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Friday, August 1, 2014


Rainy day at the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Diego's Balboa Park.  U.S.S. Isthmus facade was the entry
to the War of the Worlds Science Fiction spectacle.
WAR OF THE WORLDS IN 2000—By Thomas Shess--San Diego performances of “War of the Worlds,” one of the ballyhooed attractions at the 1915 Panama-California Exposition, were staged in what was easily the largest concession building in Balboa Park.  The four-story building housing the extravaganza featured an entry façade resembling a U.S. Navy warship.  It was located at the south entrance of the Isthmus, a 2,500-ft long entertainment strip. 

Publicity flyers of the day lauded “War of the Worlds,” as a magnificent Scenic Spectacle—the only one ever constructed depicting airships and aeroplanes in realistic combat, including the showing of Uncle Sam’s latest submersibles.”

War of the Worlds exhibit is shown in the upper right hand corner of the map, which was part of the Expo program.
Expo promoters put in fine print that the production wasn’t a motion picture, instead the “bombardment and burning of New York City” took place on what those same street hawkers called “the largest stage in all the world,“ including live performers, plus a live orchestra (for added drama no doubt) and a state-of-the-art revolving diorama.

“Conclusion of the performance shows the destruction of New York City in a fiery cauldron of smoke (maybe mirrors) and flame. The plot places the action in the year 2000 with foreign agents of the Orient and Africa Asia, including aerial fleets from Mars and other planets attacking the City.”  The latter is a bit eerie considering real events of September 11, 2001, 86 years later. 

One snippet from a newspaper covering the opening of the Exposition called the “War of the Worlds, the most complicated thing of the sort ever attempted, with such remarkable features as the control of the ships by wireless apparatus and the use of 11 miles of electric wire for control of other aspects of the production.

Spoiler Alert:  Plot of the show has to do with the dream of world domination by an adventurer named Rabinoff, who while marooned on an island with several companions, finds a great treasure and, over come with desire for it all, kills off his companions one by one and with the loot builds himself a great power.   Rabinoff, “to gain his ends, combines into one alliance several nations, which are not existent today” and the climax is a huge battle in New York Harbor.   As to who won the battle, history has shelved that tidbit and is not telling, however we do have memories of aeroplanes and rocket ships whirling around in the manmade heavens inside the monster sized “War of the Worlds” building.

Panama-California Exposition Digital Archive

Additional research for this article was provided by the San Diego History Center archives.

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