Sunday, June 26, 2011

A SHORT VISION: Ed Sullivan’s Atomic Show Stopper

Lo-AP Shock Headline

“I’m gonna tell you if you have youngsters in the living room tell them not to be alarmed at this ‘cause it’s a fantasy, the whole thing is animated…”

-- Ed Sullivan introducing the apocalyptic short film A SHORT VISION on the May 27, 1956 broadcast of The Ed Sullivan Show[1]

“Years later I met a man from Canada who had shoulder length dark hair, but in the center of his head was a small spot where his hair grew out a silvery white color. I asked him about it, and he told me that he was a medically documented case of a person whose hair had turned white from fright. As a child, he had seen A SHORT VISION while alone in a house, and he experienced extreme panic and terror for some time, and one result was that his hair began to grow out white from that one spot on his head.”

-- Excerpt from a remembrance written for CONELRAD by Michael Mode, baby boomer, who also saw the end of the world on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1956[2]

Sullivan-Fading In   Ed Sullivan is ominously overlapped by the end title of A SHORT VISION on May 27, 1956

INTRODUCTION: Sunday Night at the Apocalypse

From the vantage point of today’s media-saturated, 24/7, TV-in-every-room, on-demand world, the concept of a must-see, live, prime time television show starring an awkward newspaperman nicknamed “Old Stone Face” is hard to fathom.[3] Throw in the fact that the show was a bona fide institution for over two decades and the premise begins to sound like science fiction. The closest current analog to The Ed Sullivan Show in terms of popularity is FOX’s American Idol, but Idol producers would sell what is left of their souls to get Sullivan’s audience share. The proudly untelegenic host dominated Sunday nights in an era well before TV fractured into 500 channels. But today Ed Sullivan’s significance to broadcasting is practically unknown to Americans born after the baby boom generation.

Indeed, when the gossip columnist turned impresario is discussed at all these days, it is usually in reference to his undeniable impact on popular music: Sullivan hosted two of the biggest rock acts in history — ­­Elvis Presley and the Beatles  — for a series of legendary, career-making performances. But far more impressive is the fact that this unlikeliest of television stars presided over a staggering diversity of entertainment for an astounding 23 years and 1,087 hour-long shows.[4]

Sullivan’s popularity also succeeded, however inexplicably, in making the characters of Senor Wences and Topo Gigo household names. Sullivan or his persona is also vaguely known by America’s post-boomers because of the caricature that outlived the man: the hunched shoulders, the catch phrase (“A Rilly Big Shew”) and the numerous impressions that were done of him — many by comedians on his own show.[5]

The program was not all rock and roll and hand-puppets, however. Over the years, in addition to the usual rotation of pop musicians, jugglers, trained animals and comedians, Sullivan threw a few highbrow curveballs at his audience like poet Carl Sandburg, artist Salvador Dali, opera star Maria Callas and ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev among many others.[6]

On May 27, 1956 the host threw more than just a curveball: he broadcast an animated short film about the end of the world that still reverberates within the memories of an untold number of baby boomers.[7] The movie, A SHORT VISION, and its exhibition on The Ed Sullivan Show, came to the attention of CONELRAD a number of years ago when we worked with Laura Graff on her posted testimony about the civil defense dog tags that she wore as an elementary school student in the Fifties.[8] It was clear from speaking with Ms. Graff at the time that the film was one of those jolting childhood experiences that one never completely shakes. We were intrigued, but in classic CONELRAD fashion it took us a long time to follow up adequately.[9]

In the years since Ms. Graff shared her recollections with us, we have heard from other baby boomers about this “terrifying” and “strange” unnamed film — frequently the people who contact CONELRAD do not even know the movie’s title, just that they remember seeing it--or parts of it--on television (Ms. Graff didn’t know the title either until we told her). A SHORT VISION has been discussed on at least one blog with a similar air of semi-recovered memory mystery.[10]

The primary purpose of this article then is to present the rich history of a remarkable film so that it is no longer shrouded in a haze of uncertain recollection. Another goal we hope to achieve by posting this comprehensive feature is that more people will come forward with their unique memories of seeing A SHORT VISION back in 1956. A sidebar to this article presents the testimony of several baby boomers who remember watching the film on Sullivan. Given The Ed Sullivan Show’s immense viewership, there must be many more people out there.

In the course of our research for this feature, CONELRAD obtained a color copy of A SHORT VISION from the National Archives in College Park, Maryland (a 16mm print of the decidedly anti-war movie is stored, ironically enough, in the FEMA records group). This print, an American distribution copy with the credit “George K. Arthur Presents,” is not of the best quality, but it served our limited purposes. As we were preparing to post this article we were delighted to see that the British Film Institute had finally succumbed and posted their pristine color print on YouTube.[11]

It is easy to see how even a black and white broadcast version of A SHORT VISION could traumatize a generation of children who were accustomed to the benign animated fare of Eisenhower-era kiddie shows: it depicts a phantom object from the sky decimating all life below with a giant fireball. And to be fair to the baby boomers, the melting faces sequence would probably freak out today’s most sophisticated five-year-old, too.

Short Vision-Man Atomized-19

The Fifties kids were also at a psychological disadvantage because of the way Sullivan soft-pedaled his first parental advisory: “I’m gonna tell you if you have youngsters in the living room tell them not to be alarmed at this ‘cause it’s a fantasy, the whole thing is animated…”[12] As we will quote in full later in this article, the host would strengthen his warning considerably when he ran the film a second time two weeks later.

ORIGINS OF A SHORT VISION: The Artists and the Showman

Peter Foldes, the primary creative force behind the film that so unsettled Ed Sullivan’s young audience, was born in Budapest, Hungary in 1924. He moved to England shortly after World War II to study at the Slade School of Art and at the Courtland Institute where he met fellow student and future wife, Joan, also born in 1924.[13] In Britain, during these early years, Mr. Foldes worked with fellow Hungarian John Halas on his animated films.[14]

It should come as no surprise to anyone who has seen the wonderfully layered renderings that populate A SHORT VISION that Peter Foldes made his mark in the fine arts world before becoming more dedicated to film. This 1949 London Times review documents one of his early exhibits:

The abstract paintings of Mr. Peter Foldes at the Hanover Gallery, 32a, St. George’s Street, are highly decorative, not to say ornate, and many of them contain a profusion of small and attractively colored patterns, arranged with much taste and tact. Moreover, he continually varies the surface and quality of the paint, so that a single picture might serve as a collection of the painter’s samples, and at times he has indulged in such minute elaboration of some compartment of a picture that this asks to be separately inspected as if it were a detached ornament. Nevertheless, he makes a real effort to impose order on this multiplicity of decoration and usually succeeds in keeping clear the main emphasis and balance of the design.[15]

Including their 1956 masterpiece, A SHORT VISION, the Foldes team made four short films together as well as a few publicity (or advertising) films.[16] Based on this account from the 1973 book The Animated Film by Ralph Stephenson, their very first short film, ANIMATED GENESIS (1952), shares some thematic and artistic touches with A SHORT VISION:

It starts off with blue shapes, atoms, water rippling and reflecting, cell structures, branching growths, then a great spider (evil) chasing a moth (good). The spider enslaves tiny Egyptian human beings, the moth brings them scientific inventions (tractors, machines and so on) which the spider turns to destructive purposes. Finally the giant spider is blown up by his own bomb and the world becomes a modern utopia.[17]

AMERICAN GENESIS was funded by a grant by the British Film Institute and it went on to win the Prix pour la Couleour award at the Cannes Film Festival in 1952.[18] The best was yet to come.

In a rare interview, Joan Foldes described for CONELRAD the circumstances that led to A SHORT VISION being made:

The poem [theme / story] that runs through A SHORT VISION was Peter’s. He came up to me on the ship that was bringing us back from Australia in October, 1954. He asked me what I thought of it. I said we HAD to do it. He was the creative artist; otherwise it was the same as for AMERICAN GENESIS. I helped in setting up the stand, deciding on some of the figures, the timing of the animation lighting, and the easier part of the animation.[19]

Short Vision-Credit-2

A passage in the 1966 book The Living Screen by Roger Manvell reveals the additional detail that A SHORT VISION was produced in the Foldes’ kitchen.[20] A screen credit at the beginning of the British print indicates that the film was “completed with the support of the the British Film Institute’s Experimental Film Fund.”

