Saturday, April 13, 2013

FALLOUT SHELTER: A Peter Scott Peters Appreciation

Fallout Shelter-45-Label_Lo

Of all the songs ever written about Cold War panic (or lack thereof), Peter Scott Peters’ amazing 45 single Fallout Shelter (Lute 6020, 1961) may well be the coolest. The two-minute, thirty-three second opus begins with a driving jazz beat that leads the listener to a slightly menacing spoken word refrain: “I’m not scared, I’m prepared, I’ll be spared.” The hepcat singer then brags about his bachelor pad bomb shelter being fully equipped for the atomic duration:

I've got a fallout shelter, it's nine by nine
A Hi-Fi set and a jug of wine
Let the missiles fly from nation to nation
It's party time in my radiation station

Of course, what respectable “bomb bungalow” would be complete without a female companion to help re-populate the post-attack world? Peters has that covered: “My baby and me, cozy we will be, away from radioactivity.” The style of the song then abruptly shifts away from that of a weird spoken word jazz tune to a more conventional early 1960s pop rock ditty:

Twenty megatons is the size of the boom
And if they let it go, I'll feel no doom
Let the cats run about, helter-skelter
I'm gonna, live, live, live in my fallout shelter

This particular section of the song was used to amusing effect in the Ralph Meeker civil defense film Town of the Times (1963). In the scene, as Peters wails on about his shelter, carefree teenagers are shown doing the Twist (and ignoring the Bomb). This clip was deemed to be funny enough for inclusion in the 1982 documentary The Atomic Café.

Finally, how could we not love a song that ends like this?

So if you want to be full of confidence
Get survival jazz and civil defense
You'll live like a king in your fallout pad
'Till the all clear sounds on CONELRAD.
Dial six-four-o, twelve-four-o-CONELRAD

Fallout Shelter did not exactly shoot to the top of the Billboard charts upon its release in late 1961, but the music industry publication did take note of Peters’ unique interpretation of the Cold War tension of the day:

Fallout Shelter—Lute 6020-The label, which had a smash with “Alley-Oop,” has another off-beat side. The theme, admittedly is a sensitive one but the spoken lyric is cleverly written. Side has something and should be watched.

Peter Scott Peters_Billboard copy

The song also caught the attention of Los Angeles Times columnist, Jack Scott, who didn’t quite know what to make of the work (and admitted he hadn’t even listened to it). What is most notable about the column is that he informs his readers that the 45 was sent to him with a press release headlined “New Record Hit Promotes Civil Defense.”

Peter Scott Peters_PR Shot_Lo 
The Lute label’s PR flack (who may have been Peters himself [1]) was clearly reaching when he wrote of the song: “It can accomplish much in the public service field and please civil defense officials, if it catches on, because of the informative lyrics.” While the Los Angeles Times (and a couple of other papers who plugged the song) may have missed the clear satirical nature of Fallout Shelter, the British comedy duo of Mike and Bernie Winters must have been keenly aware of the song’s comic potential when they chose to record it in the United Kingdom. Their broadly hilarious 1961 cover on the Oriole label dispenses with any pretense of cool and amplifies the theme of jumpy paranoia (“I’m not scared, I’m petrified”).

Unfortunately, the artist who created this wonderful song passed away in 1994. In 2006 and several times thereafter, CONELRAD reached out to Mr. Peters’ widow, Susan Peters, in an effort to obtain more details on the motive behind the song. She declined our requests for an interview. Mr. Peters had no children and his only sibling, Adam, passed away in 2000. Undaunted, we decided to find out as much about Peter Scott Peters as we could through other sources. It took several years to research, but we are very pleased to be able to present his biography (including many new details about Fallout Shelter) below.

