October 22, 2019


← Back to News overview

Orson Welles was having a problem as he and his team at the CBS Mercury Theater prepared their broadcast for Sunday, October 30 – they were locked in a ratings war with NBC’s more popular “Chase and Sanborn Hour” variety show on at the same time. NBC offered its listeners the witty ventriloquist Ed Bergen and his even wittier dummy Charlie McCarthy – even though a ventriloquist and dummy was basically a visual gag – and top singers like Nelson Eddy and Dorothy Lamour. In comparison, Mercury Theater’s dramas were gaining critics’ respect but not many listeners.

Then Welles hit on an idea for the next show – take the famous H.G. Wells novella “War of the Worlds,” in which Martians land in England and deal death and destruction by heat rays until microbes, for which the Martians are unprepared, destroy the alien invaders.

Welles, who had gained fame from directing New Deal Federal Writers’ Project plays, now had to figure how to make this 19th century English novel entertaining for American 20th century audiences. With his producer, John Houseman, and writer, Howard Koch, he found one: set the whole invasion in the United States and perform it as a series of news bulletins in the first half hour to make the invasion seem like a documentary, with the second half hour being a narration by Orson Welles with dialogue with supporting characters.

The showed aired on October 30. That evening, millions of Americans twisted their radio dials to hear a series of fake “bulletins” from the “Intercontinental Radio News” of explosive blasts seen on Mars, alternating with real music from the Mercury Orchestra impersonating fake bands in equally fake hotels, from the CBS Mercury studio. The bulletins included reporter “Carl Phillips” interviewing Princeton astronomer “Professor Richard Pierson” at his telescope and then both went to investigate a metal container that had landed at Grovers Mill, near the university. With help from sound-effects men and women at CBS, the “reporter” and “professor” found a metal container on the “Wilmuth Farm” slowly unscrewing its top.

At the precise time the “metal container” did so, millions of radio listeners switched from NBC’s Bergen and McCarthy to the Mercury Theater, not wanting to listen to Nelson Eddy, and heard the hysterical “Phillips,” played by actor Frank Readick hysterically describing octopus-like Martians emerging from the container and “Pierson,” played by Welles himself, trying to explain this. As they did, the “Martians” unleashed a “heat ray” and poison gas, “killing the people who had gathered to witness the spectacle.” This event alone panicked a great many listeners.

The next 15 minutes of the show compressed time, distance, and reality: in a matter of minutes, the New Jersey State National Guard arrived to surround the Martians, and were defeated; veteran character actor Kenneth Delmar, as the “Secretary of the Interior,” but with a voice that sounded like President Franklin D. Roosevelt, called on Americans not to panic. It didn’t help. Many people thought that Delmar, who also played the pompous “Senator Beauregard Claghorn” on the “Allen’s Alley” sketch on the contemporaneous “Fred Allen Show,” was FDR himself, which added to the panic.

Meanwhile, back in the studio, the Martians assembled vast fighting machines in central New Jersey, which stormed north, destroying railroads and power lines; Army artillery and Air Corps bombers attacked the Martians and were also crushed; and then the Martians approached Newark, which led to this piece of script, supposedly an anonymous radio operator:

“This is Newark, New Jersey…This is Newark, New Jersey…Warning! Poisonous black smoke pouring in from Jersey marshes. Reaches South Street. Gas masks useless. Urge population to move into open spaces…automobiles use Routes 7, 23, 24…avoid congested areas. Smoke now spreading over Raymond Boulevard…”

After disposing of Newark, the Martians headed off to New York, wrecked that city, ending the show’s first half. After station identification, the play resumed, with the show’s style switching to Orson Welles’ character’s narration, and how he walked from Princeton to New York over a span of days, passing Newark’s wreckage, which he described thus:

“Next day I came to a city vaguely familiar in its contours, yet its buildings strangely dwarfed and leveled off, as if a giant had sliced off its highest towers with a capricious sweep of his hand. I reached the outskirts. I found Newark, undemolished, but humbled by some whim of the advancing Martians.”

In his narration, Welles moved on to New York to find the Martians all lying dead in their machines in Central Park, defeated by microbes for which their immune system was unprepared. Welles closed the broadcast with an amusing admonition that the show was CBS’s version of jumping out of bush and saying “boo,” for Halloween.

