Friday April 08, 2016
Why Did Martians Land in Grovers Mill, NJ?
A monument in Grovers Mill, NJ.
From Howard Koch, a New York playwright hired by Mercury Theater to write Orson Welles' radio plays in 1938, in his memoir, “As Time Goes By”:
For my third assignment a novella was handed to me—H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds—with instructions from Orson to dramatize it in the form of news bulletins and first-person narration. Reading the story, which was set in England and written in a different narrative style, I realized I could use very little but the author's idea of a Martian invasion and his description of their appearance and their machines. In short, I was being asked to write an almost entirely original play in six days. I called [producer John] Houseman, pleading to have the assignment change to another subject. He talked to Orson and called back. The answer was a firm “no.” It was Orson's favorite project.
On Monday, my one day off, I made a quick trip up the Hudson Valley to visit my family. On the way back it occurred to me I needed a map to establish the location of the first Martian arrivals. I drove into a gas station and, since I was on route 9W where it goes through part of New Jersey, the attendant gave me a map of that state.
Back in New York starting to work, 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 Prof. Pierrson, who became a leading character in the drama, played by Orson. Up to then hardly anyone had ever heard of this small hamlet surrounded by farmland; overnight the name of Grovers Mill was heard around the world.
There's a great description of Koch going to bed early on Sunday night, Oct. 30, 1938, waking up early, and, on his walk to the barbershop on 72nd street, hearing passersby talk of “invasion,” and “panic.” He assumed the worst: Some European country falling to Hitler's Germany. It was his barber who corrected him. How odd would that be? Your words causing mass hysteria?
Koch, gentlemanly and circumspect in his writing, keeps finding hysteria. “War of the Worlds” led to Hollywood, where he wrote, or helped write, “Casablanca,” “Sergeant York,” “The Letter,” and “Letter from an Unknown Woman,” among others. But he was also tapped to write “Mission to Moscow,” a whitewashing of the Soviet Union when they were our allies during World War II, and as a result he was fingered by the man who tapped him, Jack Warner, before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947. He was one of the original “Hollywood 19.” He was subsequently blacklisted and fled to Europe, where he and his wife continued to be hounded by the U.S. government.