Peter Sikorski was born in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan Canada on July 12, 1930 to parents Bill and Anne. He attended the Bedford Road Collegiate Institute and, in the 1944-45 edition of the high school’s yearbook (The Lantern), he contributed a poem that previewed his burgeoning creative talent. “A Soldier’s Message” is about a mortally wounded infantryman who scrawls his last message to the world in the sand of a crater he has crawled into after being shot in the chest. In a cruel twist, though, the last words of the soldier—about how he had “answered the call” of duty and death—are wiped clean “the next morn at dawn – A shell hit the spot! His message was gone!” Compared to his classmates’ lighthearted doggerel, Sikorski’s sense of morbid irony certainly stands out on the page.

Peter Scott Peters_DJ Ad_Lo

In 1951 Peter Sikorski was reborn as Peter Scott, a nighttime disc jockey on CKOM in Saskatoon.[2] His show, Peter’s Platter Palace, featured amusing between-song patter and became quite popular. One of Scott’s fellow DJs at the station, Doug Alexander, explained his style and appeal to CONELRAD:

Peter was Saskatchewan’s first personality DJ. He was a good looking guy and his nighttime radio program had a big audience, especially female. At the same time, Peter was active in Little Theatre in Saskatoon and later with the drama department at the University of Saskatchewan, where was taking day classes. The new radio format called for DJs to be able to ‘ad-lib’ between records, whereas announcers in the old block format read prepared scripts. From his Little Theatre experience, he had learned the art of ad-libbing well, so he was really suited to the new format.

Alexander added that Scott’s opening theme for his show was Ray Anthony’s Harlem Nocturne and that his first line to his audience was always “Welcome to Peter’s Platter Palace, Alice.” His closing theme songs alternated between Ray Anthony’s Dream and Alvino Ray and the King Sisters’ Nighty Night.

After four years at CKOM Scott’s theatrical ambitions were quickly overtaking his desire to remain on the radio. He had studied at the Pasadena Playhouse in Southern California in 1955 and he was encouraged to stay and become a professional actor in America. Doug Alexander recalled for us that it was “sometime in 1957 that he announced he was leaving” the station [editor’s note: a published source places the departure in 1956]. “The staff had a big going away party and I can remember Peter singing ‘California, Here I Come.”

Scott Peters-1959 Players Entry

In Hollywood he changed his name yet again – this time to Scott Peters to avoid being confused with another performer in the Screen Actors Guild. Peters’ career as a movie actor included an impressive array of mostly small roles in Psychotronic films such as Invasion of the Saucer Men (1957); Attack of the Puppet People (1958); The Cape Canaveral Monsters (1960) and The Mad Man of Mandoras (footage from which was later incorporated into the infamous They’ve Saved Hitler’s Brain) (1962). He also played the U.S. Army sergeant who waves Ray Milland’s car through a checkpoint at the end of the classic Panic in Year Zero! (1962). One of Peters’ rare “A” picture assignments was portraying gangster John Dillinger in The FBI Story starring James Stewart. The actor had better luck in television. He appeared in many of the top rated programs of the 1960s and early 1970s including a regular role as Detective Valencia on Get Christie Love!

Peters-Hitlers Brain

Ironically, Peters’ entree to the recording industry occurred far from the bright lights of a movie or TV soundstage. Indeed, the actor met his musical mentor through the Jehovah’s Witnesses church. Bandleader Al Kavelin (1903-1982) founded Lute Records in 1960 and immediately had a major hit with Alley Oop by the Hollywood Argyles.

Al Kavelin Portrait copy

According to Kavelin’s son, Frank, the inspiration for Fallout Shelter was the then unavoidable topic of civil defense and shelters that had been heightened by the 1961 Berlin Crisis and President John F. Kennedy’s famous speech. Kavelin told CONELRAD in an interview that “Scott and my father became friends and came up with the idea together.” He added: “It was all tongue-in-cheek because Scott was a Jehovah’s Witness and believed that God would never allow a nuclear holocaust, but would intervene by establishing his kingdom on earth. He wasn’t out to raise awareness of survival based on the use of fallout shelters. However, he would not have rejected any publicity such a story would have generated. I believe his true motivation was the same as my father’s – to cash in on a current craze.”