Outside the CBS Mercury studios, a level of chaos was taking place across the nation: people calling up police stations to ask about Martian invasions…or Germans landing from Zeppelins…or poison gas attacks. Most of the calls came from people who had not actually heard the broadcast, but only been given a highly-colored account of it from friends or family. Newspapers gave highly-colored accounts of people running into churches to tell worshippers to go home and prepare for the end of the world, husbands coming home and finding their wives about to commit suicide, and people being admitted to hospitals in a state of shock, including Newark.

There, Newark Police Headquarters was swamped by thousands of calls, but not all from terror-stricken people – doctors and nurses volunteered to “aid the injured” and City officials called in to “make emergency” arrangements for the population. Outside, police patrol cars were stopped by panicky residents seeking information.

When the broadcast ended, a small army of reporters descended on the CBS studios get the real story, and Welles and his party fled out the back, stunned by what they had created. After a few hours of sleep, Welles faced the media and the music the next morning, and a photograph of him, with unshaven and sheepish face, appeared in national newspapers.

A 1940 study by a real Princeton professor, Hadley Cantril, calculated that 6 million people heard it, but only 1.7 million though it was real. But most of those who believed the hyperbole had done little more than phone friends and relatives – there had been no admissions for shock at Newark hospitals.

After the broadcast, people claiming injuries and damages filed lawsuits against CBS and Mercury, which did not come to trial, as there was no precedent for this situation. Some lawmakers called for tightened regulation of the airwaves. After the shock wore down, however, public opinion reversed itself, and CBS started receiving congratulatory letters.

There was some finger-pointing in the media, as newspaper columnists struggled to fill their daily holes. Former National Recovery Administrator General Hugh “Iron Pants” Johnson wrote on the power of radio to create mass delusion and how Hitler was using it to spread propaganda. Heywood Broun warned against the dangers of censoring media, and Dorothy Parker wrote about how incredible it was that the reasonably intelligent people of the United States could swallow the hysteria and absurdity of the radio show, which displayed how easy it was for demagogues like Stalin, Mussolini, and Hitler to take power. And Hitler himself mentioned the broadcast in a speech a week later, saying it showed “the corrupt condition and decadent state of affairs in democracy.”

But for the three creators of the show, Houseman, Welles, and Koch, glory lay ahead. Houseman continued to work as a producer, and then starred in movies in the 1970s and 1980s, becoming known as the acerbic Professor Kingsfield on “The Paper Chase.” Welles went on to produce, direct, and star in “Citizen Kane” in 1941. Howard Koch wrote another film classic, “Casablanca,” in 1942.

On March 2, 1962, space aliens menaced Newark again, this time on a CBS television screen, in a legendary episode of the science fiction anthology series “The Twilight Zone,” created by Rod Serling, who wrote the episode, basing it on a 1950 short story by Damon Knight, that appeared in “Galaxy Science Fiction” magazine, alongside works by such genre titans as Isaac Asimov. The original story would gain a retro Hugo Award – science fiction’s highest honor – for “Best Short Story of 1951.”

In the opening scenes of this 1962 half-hour show, stock footage from the movie “The Day the Earth Stood Still” – also about an alien invasion of Earth – was that of a flying saucer zooming over New York City. But the episode’s narrator and main character, veteran Canadian Lloyd Bochner, playing American government cryptographer Michael Chambers, told the audience that the incoming aliens landed “just outside Newark.”

Their saucers disgorged a bunch of nine-foot tall men with bald heads, all played by future James Bond villain and ally Richard Kiel, who delivered his lines as a monotonic voice-over. His voice-over told various United Nations diplomats that he represented the “Kanamits,” who had come to Earth to end hunger, energy shortages, and the arms race, bringing along with them a coded book that Bochner and his assistant, played by Susan Cummings, decrypted as entitled “To Serve Man.”

That proved that the Kanamits were good guys, and the Earthmen let them go to work turning deserts into farmland and deploying a force field to prevent war. This was displayed with stock footage of farmlands and decommissioned World War II-era warships. With that done, the Kanamits then offered Earthlings opportunities to come to their planet on their spaceships, to supposedly enjoy outstanding accommodations and a game that resembled baseball. All the humans had to do was first submit to a weigh-in on scale that looked pretty unsophisticated by the standards of a race of beings that could zoom around the galaxy.

