional enemies. But there was a shadow over him, and it darkened as he grew older.

"I remember Orson telling me that anything he did after the Mercury Theatre, Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons put him in competition with the young director Orson Welles," says Harry Hamburg, a director who worked with him years later. "He said, 'Any other competition I could handle.' But that competition was odious."

Welles never defeated his young nemesis. By the time he died in 1985, much of America knew him not as the genius who had created Citizen Kane, but as the painfully obese, stentorian pitchman for a California jug wine. But harboring regrets wasn't Welles's style. "He was a totally positive person," says Hamburg. "He often said there was nothing in his life he would have changed. He did everything the way he wanted to do it."

After his electrifying pre-Halloween broadcast, America's newly minted hero had turned his attention to Five Kings, a pastiche of Shakespeare's chronicle plays. The Boston tryout was a tumultuous failure. "The play was a great dream of his that almost came to pass, but it turned into a nightmare," says Burgess Meredith, who was in the cast. "He took on too much."

A financial disaster, the play was the death knell of the Mercury Theatre. Offered a lucrative contract with RKO Pictures, Orson packed off for Hollywood in 1939. Wife Virginia, an actress he had married in 1934, refused to make the trip and decamped for Ireland, leaving the Welleses' infant daughter with a nanny in New York. Orson's adulterous penchant for ballerinas had left its mark on the marriage, and divorce would soon follow.

But Welles had Citizen Kane up his sleeve. Shot in just 10 frenetic weeks, it charted the corruption of a wealthy young idealist who becomes a voracious and cynical press lord. Reviewers recognized the film as a masterpiece, but the real-life Kane—tabloid baron William Randolph Hearst—was not amused, and none of his newspapers accepted advertising for the movie.

Hearst's pique was understandable; not only was Welles's press baron blinded by materialism, but his head had been turned by a blond dilettante modeled on Hearst's mistress, the actress Marion Davies. The plot line involved a reporter's search for the meaning of "rosebud," Kane's cryptic last word. Years later, says Hamburg, "Orson told me that he, Hearst, Davies and a disgruntled Hearst employee were the only four people on earth who knew what rosebud really meant." It referred, says Hamburg, to Hearst's boudoir name for one of Davies' most intimate secrets.

Welles also told Hamburg that the film's final scene, in which a sled bearing the name Rosebud is consumed in flames, was intended as a metaphor for Hearst burning in hell. "I asked Orson, 'Did you take joy in that?' " says Hamburg. "He said, 'You can't believe how much joy I took in that.' "

In 1941, Welles plunged into directing The Magnificent Ambersons, which he had adapted from Booth Tarkington's novel about the decline of a wealthy Midwestern family. Typically, he supervised every detail, and the work took its toll. "I went to see him when he was filming, and he was in a wheelchair," says Meredith. "He had broken some bones in a fall on the set, and he told me this marvelous story about how it happened. He was up on a high balcony about to come down a long, steep set of stairs for his scene, but because he was directing as well as acting, he was talking to the actors about their lines and to the cameraman about camera movements. Then he said, 'Lights, camera, go,' and started to come down the stairs. Only he lost his footing, rolled down the stairs and landed at the bottom. When he got there, he looked at the cameraman and said, 'Cut.' "

Hacked to collops by editors at RKO, The Magnificent Ambersons sent Welles's stock as a director on a downward spiral. By most accounts, a lack of discipline was his fatal flaw; after severing his stormy five-year professional relationship with John Houseman in 1940, he seems simply to have spun out of control.

"Orson was the only genius I ever remember working with," says Houseman. "He was not as impossible to work with as people made out. But he was difficult, and he paid the price for that over the years."

Despite his reputation for headstrong behavior, Welles remained in demand as an actor. He also excelled in his real-life role as a Don Juan. Engaged to actress Dolores Del Rio in 1942, he left her behind when he went to shoot a documentary in Brazil. She broke off their relationship when he refused to return her phone calls, and Orson "celebrated his freedom by relentless womanizing," according to biographer Barbara Learning. "He had not just one-night stands, but afternoon stands, before-dinner stands and after-dinner stands," his former secretary told Learning. "Quickies by the thousands!"

In the midst of this mating frenzy, Orson saw a picture of Rita Hayworth in LIFE and vowed to track her down. He did, and she became his wife in 1943. The marriage lasted just five years. After starring together in The Lady from Shanghai, he and Hayworth, who had given birth to their daughter, Rebecca, in 1944, parted. Conceding that he had been an inattentive and unfaithful husband, Orson later spoke of Hayworth as "one of the dearest, sweetest women who ever lived."

His marriage to the Italian actress Paola Mori, a handsome noblewoman whom he met in 1953, was longer-lived, if hardly monogamous. The two stayed married, but Orson took up with Oja Kodar, an actress, who was his last long-term mistress.

By the end of his life, the bon vivant had segued uneasily into the role of adipose elder statesman, but the part never suited him. On the night of Oct. 9, 1985, an uncharacteristically expansive Welles addressed the subject during a taping of The Merv Griffin Show. Discussing his 70th birthday, he said, 'I didn't celebrate it. I just had it. Nobody celebrates a birthday like that.... De Gaulle spoke the truth: 'Old age is a shipwreck.' " With that, Welles went home, where hours later he died at his desk.

Michelle Green, and Andrea Fine in Grover's Mill and Suzanne Adelson in Los Angeles

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