According to Kavelin, Peters “wrote the clever monologue and lyrics, and improvised the vocal [musical] sections” of Fallout Shelter. Marshall Leib—a high school friend of Phil Spector—produced the song (Leib, who was also in the Teddy Bears with Spector, died in 2002). The music tracks were recorded at the same Hollywood studio where Alley Oop was cut.

Marshall Leib

At CONELRAD’s request, Kavelin went into greater detail about the song including who played on it:

“The music for Fallout Shelter was [inspired by] the basic rhythm tracks used by the Hollywood Argyles for Sho Know A Lot About Love, which was the B-side of Alley Oop. The musicians I’m sure of [who played on Fallout Shelter] are Gaynel Hodge on piano, Ronnie Silico on drums and Harper Cosby on bass. I’m not sure who played sax / flute. My father used Plas Johnson a lot so my guess would be Plas.”

CONELRAD contacted Gaynel Hodge at his home in Holland and provided him with an MP3 copy of Fallout Shelter. After listening to it he called us and said that he definitely remembered the unusual tune: “It was a very timely song and we had a good time at the session.” He also told us that he thought he could hear the famous female backing group the Blossoms in the background of the track.

CONELRAD was able to reach a surviving member of the group, Fanita James (formerly Barrett), in Los Angeles and we played the song for her over the phone. Ms. James told us that 1961 was one of the busiest years for session work for the group and that they frequently worked with Gaynel Hodge. When asked if she thought that the Blossoms sang back-up on Fallout Shelter, she said she was “pretty sure” they did and added “I can tell by the ahhs [in the song].” The other members of the group from this period according to James were Darlene Love (who is still very active in music) and Jean King (1938-1983). As for Plas Johnson’s involvement, CONELRAD contacted him via his website and he replied in an email that he could not recall anything about the song.

Peters’ recording career appears to be limited to Fallout Shelter and its less remarkable B-side Moon Flight (Astronaut Blues) which he co-wrote with Elvis Presley songwriter Bob Roberts. According to the BMI database he co-wrote with Red Simpson and Bill Woods one other song titled Big Bank Robbery that was recorded by Simpson. CONELRAD spoke with Simpson in 2009 and he said he had no recollection of ever having worked with Peters.

Long after fallout shelters became the stuff of nostalgia, Peters remained close friends with the Kavelin family. Frank Kavelin told us that he remembers Peters and his future wife, Susan, spending a lot time at the house and using the swimming pool. The family also attended the Peters’ wedding. Kavelin has fond memories of Peters as a friend: “Although I was much younger, he treated me like a peer. He was very funny. I remember riding in his car and would make a turn and he would blurt out ‘we’ll all be killed!’ I remember being allowed to stay up late to watch 77 Sunset Strip the night Scott made a guest appearance on the show.”

Peter Scott Peters spent the rest of his life engaged in a variety of different projects. He produced health instructional / documentary films - most notably a movie on mouth-to-mouth resuscitation entitled Save That Life (1970) that was widely used by the Red Cross and other entities. He also returned to radio and worked in the public relations field. He died at the age of 63 in Los Angeles on January 15, 1994. His obituary in the Saskatoon Sun quoted an earlier interview with the actor in which he lamented the state of the motion picture industry: “It’s a pity that an artist perfects a craft and then can’t apply it. I can’t compromise myself. My religious beliefs are strong and I can’t accept the moral trend that is happening in movies today.” When Mr. Peters made these remarks he probably could not have imagined that his pop song about a fallout shelter would eclipse his acting career and become his most enduring legacy.

Headline 
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

This article would not have been possible without the cooperation of Frank Kavelin, Doug Alexander and Bill Stovin. We are very grateful that these gentlemen decided to help us tell Peter Scott Peters’ story.

