The year is 1960 and Senator John Fitzgerald Kennedy is on the campaign trail with a charismatic senator from Texas, Lyndon Baines Johnson. The threat of nuclear war is ever present with families around the country building fall out shelters. The small city of Austin, Texas with a population of 186,545 takes the looming threat seriously as well. If a nuclear bomb were to fall on Austin, would residents be prepared?
Thankfully, KTBC-TV, owned by the LBJ family, had the foresight to inform Austinites about what to do if such a nightmare scenario were to take place. Their Project 7 documentary series focused on producing local films to educate citizens of Austin and the surrounding areas.
In 1960, KTBC-TV released a 20 minute documentary titled Target Austin that featured local actors and personalities. It was narrated by legendary Austinite Cactus Pryor of KLBJ fame, in a pitch perfect monotone voice. The film focuses on three central characters and follows their reactions as they hear a special broadcast on AM radio from the Austin Civil Defense Director.
“This is your Austin Civil Defense Director with an urgent message: Enemy missiles have been reported over Canada traveling in a southerly direction. An air raid warning has been declared in this area. This means that possibly within 20 minutes the Austin area may be hit with missiles. There will not be time to evacuate. REPEAT: There will not be time to evacuate.”
The documentary then follows the three central characters, each with different levels of preparedness for just such an occasion, as they react to the news. Meanwhile at nearby Bergstrom Air Force Base, pilots rush to their B-52’s and quickly take off to fly over the skies of Austin.
The threat ends up being very real, as halfway through the documentary a nuclear blast hits Edwards Plateau 25 miles west of Austin. It’s an impressive bit of special effects for a locally produced documentary that debuted over 55 years ago, but I suspect the actual nuclear blast was spliced from official government test videos.
Nevertheless, we cut back to a barren Austin, Texas as the entire city shuts down and residents are holed up in basements or fall out shelters. The look of a completely barren downtown Austin in black and white film with a spooky soundtrack has a sinister feeling to it.
The film prominently features a nuclear fall out shelter believed to be the same one that still exists in Zilker Park.
The Zilker Park Nuclear Fall Out Shelter
The Zilker shelter is located in the southwestern part of the park and is generally inaccessible today. The shelter was originally created as a prototype, so Austin families could see how one might fit into their own homes. Construction costs were said to be under $2,000 dollars in 1960, which translates to about $16,000 today.
The Zilker shelter was designed to house up to six people for a period of at least two weeks when equipped properly. Filtered intake and exhaust vents provided fresh air protection against radioactive fallout.
The Civil Defense Museum has a thorough history on the origins of the shelter, including numerous photos.
There is no clear answer why 1960’s Austin felt such a need to create this elaborate documentary on how to prepare against a nuclear attack. It is said that our central location and numerous military bases in the area have made us a prime candidate in the event of a multi-strike nuclear attack.
Back in 2012, Kim Jong Un infamously put Austin in the crosshairs of a potential nuclear attack along with Hawaii, Washington D.C. and Los Angeles. The threat set Twitter afire as memes poked fun at Kim Jong Un and his potential reasons for targeting Austin.
The original documentary resurfaced thanks to Beverly Robinson, the daughter of one of the actors in the film. The Texas Archive of the Moving Image has formally cataloged the film to preserve it as an important piece of Austin History.
The documentary in its entirety can be viewed below:
Special thanks to Conelrad, a website dedicated to Cold War culture, for originally reporting on the fascinating documentary.
@Crafty_Ed wants to know:
What are some of your favorite artifacts of Old Austin?