The denouement of this episode has become pop culture history, re-used and satirized ever since – as Bochner boards his spaceship, Cummings bursts past the Kanamits, brandishing the codebook, to yell at him: “It’s a cookbook!” Too late – Bochner is hauled aboard and flung in a cell on the ship, to be fattened up for the Kanamits’ dinner.

As Bochner broods in his cell aboard the Kanamit ship to their dinner table, Rod Serling’s closing narration says, “The recollections of one Michael Chambers with appropriate flashbacks and soliloquy. Or more simply stated, the evolution of man. The cycle of going from dust to dessert. The metamorphosis from being the ruler of a planet to an ingredient in someone’s soup. It’s tonight’s bill of fare from ‘The Twilight Zone.’”

The episode remains a classic of the series. In 1997, TV Guide ranked it No. 11 on its “100 Greatest Episodes of All Time” list. In 2009, Time magazine listed it among the “Top 10 Twilight Zone episodes, and in 2013, TV Guide ranked the episode as the “Greatest Twist of All Time.”

Space aliens weren’t finished with Newark, yet, though. In 2002, legendary film director Steven Spielberg and movie star Tom Cruise began discussing a re-make of “War of the Worlds.” After doing two movies with benign aliens – “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “E.T.” – Spielberg was ready for a much darker story on this theme.

Spielberg’s major screenwriter, David Koepp, created a script whose main character was someone on the periphery of the major events of the alien invasion, trying to save his family. Another departure from the book and previous films based on it was that the aliens – no longer Martians – had come to Earth in prehistoric times, buried their fighting machines underground, gone home, and returned centuries later to activate them for the big invasion. The purpose of the conquest of Earth came from “To Serve Man,” to harvest 6 billion humans as food. Their actual origin point was never mentioned.

The film also had an anti-war message – despite the immense firepower of the US military being hurled against the alien invaders, they were brought down in the same way as in the original book – microbes and bacteria that the aliens could not withstand. In addition, Spielberg wanted it to be a “horror movie for kids,” as there was plenty of destruction and death, but very little blood and gore.

In addition, the filming style reflected the impact of 9/11 – people covered in dust and ash, hand-held-style video, no panoramic shots, to reflect the close-in shots made amid that day’s destruction.

The film was shot on a lavish budget of $132 million and more than 500 CGI effects, including a retired All Nippon Airways Boeing 747 that was torn apart on the Universal backlot to be a plane wrecked by the aliens. The detritus was left there for the Universal tour, right next to the legendary “Bates Motel” from the Alfred Hitchcock classic “Pyscho.”

Newark’s East Ward got its moment on camera in November 2004. Shot at the intersection of Ferry Street, Merchant Street, and Wilson Avenue, Tom Cruise and a vast crowd of extras – including Ironbound residents – watch in scripted fear and horror as the first alien tripod war machine comes bursting out of Wilson Avenue School, destroying it and the Grace Community Lutheran Church in the process, and storming west down Ferry Street toward Penn Station.

When Cruise prepares to flee the scene to save his children, actual local residents whip out their iPhones and take to Ferry Street to take photographs of the oncoming “machine” before fleeing themselves. Cruise himself runs down Van Buren Street, which is a nod to the 1953 “War of the Worlds” movie, where Ann Robinson – also in this film – played Sylvia Van Buren.

As the machine tears apart Ferry Street and its buildings, hurling debris everywhere, the camera pasts past a close-up of a municipal “No Littering” sign, which provides humor. It’s also one of Spielberg’s trademarks – the use of signs.

From there, the tripod heads for Bayonne to destroy that city’s bridge. Spielberg made it a point in the film to destroy secondary targets, not obvious landmarks.

“War of the Worlds” premiered on June 23, 2005, at New York’s Ziegfeld Theatre, and there, Cruise revealed his relationship with Katie Holmes. The film grossed about $US81 million worldwide, and gained a 75 percent “certified fresh” rating from Rotten Tomatoes. Critics praised it for focusing the narrative on the struggle of one character to survive the chaos.

So whether it was Martians, Kanamits, or aliens to be named later, Newark has faced them all, and survived the whole bunch.