REFERENCES

Articles

Note: Many of the Canadian newspaper and magazine documents obtained by CONELRAD were provided by Bill Stovin. These documents were obtained from the Saskatoon Library’s biographical clip file on Peter Scott Peters. Unfortunately, the sources for many of the documents are not marked on the individual clips. The citations below are for every article used in our research for which we have source information.

“Special Merit Singles,” Billboard, p. 34, October 16, 1961.

“Songster Gets Into Act With ‘Fallout Shelter,” NANA wire service, European Stars and Stripes, p. 16, November 15, 1961.

Jack Smith, “In Ordeal, Will Genius Explode?” p. A1, November 22, 1961.

Buck Herzog Column, Milwaukee Sentinel, p. 15, January 5, 1962.

Ned Powers Column, Saskatoon Star-Phoenix, p. A11, January 3, 1984.

Ned Powers, “Actor Scott First Night DJ with CKOM Radio in 1951 (Obituary),” Saskatoon Sun, January 23, 1994.

“Saskatoon-born Actor Dies,” Saskatoon Star-Phoenix, January 20, 1994.

Book

The Lantern, yearbook of the Bedford Road Collegiate Institute. 1945. P. 20.

Interviews

Doug Alexander, interviewed by Bill Geerhart via email on February 24, 2009.

Red Simpson, telephone interview by Bill Geerhart on April 2, 2009.

Frank Kavelin, interviewed by Bill Geerhart via email on March 31, 2013; April 2, 2013; April 3, 2013; April 4, 2013; April 5, 2013 and April 6, 2013.

Gaynal Hodge, telephone interview by Bill Geerhart on April 5, 2013.

Fanita James (Barrett), telephone interview by Bill Geerhart on April 10, 2013.

Plas Johnson, interviewed by Bill Geerhart via email on April 10, 2013.

Other Resources

The BMI Repertoire database was accessed to confirm songwriting credit information for Peter Scott Peters. The ASCAP database was also accessed. All of Mr. Peters’ music credits are located in the BMI database.

The California Death Records database was accessed to obtain Peter Scott Peters’ exact date of birth and date of death as well as to confirm his original surname.

The Internet Movie Database (IMdb) was accessed to confirm Peter Scott Peters’ film and television credits.

APPENDIX: FALLOUT SHELTER LYRICS

Peter Scott Peters
Fallout Shelter (1961)
Lute Records (L-6020) 45
Written by Peter Scott Peters
Produced by Marshall Leib

I'm not scared
I'm prepared
I'll be spared
I've got a fallout shelter, it's 9 by 9
A Hi-Fi set and a jug of wine
Let the missiles fly from nation to nation
It's party time in my radiation station
A 14 day supply of multi-purpose food
Water, medicine, be sure to include
Build your bomb bungalow, you needn’t postpone
With no down payment and an FHA loan
Let the tests go on in the atmosphere
In my fallout shelter, I'll have no fear
My baby and me, cozy we will be
Away from radioactivity
Twenty megatons is the size of the boom
And if they let it go, I'll feel no doom
Let the cats run about, helter-skelter
I'm gonna, live, live, live in my fallout shelter
I'm not scared
I'm prepared
I'll be spared
Twenty megatons is the size of the boom
And if they let it go, I'll feel no doom
Let the cats run about, helter-skelter
I'm gonna live, live, live in my fallout shelter
So if you want to be full of confidence
Get survival jazz and civil defense
You'll live like a king in your fallout pad
'Till the all clear sounds on CONELRAD.
Dial six-four-o, twelve-four-o - CONELRAD


[1] According to Frank Kavelin the person handling the promotion for Fallout Shelter could have been his father, Lute Records founder Al Kavelin, and / or Peter Scott Peters. Kavelin stated that it was also possible his father hired someone to promote the record.

[2] Peters first DJ gig was at CKBI in 1948 followed by short stints at other stations around Canada. CKOM, however, was his breakthrough radio job according to our sources.

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