Before the film made its spectacular splash on the American side of the pond, it was shown at the National Film Theatre in London and reviewed on January 26, 1956 in the London Times under the headline “Cartoon of the End of the World”:

A SHORT VISION, made by Joan and Peter Foldes, has little animation. It is rather a series of powerful, static drawings dissolving to show the death and consumption of all living things at the explosion that brings about the end of the world; it is a work of sombre imagination.

According to an article in the May 28, 1956 edition of the New York World-Telegram and Sun it was in England where Ed Sullivan first saw A SHORT VISION and where he “resolved to give it an American premiere.” The newspaper added that Sullivan’s motive for airing it was a “plea for peace” and quoted the host as saying “I figured with the H-bomb just being let go of last week it was apropos.” An Associated Press dispatch from May 29, 1956 reported that Sullivan viewed A SHORT VISION “10 days ago in England.”[21]

Besides his professed desire to aid world peace, Sullivan may have decided to run the film for a more realistic reason — he had a business relationship with its U.S. distributor, the colorful showman George K. Arthur. Indeed, a brief story in the May 29, 1956 edition of the trade paper the Hollywood Reporter noted that A SHORT VISION was “the sixth film that George K. Arthur has imported and sold to TV as well as theaters. In all he has realized close to $100,000 from the TV rights to the six films which have been shown on big network programs. His next short, Marcel Marceau’s ‘In the Park,’ will also be seen on Ed Sullivan’s show this fall, two weeks after its theatrical premiere.”[22]

It should be pointed out here that Sullivan had single-handedly pioneered the practice of promoting films on television, so it was not unusual for him to air long clips from movies on his show. On one broadcast he devoted 30 minutes of airtime to advertise GUYS AND DOLLS (1955).[23] In this context and with the background on Sullivan’s connection to Arthur, it becomes easier to understand how an avant-garde 6-minute animated film was allowed on the air. To be fair, though, the host’s evolving Cold War attitudes may have also played a part in his deciding to run what one media outlet labeled an “anti-war cartoon.” Sullivan began the the Fifties as a dependable Red-baiting, blacklist-enforcing anti-Communist (with a major detour in 1952 to attack Senator Joe McCarthy in his newspaper column), but by the end of the decade he had taken his show to Cuba to meet the not-yet-declared Communist Fidel Castro and to the Soviet Union where the host opened a humanizing window on Russian life. So it is not that big a stretch to believe that by 1956 Sullivan’s view of the superpower struggle was changing and that he would be willing to screen a pacifistic cautionary tale for his audience.[24]

Regardless of the true motivations to air A SHORT VISION, it was still a bracingly odd programming choice for the guardian of America’s living room. Based on Sullivan’s original on-air comments, the fact that it was animated seemed to make it acceptable in his mind to show. As evidenced by broadcasts that would air within a year after A SHORT VISION, it would seem that Sullivan and his team cared less about the disturbing content of a “cartoon” than they did the potential live action landmines of Elvis Presley’s hips and Jayne Mansfield’s bust.[25]

Short Vision-George K Arthur Presents 
George K. Arthur (aka George Brest) was a Sussex, England born Hollywood comedy star of the Twenties and Thirties who reinvented himself in the Fifties as a producer and distributor of short subject movies.[26] According to Joan Foldes, she and her husband met with him on several occasions in Paris to discuss their work.[27] Arthur’s 1957 oral history for Columbia University does not mention A SHORT VISION or the Foldes, but it does help explain how he made a success of his second show business career:

There’s no money, really, in shorts. Nobody seems to want them, and then they give such a small amount of money for them. So what happened, I lived at home for two years working out of my bedroom as an office—combination bedroom and office, and then eventually I got five or six [shorts] together, and somebody else came to me and said, “We’d like you to distribute a couple.” And that’s the way somehow we got off the ground.

Now, we’ve got forty of them. And last year [1956] we got an Oscar for THE BESPOKE OVERCOAT, which was a nice play. And of course now we’re an established business; we have all these shorts, and now they pay.[28]

A SHORT VISION’s American debut on the May 27, 1956 broadcast of The Ed Sullivan Show probably came off exactly as planned for Mr. Arthur, but it apparently caught Peter and Joan Foldes off-guard. “As far as I remember we were both very surprised when we heard about it,” Joan recalled for CONELRAD. “I imagine it [being shown on Sullivan] must have been through George…”[29]

The guests that night, according to a TV listing in the Los Angeles Examiner, were “Kate Smith; Marion Marlowe, Senor Wences, ventriloquist; comedian Dick Shawn; English singer David Whitfield; winners of the Harvest Moon dance contest and the Hasleves, acrobats.” There was no mention of any short subject film in the Examiner or any other newspaper listing that CONELRAD looked at.[30]

Through the generosity of Andrew Solt — whose company SOFA Entertainment, owns the rights to The Ed Sullivan Show archives — CONELRAD was able to view both the May 27, 1956 and June 10, 1956 clips that featured A SHORT VISION. It is fascinating to see how Sullivan handles the pre and post screening comments. As previously mentioned, the host was less than adamant in his parental caution on the initial broadcast. Here, verbatim, are his introductory remarks before showing what was about to become a very controversial film. Sullivan opens his comments with a timely reference to the first hydrogen bomb to be dropped from an American airplane — a feat that was trumpeted from the front pages of newspapers across the country earlier in the month of May 1956.[31]

Just last week you read about the H-bomb being dropped. Now two great English writers, two very imaginative writers — I’m gonna tell you if you have youngsters in the living room tell them not to be alarmed at this ‘cause it’s a fantasy, the whole thing is animated — but two English writers, Joan and Peter Foldes, wrote a thing which they called ‘A Short Vision’ in which they wondered what might happen to the animal population of the world if an H-bomb were dropped. It’s produced by George K. Arthur and I’d like you to see it. It is grim, but I think we can all stand it to realize that in war there is no winner.

After the film concludes, Sullivan is standing on the stage looking knowingly at his deadly silent audience. There is then some nervous laughter as he smiles and says “See” while nodding his head (as if to say, “I told you so”). And then, without missing a beat, the host shifts back to MC mode:

Ladies and gentlemen, here is this brilliant young English singer. We brought him over, two years ago, David Whitfield, because of his recording of ‘Cara Mia.’ Now he’s going to sing a song from MY FAIR LADY. David Whitfield, let’s have a very big hand for David.

Whitfield then comes out and starts singing “On the Street Where You Live.”[32]

It is important to note that Sullivan’s characterization of the Foldes’ film as concerning the effects of an “H-bomb” is not strictly accurate. The film’s biblically flavored allegorical narration avoids any modern references. But then again the point of the movie is hard to miss. There is, after all, a plane-like object that flies overhead and leaves a mushroom cloud-like fireball in its wake. Sullivan’s description of the story as being about the impact of an “H-bomb” on the “animal population” is narrower than what is actually depicted in the film (by the final frame of the movie, all life – animal, human and insect — is extinguished). Sullivan’s remark might lead some to think that he did not watch the entire film before airing it on his show.

Short Vision-Mushroom Cloud


The day after A SHORT VISION was shown on The Ed Sullivan Show to what was reported as a 37.2 in the ratings,[33] the New York World-Telegram and Sun ran on its second page the blaring headline “Shock Wave From A-Bomb Film Rocks Nation’s TV Audience.” And if the headline wasn’t enough, just below it was a gruesome three-panel graphic from the face melting sequence. The article was written by Carol Taylor in classic tabloid style and it is so entertaining (if not entirely accurate) that it is worth presenting here in its entirety. When reading the text pay attention to how Sullivan misrepresents to the reporter how he tried to protect the “youngsters.” The host was fortunate not to live in the era of TiVo and the Internet.

lo-NY Telegram-Headline

To some it was “seven minutes of terror.” To others it was “the best piece of anti-war propaganda ever shown.”

Such was the reaction of millions of viewers last night to a chilling cartoon film depicting the destruction of the world by atomic warfare. But almost all agreed that they sat shocked and spellbound as people were disintegrated before their eyes. It was shown on Ed Sullivan’s Toast of the Town on CBS television [editor’s note: Sullivan changed the name of his program from Toast of the Town to The Ed Sullivan Show in 1955].

