Every Halloween I get into our pile of vinyl records at home, pick out my favorite interplanetary war story and put it on the turntable.
“We know now that in the early years of the 20th century, this world was being watched closely by intelligences greater than man’s, yet as mortal as his own,” Orson Welles gravely intones.
It is Oct. 30, 1938. Welles and his Mercury Theatre on the Air are putting on a radio play over the Columbia Broadcasting System that scads of terrified listeners across the country will believe is the real thing – an invasion from Mars. (Not my mom, who as a 10-year-old tuning in knew it was fake and enjoyed it.)
Yep, I’m talking about the live dramatization of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds.
Nowhere else can you hear artillery fire that sounds like a toilet flushing, an alien craft emitting a sound like someone unscrewing the lid on a jar, or – hang on for this one: “Allentown” mispronounced.
The set-up is cool beyond measure. You’re listening to music on your favorite station and an announcer cuts in with a special bulletin. A metal cylinder from outer space has plunged onto a farm in (mythical) Grover’s Mill, N.J., and lies half-buried in a pit. Noted astronomer Richard Pearson, played by Welles, gets there in half an hour from Princeton, 11 miles away. A creature emerges from the machine and uses a “heat ray” to turn dozens of onlookers to toast, including the breathless radio reporter giving his on-the-scene account. Pearson escapes.
The alien ship goes on to annihilate 7,000 troops, burning them to cinders or crushing them under its metal feet.
Here’s where we get back to Allentown.
A somber radio reporter in a studio says it’s clear that the “strange beings who landed in the Jersey farmland tonight are the vanguard of an invading army from the planet Mars.” They control “the middle section of New Jersey” and have cut the state in two. Communication lines are down from Pennsylvania to the Atlantic. “Railroad tracks are torn and service from New York to Philadelphia discontinued, except routing some of the trains through Allentown and Phoenixville. Highways to the north, south and west are clogged with frantic human traffic.”
Except the reporter doesn’t say “Allentown.” He says “Allen-tun.”
Cracks me up.
You know the rest of the story. The Martians pop up all over the country, destroying all in their path. Professor Pearson wanders the ravaged land. Ultimately, earth-borne bacteria kill off the invaders. Life returns.
While the Martians are running amok, a lone radio operator tries to make contact with a fellow human being: “Isn’t there anyone on the air? Isn’t there anyone on the air? Isn’t there anyone?”