Geek Road Trip: War of the Worlds museum

Geek Road Trip: NJ's War of the Worlds museum (and coffeehouse) for the alien invasion that never was

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Jul 17, 2018

80 years ago, Orson Welles broadcast an adaptation of H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds over the airwaves–terrifying listeners, altering the medium of radio forever, and providing an early glimpse of one of the most singular artistic careers of the 20th century.

Welles' broadcast posited the Martian invasion of Earth as beginning in a small community in New Jersey — namely, Grover's Mills, located 15 minutes southeast of Princeton and 20 minutes northeast of Trenton. This location was, apparently, chosen randomly by writer Howard Koch, but the broadcast has become a part of the local landscape over the ensuing decades. It's also had a more literal impact there: After hearing Welles' broadcast, one local took a couple of shots at a water tower, which he believed to be an alien vessel.

In a nearby shopping center, you'll find Grover's Mill Coffeehouse and Roastery, which has become a de facto museum dedicated to an alien invasion that never was. The walls abound with posters from numerous screen adaptations of Wells' novel — including Steven Spielberg's 2005 film and George Pal's 1953 take on the book. A large painting of the invasion adorns one wall, chalk drawings behind the counter feature Martians, and a sinister sculpture made from repurposed coffee gear looms high over the space, evoking the shape of landers from the red planet.

The coffee's also terrific.

21 years ago, Mickey DeFranco and Franc Gambatese, the coffeehouse's owners, moved to town. They sought to open a coffee shop that tapped into something unique, and soon found a piece of local history to embrace. "When we moved into town," Gambatese recalls, "people were still embarrassed about what happened in 1938. We thought, 'This is the coolest thing!'"

DeFranco recalls one watershed moment in the space's history. "It started with an email from this woman who was looking for directions," she says. The sender, it turns out, was Ann Robinson, who had starred in George Pal's 1953 adaptation of The War of the Worlds. Robinson visited the space and provided an abundance of memorabilia from the film.

"We have now become Grover's Mill's little museum," says DeFranco. "It all fell into place."

Geek Road Trip: Grover's Mill Coffeehouse, Welles letter

Credit: Tobias Carroll

One of the most notable items on display is a letter from none other than Orson Welles. DeFranco recalls how it arrived: in an envelope with the only return address being the phrase "From my grandmother's attic."

"This woman wrote him a letter, complaining and telling him how irresponsible he was and how he should be ashamed of himself," DeFranco says. Welles' response is a master class in stylized humility. "It was most regrettable to me that this program should have caused apprehension or discomfort to any of my radio audience," reads one section.

Welles' letter hangs alongside other mementos of the fateful broadcast, including an angry letter from Trenton's City Manager to the FCC, dated October 31, 1938, and the New York Post headline about the broadcast. There are also a host of photographs of Grover's Mill from the early 20th century and a handful of images of some of the area residents whose reactions to the broadcast became the stuff of local legends.

For Gambatese, this has brought aspects of his life full circle. When he was young, he read numerous adaptations of Wells' book; he also speaks fondly of Jeff Wayne's Musical Version of The War of the Worlds, which featured narration by Richard Burton and musical performances by members of Thin Lizzy and the Moody Blues.

Geek Road Trip: War of the Worlds museum statue

Credit: Tobias Carroll

As a child, Gambatese watched the 1975 TV movie The Night That Panicked America, and soon became fascinated by it — which led to, in college, him writing his senior thesis on Welles' broadcast and the reaction to it. "And here we are," he says.

While a host of adaptations are represented in the space, an abundance of archaic radio gear found around the room — as well as a lovingly displayed copy of Howard Koch's 1970 book The Panic Broadcast — hearkens back to the radio program that started it all. The space hosts an annual re-enactment of Welles' broadcast, along with a Welles-themed seance and performances by bands playing songs about monsters and aliens. With this year being their 80th anniversary of Welles' broadcast, the couple is in the midst of planning events to coincide with it.

"We would like to see it become the New Jersey version of Groundhog Day," Gambatese says. "Maybe we'll pull a little Martian from a cylinder down at the park."