Mr. Sullivan told this newspaper today that that calls are pouring in, both to his own office and the network, and, that in response to many requests, he will repeat the showing on his June 10 show.

He said several people on his show warned him that it was “too grim” for TV consumption before the film was run last night. But, he explained, he considered it a powerful plea for peace and “I figured with the H-bomb just being let go of last week it was apropos.”

The toastmaster said he saw the film in England where it received rave notices from such papers as the London Times and Manchester Guardian. He resolved to give it an American premiere. It was made by a young husband and wife team, Peter and Joan Foldes, who won first prize at the Cannes Film Festival for their first cartoon, “Animated Genesis,” a history of evolution.

The austerely drawn film is narrated in a calm British voice. The voice tells of a “Thing which, as it flies overhead, burns everything living into a skeleton and at last destroys itself.”

As the Thing comes swiftly, noiselessly, irresistibly, animals, who see it first, are so terrified (or compassionate) that they release their captives. The owl looks up and the rat runs free from its clutching claws. The deer darts free from the leopard’s grasp.

Then the bomb explodes in midair.

The people are asleep and faces of children and adults are shown in repose. In stages the faces change to skeletons. “Their leaders looked up and their wise men looked up, but it was too late.”

All who saw it, the people and the animals, were destroyed. “When it was over, there was nothing left but a small flame. The mountains, the fields, the city and the earth had all disappeared, and it was cold, except for the small flame.”

Spines tingle for a moment as the eerie flame glows—“and then I saw it, still flying around the flame. And now it looked like a moth and it, too, was destroyed, and the flame died.”

Mr. Sullivan said he deliberately showed the eerie cartoon just before sign-off “figuring that youngsters should have been asleep anyway,” but he warned that it “wasn’t for youngsters.” Many small fry, of course, took a peak anyway and the MC braced himself for a barrage of squawks from mothers about the gruesome “bedtime story.” As one father said, “Sullivan’s always billing ‘something for the kids.’ This was kind of rough.”

He said wires and phone calls take the turn either “Thanks for having the guts to run it” or “It was a terrifying thing to do.” The show’s rating was 37.2 against NBC’s 7.2.

The film will be distributed commercially here in the fall by George K. Arthur, producer and distributor, 654 Madison Ave. The critic of the London Times said of it “In five minutes I was more persuaded than in ten years since Hiroshima.”[34]

The next day, Tuesday, May 29th, an Associated Press story on the controversy ran in newspapers nationally. One newspaper headlined the A.P. article as “Ed Sullivan A-Film Shocks Viewers” and contained the lead: “Ed Sullivan slipped a chilling shocker in at the end of his television show Sunday night—a short cartoon showing the end of the world by atomic warfare.” The story goes on to report “heavy reaction,” pro and con, coming in at CBS.[35]

On May 30th, the editorial staff of the Post-Standard in Syracuse, New York published a piece entitled “Anti-War Document” that praised Sullivan for airing A SHORT VISION. It is such a compelling commentary that we are presenting it here in full:

The cartoon film on the Ed Sullivan television show which has caused so much comment is an effective method of bringing home the stark reality of atomic warfare.

This short fantasy made in England gains power through its very simplicity. Perhaps no other medium could convey the finality of such conflict.

It shows the reaction of humans, animals and birds, and the measured narration heightens the inevitability of destruction.

Arguments against showing of the film, which Sullivan plans to present again June 10, are outweighed by the necessity of portraying in some graphic form such as this the true meaning of another war.

It should be shown all over the world, particularly in Russia. It is the best argument for peace at any price that has been presented in a long time.

Shocked public reaction was natural, but the impact is more one of grim realization than terror, and one viewer put it precisely when he said it is the best piece of anti-war propaganda ever shown.[36]

Walter Ames of the Los Angeles Times wrote in his May 31st column that “Smiley [another one of Sullivan’s nicknames] told me that he received such an enormous amount of mail on his showing of the British short, ‘A Short Vision,’ that he’ll repeat it on his June 10 show…”[37]

In its “Week in Review” section dated June 11, 1956, Time magazine took note of the atomic hullabaloo: “Even in black and white, the Vision was so chilling that the studio audience sat in stunned silence when it was over. Wires and phone calls poured in, about evenly divided between praise and condemnation…”[38]

Curious to see if any of this viewer mail concerning A SHORT VISION survived, CONELRAD contacted CBS Audience Services Director Ray Faiola. Mr. Faiola informed us via e-mail on March 19, 2009 that “Viewer correspondence from this period has been long-destroyed.”[39] Undeterred we contacted an archivist for the Ed Sullivan Papers at the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research (part of the Wisconsin Historical Society) and learned that in the folder for the May 27, 1956 broadcast, there was only a draft of a script unrelated to the film — no letters or even newspaper clippings on the controversy.[40] Finally, we reached out to Sullivan biographer James Maguire who informed us that he was completely unaware of the “Short Vision” controversy. In fact, none of the Sullivan biographies reference A SHORT VISION.[41]

Unlike its stealth airing on the May 27, 1956 broadcast of the Sullivan Show, A SHORT VISION was heavily promoted in newspaper programming highlights and television listings for its June 10th reprise. The TV Guide listing, for example, put the Foldes film up front:

Lo-06-10-56 TV Guide Sullivan Listing

8:00 ED SULLIVAN—Variety

In answer to popular demand, Sullivan will show again the animated fantasy “A Short Vision,” which depicts abstractly the effects of the H-bomb. On the guest list tonight: singer Nat “King” Cole; dancer Carol Haney; comedian Jack Carter; ventriloquist Ricky Layne and his dummy Velvel; Edith Adams, who repeats her imitation of Marilyn Monroe; rock ‘n’ roll singer Joey Clay; the Half Brothers, jugglers. A filmed sequence starring Bob Hope is also featured.[42]

All of Sullivan’s biographers agree that he had a genius for publicity. He was, remember, a gossip columnist who was skilled at milking a good story.[43] This helps explain why Sullivan decided almost immediately to run the film again on his show – he wanted to capitalize on the press stories that he knew were coming. So it was that the gangly host appeared on his stage the night of June 10th proudly clutching a newspaper and a magazine as he launched into his reintroduction of A SHORT VISION (and this time he made the parental advisory as strong as possible):

Two weeks ago on this program I put on a film — an animated film — about the atom bomb. And the first tremendous reaction came from the World-Telegram, New York — three column story, ‘Shock Wave from A-Bomb Film Rocks nation’s TV Audience’ by Carol Taylor. And I notice in Time this week, they have a big story on it. So, tonight, in answer to requests from civil defense bodies[44] from all over the country, I’m going to show the film again, but for those of you who have youngsters in your living room, it is a harrowing experience for youngsters, so would you please take them out of the room and just have the older people in the family look at it. I think its something the country should know, should see, but the youngsters, that is the little ones, should not be looking at it. So now if they’re out of the room, here is this film, by two young Britons on the possible repercussions of an A-bomb. George, may I have it? [Film starts]

Sullivan Reads Clips

After the film concluded Sullivan offered a poignant personal story before shamelessly segueing to the Navy Blue Angels who were sitting in the studio audience that evening:

You know, a little boy last week, after he had seen it—by accident—he asked his dad, who is Marlo Lewis, he said, “Daddy, was God destroyed, too?” His father explained to him that God wasn’t destroyed and this was all fantasy and, of course, God never is destroyed and always looks out for little boys. But they’re some men out in the audience and I know they’re particularly interested in this short, “A Short Vision” by Joan and Peter Foldes, because they are the famed Blue Angels of the United States Navy. They’re the fliers who fly these precision formations—how they do it no one’s ever been able to figure out—but they’re celebrating their tenth anniversary and I’m going to ask them to stand up with their commanding officer, Richard L. ‘Zeke’ Cormier. The Navy Blue Angels, will you all stand up, please. [Audience applause].[45]

The little boy’s father referenced in Sullivan’s remarks is the original producer of the Ed Sullivan Show (from 1948 to 1960), Marlo Lewis who passed away in 1993.[46] And the little boy mentioned by Sullivan, CONELRAD discovered, is Marlo Lewis, Jr., now a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Mr. Lewis was kind enough to talk to us about his involvement in A SHORT VISION history after viewing a copy of the film that we provided. Lewis stated to us that he would have been 5 and ½ when these particular programs aired.

