Jersey Reflections: War of the Worlds

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Jersey Reflections


By Vince Farinaccio


A Columnist for the Grapevine Newspaper


How did Orson Welles’ Martians find such an unknown spot as Grovers Mill in the middle of the Garden State?
On October 30, 1938, the airwaves carried news reports of Martians landing on Earth and threatening the human race. Many listeners believed the broadcast, but the story belonged to science fiction writer H. G. Wells and his novel War of the Worlds while the radio coverage of the fictional attack belonged to Orson Welles, whose idea it was to tell the tale as if the events were happening in real time with reporters covering them in the field. No one from the Mercury Theater production ever left the building during the show. The same, however, can’t be said of residents in the northeastern United States.
What made the broadcast so believable was the news style of the story at a time when the world was on the brink of a second world war. The thought of an attack, by Martian, Nazi or anyone, would confirm the worst fears of American citizens at the time, and this was what critics used to attack Welles’ radio broadcast in the aftermath of its transmission. But timing wasn’t the only factor that lent itself to the credibility of a Martian invasion. The location of the landing was also an inspired choice.
It’s doubtful many people in 1938 would have recognized the name, Grovers Mill. It happens to be a hamlet in Central New Jersey, part of West Windsor Township, but it could almost be a fictional town in an American short story. It can be reached by Cranbury Road, but travel a short distance west and you’ll enter Princeton Junction. A brief jaunt east will land you in Cranbury.
The existence of Grovers Mill might be a well-kept secret of this territory of New Jersey. When I spoke to a group of workers in one of the chain stores in Princeton Junction earlier this year, just one employee was familiar with Grovers Mill and only from a sign on a building he had once passed. The others had never heard of the location or the War of the Worlds broadcast, yet Grovers Mill is a mere two-minute drive down Cranbury Road from here.
So how did the Martians find such an unknown spot in the middle of the Garden State? A map.
Well, it was actually the writer of the broadcast’s script, Howard Koch, who used a map to successfully lead his alien characters straight to this tiny farming community.  The writer had six days to render Wells’ novel into an hour-long radio drama in the form of news bulletins. According to his account, published as the 1970 book The Panic Broadcast, Koch was returning from a visit with his family “up the Hudson” in New York state and somehow found himself on Route 9 in New Jersey. He pulled into a gas station and was given a map of the state by the attendant.
“Back in New York, starting to work,” Koch writes. “I spread out the map, closed my eyes and put down the pencil point. It happened to fall on Grovers Mill. I liked the sound. It had an authentic ring. Also, it was near Princeton where I could logically bring in the observatory and the astronomer, Professor Pierson, who became a leading character in the drama.”
It makes for a good story, but unlike Koch’s appraisal of the town’s name, it doesn’t quite ring true. Koch needed an appropriate rural location to accommodate the alien landing. If his pencil point had fallen on Camden or Newark, the Martians would have been denied a suitable landing spot.
Forested areas weren’t a good idea either, but fields afforded a safe and believable opportunity. And the fact that Grovers Mill was small, relatively close to New York City and largely unknown gave it an advantage as a location. A pencil point may have dropped on the map, but it was most likely accompanied by some considerable thought and a dash of Welles’ input, as we’ll see later in the series.
Koch completed the script in time and the broadcast went on to make a name for itself and Welles in the annals of history. And while it is commemorated nationwide each Halloween, Grovers Mill is the one place where it remains recognized every day of the year. I
Next Week: Grovers Mill Then

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