“We watched the Sullivan Show every Sunday night. It was like a ritual, so I almost certainly saw the film. I can’t swear that I never saw it. Some of it brought back certain images [in my memory]. I kind of remember the fly or the airplane, the thing that drops the bomb. And the animal faces. I had the feeling I had seen it before, a kind of familiarity.”

Short Vision-horse looks up

On the matter of whether he would have asked the question of his father attributed to him on the air by Sullivan, Lewis replied that it was around this time that he started posing “questions of power” to his parents (e.g. “Could ten angels beat up God?”), “so, it is very plausible that I asked [the question regarding God being “destroyed” in the film].” However, Lewis does not explicitly remember making the inquiry. Quite understandably, he has a much clearer memory of meeting Paul McCartney after seeing the Beatles rehearse before one of their historic Sullivan appearances in 1964.[47]

After the June 10, 1956 broadcast, the reaction to the encore of the film was confined to the trade papers. The following are excerpts from reviews of the show:

Sullivan reprised the cartoon, “A Short Vision,” a warning on atomic warfare. A bit grisly, he rightfully warned parents to get the kids out of the way.

-- Jose., Variety, June 13, 1956

Repeat of last week’s (by popular demand) English short “A Short Vision” scored a somber but effective note with crude semi-moving drawings of H-Bomb effect especially realistic as we watched victim’s faces slowly disintegrating into skeleton masks.

-- The Hollywood Reporter, June 12, 1956

After the hubbub of The Ed Sullivan Show airings dissipated, A SHORT VISION went on to a modest theatrical release in the United States where it was favorably reviewed. The New York Times called it “a beautiful and bloodcurdling little animated picture” and cautioned that it was “admirable but not for the meek.”[48]

The Monthly Film Bulletin in England published a lengthier review in its July 1956 issue:

The Vision depicted in this short cartoon is that of atomic destruction. A "Thing" suddenly appears in the sky, flying over countryside and cities, and destroys all living things. All that finally remains is a single flame with a moth fluttering around it; and, after a moment, the flame devours the moth...

Employing a simple animation technique, A SHORT VISION creates an imaginative and disturbing picture of atomic warfare and (understandably) caused something of a furore when shown on American television recently. The horror of the subject is presented quite unflinchingly, the film's attitude being summed up in some terrible close-ups of decomposing faces. These images are reinforced by a coldly forceful commentary and some slightly inappropriate "science fiction" music. Whether one responds to the style or not, the film clearly reveals the deeply felt convictions of its makers.[49]

Before its retirement to Cold War pop culture history and hard-to-find 16mm Encyclopedia Britannica prints,[50] A SHORT VISION won the prize for best experimental film at the 17th Venice Film Festival in September of 1956.[51] From this point forward, outside of a few mentions in film books and websites, it has mostly existed in the buried thoughts of American baby boomers. As of the posting of this article, A SHORT VISION did not have an entry on the Internet Movie Database or Wikipedia.[52]

Peter Foldes returned to his abstract painting career for the next decade in Paris while continuing some efforts in animation. “Un Garcon plein d’avenir” (A LAD WITH A FUTURE) won a special jury prize at the Sixth Annual Film Festival in Annecy, France in 1965. The London Times (which referred to it as “A Boy with a Future”) called it “a brilliantly drawn evocation of the aggressive instinct in man.” In 1964 he created the short film EATING LIKE A BIRD and in 1967 he produced a video short about the battle of the sexes, FASTER. In 1969 he made the film I, YOU, THEY.

With Rene Jodoin, head of the National Film Board of Canada’s French Animation Studio, Foldes became the first filmmaker to use computer animation, a system called “key frame animation.” Foldes’ METADATA in 1971 was the first “computer-animated short involving free-hand drawings.” HUNGER, which Foldes co-produced in 1974 with Jodoin, was a more sophisticated second effort in computer animation. It was an 11-minute short concerning poverty and became the first computer animated film to earn a Best Short Subject Oscar nomination. For a brief period around this time (1974), Foldes also drew a comic strip called “Lucy.” [53]

Foldes won the 1978 Cesar Award in France for the short animated movie, REVE, which was released in 1977, the year of his death.[54] The 1977 Cannes Film Festival, which occurred several months after Peter’s passing, held a special homage for his body of work in animation.[55]

Joan Foldes, who divorced from Peter at some point along the way, remarried and now lives in Paris where she writes poetry.[56] George K. Arthur, the man who helped get A SHORT VISION on The Ed Sullivan Show, died in 1985. James McKechnie, the actor who provided the calm British-accented narration of A SHORT VISION died in 1964. Matyas Seiber, the Budapest-born composer responsible for the haunting music heard in the film passed away in 1960.[57]

Ed Sullivan hosted a few TV specials and continued to write his “Little Old New York” column for the New York Daily News after his beloved show was cancelled by CBS in 1971. The television pioneer and icon died of esophageal cancer at the age of 73 on October 13, 1974 (a Sunday).[58]


Short Vision-Title

Since 1956 A SHORT VISION has been kept alive in the pages of film and animation books and, more recently, on a few websites. As mentioned before, the short film and its controversial network airings somehow managed to elude all of the otherwise thorough Sullivan biographers.

The movie has also lived on in the memories of countless numbers of kids who ignored Ed Sullivan’s warnings and watched the scary “cartoon” back in ‘56. In preparing this article CONELRAD sought out several of these SHORT VISION veterans for their stories. We have posted this first set of recollections on a separate page on the hunch that there will be more to come. Indeed, we hope that these initial remembrances encourage many more people to write in. We are particularly interested in hearing from the poor chap referred to in Michael Mode’s essay who sprouted white hair from fright.

The October 14, 1974 New York Times obituary for Ed Sullivan estimated that between 45 and 50 million people tuned in to his show each week. There is no way of knowing how many children watched A SHORT VISION, but based on the Times’ overall number and because the film was aired twice, we’re guessing that we’ll be posting remembrances for quite some time to come.


We are indebted first and foremost to Laura Graff for mentioning to us her childhood SHORT VISION memory. Without her recollection (and the ones that followed from other baby boomers), we probably would not have endeavored to do this article.

CONELRAD is extremely grateful to Andrew Solt and SOFA Entertainment for permitting Bill Geerhart to view the two SHORT VISION clips from The Ed Sullivan Show broadcasts. It was an invaluable aid to our research to be able to see how Sullivan presented the film. And thanks to Ed Sullivan Show producer Robert Precht for believing in the worthiness of our mission.

CONELRAD would also like to thank Joan Foldes for her willingness to comment on her film. We would love to conduct a lengthier interview with Ms. Foldes someday if she is willing. Thanks, too, to Mathieu Foldes for his help in coordinating our interview with his mother.

Thanks to Marlo Lewis, Jr., the son of original Sullivan Show producer Marlo Lewis, for taking the time to speak with us about his childhood memories regarding A SHORT VISION.

Finally, thanks to Ed Sullivan biographer James Maguire for responding to our inquiries on several points regarding the host’s life and career. Maguire’s book Impressario is a great resource to have in learning about the history of the Sullivan show.

Another excellent resource is A Really Big Show: A Visual History of the Ed Sullivan Show with text by John Leonard. A highlight of this book is the end section that provides a selected list of the ten thousand performers who appeared during the program’s 23-year history and the number of times they appeared. The Beatles made a total of 10 appearances including 7 that were taped.

Short Vision-Byron Color Correct


CONELRAD relied upon the following reference works and resources in researching this article.


George K. Arthur Presents
Written, Designed and Produced by
Joan and Peter Foldes
Music Composed by Matyas Seiber
Commentary Spoken by James McKechnie

Short Vision-Credit-1


Always on Sunday: Ed Sullivan: An Inside View
Michael David Harris
New York: Meredith Press
215 Pages

The Animated Film
Ralph Stephenson
London: Tantivy Press

Impresario: The Life and Times of Ed Sullivan
James Maguire
New York: Billboard Books
344 pages

The Living Screen: Background to the Film and Television
Roger Manvell
London: George G. Harrap & Co., Ltd.
192 Pages

Nuclear War Films
Edited by Jack G. Shaheen
Chapter 13: War in Short by William Meyer (pages 89-90)
Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois Press
193 Pages

Prime Time
Marlo Lewis & Mina Bess Lewis
Los Angeles: J.P. Tarcher, Inc.
256 Pages

A Really Big Show: A Visual History of the Ed Sullivan Show
John Leonard
New York: Viking Studio Books
255 pages

Sundays with Sullivan: How the Ed Sullivan Show Brought Elvis, the Beatles and Culture to America
Bernie Ilson
Lanham, MD: Taylor Trade Publishing
216 Pages

A Thousand Sundays: The Story of the Ed Sullivan Show
Jerry Bowles
New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons
229 Pages

Who’s Who in Animated Cartoons: an international guide to film & television's award-winning and legendary animators
Milwaukee, WI: Hal Leonard Corporation
Jeff Lenburg
381 Pages


“Abstract Paintings,” the London Times, February 5, 1949

“Anti-War Cartoon to Repeat on TV,” the Hollywood Reporter, May 29, 1956

“Anti-War Document,” the Post Standard (Syracuse, NY), May 30, 1956

“Arthur’s New Art: Former Actor Triumphs in Short Film Field,” the New York Times, January 19, 1958

“B52 Air Drop of H-Bomb Termed Success,” the Associated Press via the Albuquerque Tribune, May 21, 1958

“Cartoon of the End of the World,” London Times, January 27, 1956

“Ed Sullivan, 73, Dies in N.Y.; Columnist Among First TV Hosts,” Variety, October 16, 1974

“Ed Sullivan A-Film Shocks Viewers,” the Associated Press via the Independent (Long Beach, CA), May 29, 1956

“Ed Sullivan is Dead at 73; Charmed Millions on TV,” the New York Times, October 14, 1974

“Ed Sullivan, Pioneer TV Host and Columnist, Dies of Cancer,” the Los Angeles Times via Associated Press, October 14, 1974

The Ed Sullivan Show listing, the Los Angeles Examiner, May 27, 1956

The Ed Sullivan Show listing, the Los Angeles Examiner, June 10, 1956

The Ed Sullivan Show listing, TV Guide, week of June 9-15, 1956

“Ed Sullivan’s Death Marks End of TV Era,” the Los Angeles Times, October 15, 1974 by Cecil Smith

“Ed Sullivan’s Shocker Frightens TV Viewers,” the Associated Press via the Post Standard (Syracuse, NY), May 29, 1956

“Ed Sullivan Show Review,” the Hollywood Reporter, June 12, 1956

“Ed Sullivan Show Review,” Variety, June 13, 1956 by Jose.

“Experimental Films: Cartoon of the End of the World,” the London Times, January 27, 1956

“Film Maker Sponsor of 38 Prize Pictures,” the Los Angeles Times, March 17, 1956

“Football in Art: Competition Works on Show,” the London Times, October 21, 1953

“Greek ‘Find’ at Venice Film Festival,” the London Times, September 4, 1956

“Ideas on Film,” the Saturday Review, July 6, 1957

“Marlo Lewis is Dead; TV Producer Was 77,” the New York Times, June 10, 1993

“Narrative Painting of Today,” the London Times, June 14, 1963

“Newcomers in 16mm,” the New York Times, October 21, 1956 by Howard Thompson

“Of Local Origin,” the New York Times, June 30, 1956

“Prize Winners,” the Los Angeles Times, June 2, 1977 by Charles Champlin

“Radio, TV Highlights,” the Winnipeg (Canada) Free Press, June 9, 1956

“Shock Wave from A-Bomb Film Rocks Nation’s TV Audience,” the New York World-Telegram and Sun, May 28, 1956 (many thanks to Michael Ravnitzky securing this clip for us).

A Short Vision review, the Monthly Film Bulletin (published by the British Film Institute), Vol. 23, No. 270, July 1956

A Short Vision theatrical release advertisement, the North Adams (Massachusetts) Transcript, August 30, 1956

A Short Vision theatrical release advertisement, the Berkshire (Massachusetts) Eagle, September 1, 1956

“A Short Vision to be Shown Over Channel 13 Again Today,” the Sunday News and Tribune (Jefferson City, Missouri), June 10, 1956

“Sunday TV Picks,” the Nonpareil (Council Bluffs Iowa), May 27, 1956.

“Television Highlights,” the Winnipeg (Canada) Free Press, June 23, 1956

Television listing for The Ed Sullivan Show, the Los Angeles Examiner, May 27, 1956.

“Television Programs,” New York Times, May 27, 1956

“Thousands Pay Final Tribute to Ed Sullivan,” the Los Angeles Times via United Press International, October 17, 1974

“Trends in Animated Films Today,” the London Times, February 11, 1960

“The Week in Review,” Time magazine, June 11, 1956

“Today’s Best On TV,” Mansfield, Ohio News-Journal, May 27, 1956

TV Log, Oakland Tribune, May 27, 1956

“Wide Range in Mood and Style at Festival of Short Films,” the London Times, June 29, 1965

Walter Ames column, Los Angeles Times, May 27, 1956

Walter Ames column, the Los Angeles Times, May 31, 1956


Interview with George K. Arthur, Fall, 1957
The Oral History Collection of Columbia University


The Ed Sullivan Show: A SHORT VISION clips (May 27, 1956 and June, 10, 1956), courtesy of SOFA Entertainment (Black and White).

A Short Vision (16mm American distribution copy - Color)
National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Maryland
Record Group 311: Records of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, 1956-2005
311.80 9

A Short Vision (British Film Institute copy - Color)
Posted on YouTube on May 19, 2009 by BFI Films
(See Online Resources)

Note: The Library of Congress’s Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound (MBRS) Division maintains “master material” of what they describe in their Collection Overview as “all 1,030 hours” of The Ed Sullivan Show programs. This number would seem to fall 57 hours short of the usually cited 1,087 hours that The Ed Sullivan Show was on the air. Whatever the explanation for the discrepancy in hours, the odds are that the MBRS has both the May 26, 1956 and June 10, 1956 broadcasts featuring A SHORT VISION. Therefore, because these two shows are not commercially available, members of the public interested in seeing A SHORT VISION in the manner in which it was presented by Ed Sullivan would need to get in touch with the Library of Congress to schedule a viewing.


A Short Vision: Complete Color Version of Film on YouTube

A Short Vision: BFI ScreenOnline entry

A Short Vision: Big Cartoon Database entry

A Short Vision: Animation Magazine “Question of the Week” Message Board Discussion

A Short Vision: Encyclopedia of Fantastic Film and Television entry

A Short Vision: Tate Britain Screening entry

Peter Foldes: Artnet entry

Peter Foldes: Internet Movie Database entry

Peter Foldes: Cannes Film Festival entry

Joan Foldes: Cannes Film Festival entry

James McKetchnie Internet Movie Database entry

Matyas Seiber Internet Movie Database entry

Wisconsin Historical Society / Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research Online Exhibit on The Ed Sullivan Show

Wisconsin Historical Society / Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research Finding Aid for the Ed Sullivan Papers

[1] CONELRAD was able to the view the relevant clip from the May 27, 1956 broadcast of The Ed Sullivan Show thanks to the generosity of Andrew Solt and SOFA Entertainment.

[2] See Michael Mode, “Sense of Panic,” March 22, 2009,, “A Short Vision Legacy Project” sidebar.

[3] James Maguire, Impresario: The Life and Times of Ed Sullivan (New York: Billboard, 2006), p. 18 for “Old Stoneface” nickname.

[4] Ibid. p. 297. Note the number of Ed Sullivan Show seasons (23) and programs (1,087) as cited in Maguire’s biography is also cited in John Leonard, A Really Big Show (New York: Viking Studio Books, 1992), introduction section.

[5] Leonard, A Really Big Show, p. 60; Maguire, Impresario, p. 164-165. There were many entertainers over the years that performed Ed Sullivan impressions on Sullivan’s own show including Frank Gorshin, Jack Carter, John Byner, Rich Little, but Will Jordan was the first and he made a career out of it – playing Sullivan in five feature motion pictures and one television movie. Per Maguire, Jordan developed his Sullivan act in nightclubs and coined the catch phrase “really big show” pronounced “rilly big shew.”

[6] Leonard, A Really Big Show, pp. 252-255

[7] Ed Sullivan Show television listing, Los Angeles Examiner, May 27, 1956. CONELRAD’s evidence that A SHORT VISION still resonates with baby boomers is purely anecdotal and based on the small number of people we have spoken with in preparing this article and the small number of people who have contacted us over the years with regard to the film.

[8] Laura Kunstler Graff, “Sirens, Dog Tags and P.S. 11: A Brief Cold War Remembrance,”, July 21, 2003; in this remembrance Graff refers to the unsettling experience of seeing A SHORT VISION (by description, not by title).

[9] CONELRAD’s Bill Geerhart first learned of the existence of A SHORT VISION while speaking with Ms. Graff in July of 2003. Geerhart was able to determine the name of the film and confirm its broadcast on The Ed Sullivan Show by looking it up on an Internet episode guide and confirming its broadcast through contemporaneous newspaper television listings.

[10] “Question of the Week,” Animation Magazine Question of the Week, October 31, 2007.

[11] The copy of A SHORT VISION used for the purposes of researching this article was obtained from the National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Maryland, Record Group 311: Records of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, 1956-2005: 311.80 9. Prior to May 19, 2009, the BFI restricted viewing of A SHORT VISION to persons in the UK with library accounts. CONELRAD salutes the BFI for finally posting this great film on YouTube for all to see!

[12] CONELRAD’s Bill Geerhart was able to view and transcribe Ed Sullivan’s remarks from the May 27, 1956 broadcast through the generosity of Andrew Solt and his company, SOFA Entertainment.

[13] Peter Foldes’ lead creative role in the creation of A SHORT VISION was confirmed through an e-mail interview with his former wife and filmmaking partner, Joan Foldes: E-mail to Bill Geerhart from Joan Foldes, April 28, 2009. The details regarding Foldes birthplace, birth year and education were derived from: Jeff Lenburg, Who’s Who in Animated Cartoon: an international guide to film & television’s award winning and legendary animators (Milwaukee: Hal Leonard Corporation, 2006). Detail of how Peter and Joan Foldes met is from the Tate Britain SHORT VISION screening entry.

[14] Michael Brooke, A SHORT VISION, BFI ScreenOnline entry. Brooke also notes that A SHORT VISION’s composer, Matyas Seiber, worked with John Halas.

[15] “Abstract Paintings,” the London Times, February 5, 1949.

[16] E-mail to Bill Geerhart from Joan Foldes, April 28, 2009.

[17] Ralph Stephenson, The Animated Film (London: Tantivy Press, 1973), p. 109.

[18] Award is cited on the official Cannes Film Festival website under the entries for both Joan and Peter Foldes.

[19] E-mail to Bill Geerhart from Joan Foldes, April 28, 2009.

[20] Roger Manvell, The Living Screen (London: Harrap & Co., Ltd., 1961)

[21] Carol Young, “Shock Wave from A-Bomb Film Rocks Nation’s TV Audience,” New York World-Telegram and Sun (p. 2), May 27, 1956. Detail of when and where Sullivan first saw A SHORT VISION is from Associated Press, “Ed Sullivan’s Shocker Frightens TV Viewers,” the Post-Standard (Syracuse, NY), May 29, 1956.

[22] “Anti-War Cartoon to Repeat on TV,” Hollywood Reporter, May 29, 1956.

[23] Leonard, A Really Big Show, p. 230.

[24] For Sullivan’s evolving Fifties Cold War attitudes see Maguire, Impresario, page 223. For detail on Sullivan’s criticism of Senator Joseph McCarthy for “character assassination,” see Maguire, p. 145. For detail on Sullivan’s Castro interview see Maguire, pp. 215-220. It should be noted that despite Sullivan’s easing of Cold War rhetoric, he apparently still held a grudge against Soviet bears. Per Leonard, A Really Big Show, p. 120, there was an incident on Sullivan’s show in which trained Russian bears performed a bicycling act as planned, but then “went after the audience.” Leonard quotes the host as screaming “Get those goddamned Communist killers out of my theater!”

[25] The cameras were famously focused above Presley’s hips when he performed “Hound Dog” on September 9, 1956: Maguire, Impresario, p. 195; Leonard’s A Really Big Show, p. 39, provides the following accompanying photo text regarding Ms. Mansfield nearly animated appearance: “In the hopes of not shocking the audience at home, frightened producers and stagehands tried to subdue anatomical wonder Jayne Mansfield… Jayne and Ed came up with the idea that she would play the violin.”

[26] “Arthur’s New Art: Former Actor Triumphs in the Short Film Field,” New York Times, January 19, 1958; “Film Maker Sponsor of 38 Prize Pictures,” Los Angeles Times, March 17, 1958.

[27] E-mail to Bill Geerhart from Joan Foldes, April 28, 2009.

[28] George K. Arthur, Columbia University Oral History, pp. 20-21.

[29] E-mail to Bill Geerhart from Joan Foldes, April 28, 2009.

[30] Television listing for The Ed Sullivan Show, the Los Angeles Examiner, May 27, 1956. Other listings that CONELRAD looked at were: “Television Programs,” New York Times, May 27, 1956; Walter Ames, TV column, Los Angeles Times, May 27, 1956; “Today’s Best On TV,” Mansfield, Ohio News-Journal, May 27, 1956; TV Log, Oakland Tribune, May 27, 1956; “Sunday TV Picks,” the Nonpareil (Council Bluffs Iowa), May 27, 1956. All of these listings mentioned some configuration of Sullivan’s guests for that evening, but none mentioned a film.

[31] Associated Press, “B52 Air Drop of H-Bomb Termed Success,” the Albuquerque Tribune, May 21, 1958.

[32] CONELRAD was able to the view the relevant clips from the May 27, 1956 and June 10, 1956 broadcasts of The Ed Sullivan Show thanks to the generosity of Andrew Solt and SOFA Entertainment.

[33] For ratings see Young, “Shock Wave…” and “Anti-War Cartoon to Repeat on TV,” Hollywood Reporter, May 29, 1956. Both articles note that NBC’s rating in the competing timeslot was 7.2.

[34] Young, “Shock Wave…” Young’s quote from the London Times does not appear to be accurate. The London Times has its entire archive online and CONELRAD could find no such quote. The Times did publish a brief review of A SHORT VISION on January 27, 1956. That review is presented verbatim in this article.

[35] Associated Press, “Ed Sullivan A-Film Shocks Viewers,” the Independent (Long Beach, CA), May 29, 1956.

[36] “Anti-War Document (editorial),” the Post-Standard (Syracuse, NY), May 30, 1956.

[37] Walter Ames (column), the Los Angeles Times, May 31, 1956.

[38] Week in Review, Time magazine, June 11, 1956.

[39] E-mail to Bill Geerhart from CBS Audience Services Director Ray Faiola, March 19, 2009.

[40] CONELRAD’s Bill Geerhart confirmed the absence of A SHORT VISION-related material in the Ed Sullivan Papers collection in a telephone conversation with an archivist from the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research at the Wisconsin Historical Society on March 18, 2009

[41] E-mail to Bill Geerhart from James Maguire, March 10, 2009. For a list of all of the biographies on Ed Sullivan see the bibliography. None mention A SHORT VISION.

[42] The Ed Sullivan Show listing, TV Guide, week of June 9-15, 1956. Other sources that mentioned A SHORT VISION’s reprise: Los Angeles Examiner TV listing, June 10, 1956; Walter Ames TV Column, May 31, 1956.

[43] Leonard, A Really Big Show, p. 301. Sullivan’s longest running gossip column, “Little Old New York,” appeared for decades (encompassing and surpassing the host’s television years) in the New York Daily News. Per Maguire, Impresario, p. 301, Sullivan’s last “Little Old New York” column was published the day after his death.

[44] Sullivan’s remark about “requests from civil defense bodies” may help explain how a print of the film wound up at NARA in the FEMA records group (see bibliography). However, per the company that CONELRAD hired to perform the digital transfer from NARA’s copy, there were no paper documents that accompanied the film. CONELRAD has a pending request with NARA to see if there are any documents in their text records related to A SHORT VISION.

[45] CONELRAD was able to the view the relevant clip from the June 10, 1956 broadcast of The Ed Sullivan Show thanks to the generosity of Andrew Solt and SOFA Entertainment.

[46] “Marlo Lewis is Dead; TV Producer Was 77,” the New York Times, June 10, 1993.

[47] Telephone interview with Marlo Lewis, Jr. conducted by Bill Geerhart, March 27, 2009.

[48] Evidence of A SHORT VISION’s theatrical release can be found in newspaper theater advertisements as published in the North Adams (Massachusetts) Transcript, August 30, 1956 and the Berkshire Massachusetts) Eagle, September 1, 1956. The review quote is from Howard Thompson, “Newcomers in 16mm,” the New York Times, October 21, 1956. Also: “Of Local Origin,” New York Times, June 30, 1956 mentions A SHORT VISION’s distribution by Brandon Films, Inc. The Saturday Review (“Ideas on Film,” July 6, 1957) published a capsule review calling A SHORT VISION “a sobering film in animation.” This capsule review also notes that A SHORT VISION was among the “top” 23 films that played at the Golden Reel Film Festival in New York City in June of 1957.

[49] “A Short Vision,” review, The Monthly Film Bulletin (published by the British Film Institute), volume 23, no. 270, July 1956, p 95. It is interesting to note that the reviewer does not disclose the BFI’s involvement in the production of the film. The British print of the film which can now be seen on YouTube includes the following credit: “completed with the support of the British Film Institute’s Experimental Film Fund.”

[50] The UCLA Film and Television Archive has an Encyclopedia Britannica print of A SHORT VISION. The copy obtained by CONELRAD from the National Archives has no company listed, just the credit “George K. Arthur Presents…”

[51] A SHORT VISION’s September 1956 Venice Film Festival prize for Premio per il miglior sperimentale (prize for best experimental film) was confirmed via e-mail on March 12, 2009 by Michele Mangione, ASAC Media Library Curator for La Niennale di Venezia.

[52] A May 24, 2009 search for A SHORT VISION on IMdB and Wikipedia found no entry for the film.

[53] Peter Foldes’ post-A SHORT VISION biographical material was derived, in part, from Lenberg, Who’s Who in Animated Cartoon, pp. 91-92. Lenburg cites A LAD AND HIS FUTURE as being Foldes first French film in 1956, but based on the London Times article “Wide Range in Mood and Style at Festival of Short Films,” June 29, 1965 and the IMdB entry for this film, its year of release was 1965, not 1956. Per IMdB’s entry for the 1975 Academy Awards, HUNGER lost to CLOSED ON MONDAYS (1974) by Will Vinton and Bob Gardiner. The London Times reviewed one of Peter Foldes’ Sixties art exhibits in “Narrative Painting of Today,” June 14, 1963. The unnamed reviewer said, in part, that Foldes work “gives a personal version of the way in which the narrative element may be reintroduced into pictorial art, not by returning to nineteenth-century methods but by pooling ideas and devices of more recent times.”

[54] Cesar Award information and date of death derived from the IMdB entry on Peter Foldes. Date of death confirmed as March 29, 1977 in Jeff Lenburg, Who’s Who in Animated Cartoon, p. 91.

[55] Charles Champlin, “Prize Winners,” Albuquerque Journal, June 2, 1977.

[56] Relatives of Joan Foldes advised CONELRAD’s Bill Geerhart of the Foldes’ divorce and Joan’s remarriage and current home city. The detail of Joan’s poetry writing was derived from Tate Britain SHORT VISION screening entry

[57] Death dates for Arthur, McKetchnie, Seiber derived from their respective IMdB entries.

[58] “Ed Sullivan is Dead at 73; Charmed Millions on TV,” the New York Times, October 14, 1974. Details on Sullivan’s post-1971 activities derived from Maguire, Impresario, pp. 295-301.

Short Vision-The End


Short Vision-Title 
As mentioned in the main article, it was the enduring childhood memories of the baby boomers who remembered A SHORT VISION from The Ed Sullivan Show that inspired us to do this feature. Therefore, it is only fitting that we devote as much space as it takes to collecting the stories of the Fifties kids out there who remember seeing the world end on TV back in 1956.

lo-NY Telegram-Headline

We hope that the initial four remembrances below will inspire many more people to write in. If you would like to share your “Short Vision” Sullivan recollections, let us know via the CONELRAD contact form (or just add your Comment below). We look forward to hearing from you!

We begin, fittingly enough, with Laura Graff, the woman who first mentioned this movie to us. In 2009 we visited Ms. Graff and re-screened A SHORT VISION for her. She had not seen it in more than fifty years.



Memories are fleeting and, in some cases, distorted and even possibly inaccurate. Reminiscing about my cold war experiences, I vividly recalled watching a brief animated film about the effects of the detonation of an atomic bomb. I remembered watching this on the Ed Sullivan Show. He first warned parents to send their children out of the room because of the graphic nature of the subject. Thinking further about it, I decided that I must be mistaken. Ed Sullivan’s typical fare usually included hot new performers, classic performers, acrobats, jugglers, and ventriloquists. Could Ed Sullivan have shown a short film about people, animals, and civilization being devastated by a nuclear bomb? Were Topo Gigio, the Beatles, Elvis, Senor Wences, and the rest of us in danger of succumbing to the bomb?

Now that I’ve viewed the short twice as an adult, fifty-two years later, I’m surprised that Sullivan featured such a dark and artistic film. I watched it first on my computer, and I was startled that the only scene I remembered was the explosion of the bomb followed by images of peoples’ flesh melting from their faces to reveal bare skulls. Although this really scared me as a child, the fright was confined to the viewing experience. I didn’t connect it to the actual possibility of an atomic bomb disaster in my neighborhood. The Wicked Witch of the West with her flying monkeys in THE WIZARD OF OZ had much deeper detrimental effects on my mental health.

Short Vision-Man Atomized-17

Watching the DVD a few weeks later on a large screen television was an extremely different experience. It had much more impact – eerie, creepy, and frightening. I think the impact was greater because of the size of the screen and better audio, and this experience was more like the one in 1956, although the size of our TV screen then was closer to that of my computer monitor.

In 2009, I feel more threatened by an atomic bomb or an atomic accident than I ever have in the past. People in the 1950s who were building bomb shelters were not average citizens. Shelter drills in schools where we lined up in halls away from windows were hardly any protection. The walls of the school wouldn’t save us in the event of an atomic explosion. I remember being anxious during the Bay of Pigs incident in the 1960s. My friends and I sat in the high school cafeteria, and we wondered whether we should make the effort to complete our assignments. Now I listen to the news, and I worry about the nuclear aspirations of Iran and North Korean, in addition to rumors of terrorists with dirty bombs. News stories about the military accidentally transporting armed missiles across the United States are not reassuring. Living in a major metropolitan city isn’t as attractive as it used to be.

An unusual picture book, “Faithful Elephants: A True Story of Animals, People, and War” by Yukio Tsuchiya and Ted Lewin, is the story of craziness resulting from the fear of a nuclear bomb. During World War II in Japan, zookeepers in a large city were afraid that the impact of another bomb could release the animals from the zoo. The zookeepers were afraid the animals would kill people, so they decided to kill all the animals first before a bomb would drop. This is a mind-boggling concept. The main part of the story is the ultimate tearjerker about how they were unable to kill the elephants with poison or guns and how they starved them to death.

I don’t plan to build a bomb shelter or do anything crazy. I’m just glad that the United States now has a president who believes in communication and diplomacy, instead of treating countries as if they’re naughty children. He can also pronounce nuclear.

Submitted to CONELRAD on June 9, 2009 and published with permission

“A SENSE OF PANIC” by Michael Mode

In 1956 I was ten years old. My TV watching was somewhat restricted by my parents,  but not the Ed Sullivan show, which they liked to watch. Apparently my sister was not home the night that "A Short Vision" was aired as she does not remember it at all. I don't remember if my parents were present in the room or not. I know that because it was animation, like a cartoon, it really caught my attention.   I remember a flying object making a jet sound coming in over a city and exploding - then quickly it became scary and horrible, really creating a sense of panic in me.   I particularly remember seeing the flesh melt off of people's faces.  It was hard to watch but I couldn't stop.   For some time after that I had nightmares based on it, but there were no lasting effects.   I had nightmares, or "bad dreams" as I described them to my mother, about other things also.  

But I've never forgotten it, and for years it added an air of horror and fear to anything concerning nuclear war or bombs. 

Years later I met a man from Canada who had shoulder length dark hair, but in the center of his head was a small spot where his hair grew out a silvery white color. I asked him about it, and he told me that he was a medically documented case of a person whose hair had turned white from fright.  As a child, he had seen "A Short Vision" while alone in a house, and he experienced extreme panic and terror for some time, and one result was that his hair began to grow out white from that one spot on his head. 

I would like to see the film now, as an adult.  I am a wood artist and you can see my work (nothing frightening) on my website,

Submitted to CONELRAD on March 22, 2009 and published with permission


Why my mother let me watch it is a subject best saved for me and my shrink, but yes, I did see “A Short Vision” on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1956. I was eight, growing up in Los Angeles. I don’t remember if our family reverently tuned in to that hallowed variety show every week, but we were sure tuned in that night. And if she heard them, my mother paid no heed to Mr. Sullivan’s admonitions to get the kids out.

I remember it starting as a cartoon…curious, but surely innocuous. After all this was Ed

Sullivan, a video music hall of comedians and marionettes. Anyway, there was some kind of UFO, a satellite before there were satellites, cruising leisurely, silently over the city at night. And just as it passed over, it dispatched the earth underneath to hell.

There was a woman, asleep, innocent. Except that as this quiet thing passed over, the flesh simply melted from her face. Her liquefied humanity receded slowly from her cheeks, dripping down off the hollows, exposing more and more of her sculptured skull, yet what was left was far more hideous than that of any Halloween skeleton.

And the woman’s quiescent eyes dissolved and drained into the exposed sockets, dragging all the rendered tissue that surrounded them along into the bleakest of chasms, thus completing the gruesome transmogrification. Before me now was a new view of death profoundly worse than any sane child’s nightmare.

Oh, yes I remember that vision. The woman never woke to scream, and I could only feel my own smothered bleating, because I was speechless, sick in the stomach, feeling a hopeless vulnerability that I can summon up with little effort to this day.

A native Angelino and serendipitous observer of life, Gail Fisher is a freelance writer, living in the Boston area.

Submitted to CONELRAD on April 27, 2009 and published with permission


53 years elapsed before I discovered that May 27, 1956, was the evening I would never forget. I can now put a name to the weird animation that haunted my childhood.

Unlike today’s kids, most 8-year-olds in the 1950s were sent to bed around eight or nine p.m. I was no exception to this rule. Since it was Sunday, and the next day began another school week, the last television program I could watch was the “Ed Sullivan Show.” The exception to this bedtime rule permitted another hour of wakefulness to view “Alcoa Presents.”

My father, a Pearl Harbor survivor, veteran of both WWII , Korea, and now a cold-warrior at Naval Electronics Lab in San Diego, was already asleep beneath the evening paper. My mother, a stay-at-home mom (in those days referred to as a “housewife”) was busy sewing on the couch. It was 8:54 p.m., and I was watching the last few minutes of the weekly variety program.

I don’t remember “Old Stone Face” saying anything about sending children out of the room before the next act, but I will always remember that infamous “next segment” and will continue to remember it for all my days.

The segment was an animation, odd for that particular format. I don’t recall any other animations on Ed Sullivan prior to its airing. It started out interestingly enough, as I remember: something flew through the air above a city; animals started running. It seemed alright so far. Then it began. People and animals started to rot, eyes popped out of sockets, flesh dissolved, which is about all I can remember of the actual animation today. However, I can still recall what happened next. Sullivan said “good night,” and that was the end; no mention about next week’s show. The way he said “good night” further disturbed me. Sullivan was a bit too somber. I looked at my mother for some words of comfort or an explanation of what we’d just witnessed, but all she said was, “Okay, bedtime”. I asked her what it meant. She said it was somebody’s idea of the end of the world. This answer was totally out of character for my mother, who was against my reading or viewing anything related to the horror genre. She claimed it could give little boys nightmares, or worse. I can only surmise that since this film was shown on Ed Sullivan, it was deemed permissible.

Like any obedient child of the ‘50s, I went to bed. I remember pulling the covers over my head as the ghastly visions continued to replay in my impressionable, juvenile mind. This continued for weeks. At school the next day, nobody mentioned the short, although I’m sure others saw it. This omission always struck me as odd.

I never brought up or heard anything more about this televised event until 13 years later. One night my roommate and I were discussing strange experiences when he mentioned Ed Sullivan! It was freaky, but we both “knew”. We both started shaking and then laughing having a mutually cathartic moment. He was also eight when “Short Vision” aired but was one of the exceptions to the bedtime rule. He was allowed to stay up and watch “Alcoa Presents”. That night “Alcoa Presents” was not shown, and he too had to face the darkness subsequent to watching “A Short Vision.”

Was the reason “A Short Vision” disturbed us so due to the typical nature of cartoons, which were cute and funny? Prior to this screening we’d never seen gruesome drawings moving on our TV screens. It wasn’t until I read the comments on the website from other viewers that I realized the film must have been an allegory for nuclear holocaust. Perhaps that’s why nobody in San Diego mentioned this event, since every San Diegan knew that our city would be ground zero in the event of atomic war.

They called the animation “A Short Vision” but they were so wrong! That vision will remain forever with those who saw it.

J. J. Dickinson, 61, is a musician in San Diego, California. Before that he was in the advertising graphics field for 30 years.

Submitted to CONELRAD on April 28, 2009 and published with permission

Sunday, June 19, 2011


“Some day I’m going to write a paper about the fallout shelter signs.”

-- Robert W. Blakeley in a 1986 oral history interview for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers[i]



Just as it would be difficult to imagine the Cold War without the Berlin Wall or the American-Soviet "hotline," it would be equally hard to consider this tumultuous era without the instantly recognizable National Fallout Shelter Sign. Beginning in 1961, this ubiquitous yellow and black sign with inverted triangular shapes began showing up on and in structures across the United States. The purpose of the sign was to alert the citizenry that space had been identified by the government for public shelter in the event of a nuclear attack.[ii]

Walk around any major American city today and you will still be able to see at least a few rusty Fallout Shelter Signs attached to buildings of a certain vintage.[iii] These distinctive metallic, reflective signs remain the most durable—literally and figuratively—symbol of the Cold War. But how did the sign come to be and who exactly was responsible for its creation?

Our quest to find the answers to these questions began on April 11, 2003 with a simple inquiry. Lee C. Smith of Rolling Stone magazine was writing a piece on popular culture iconography (the Smiley Face, the Peace Sign, etc.) and he wanted to know the story behind the design of Fallout Shelter Sign symbol.[iv] Much to our professional embarrassment, we did not have a comprehensive response ready and waiting for the journalist. And despite our best efforts to quickly research the issue prior to the magazine’s editorial deadline, we were unable to find what we thought would be an incredibly easy, straightforward answer. There was, quite literally, nothing out there that explained the origins of the design.[v]

The magazine article (“Signs of the Times”) that spurred this furious and fruitless research activity was published a few weeks later without any reference to the Fallout Shelter Sign symbol.[vi] Naturally, Smith moved on to other stories. CONELRAD, however, had the luxury of spending a number of years obsessively researching the issue. We are very pleased to announce that we have uncovered the complete history of this important American symbol. It is our pleasure to be able to present our findings here for the benefit of Rolling Stone and anyone else who might be interested.


Lo-Washington Daily News-FSS-12-2-61 copy
On Saturday, December 2, 1961 a deceptively modest graphic transmitted the day before by the Department of Defense to the wire services appeared in newspapers across the country heralding the new symbol that would quickly come to define an era. The caption accompanying the image in the Los Angeles Times read as follows:

FOLLOW THE ARROWS—Three yellow triangles on a circular black background will mark nationwide network of fallout shelters for more than 50 persons each, Defense Department has announced.

The full text of the official and much lengthier caption that accompanied the Fallout Shelter Sign photograph issued by the government was found by CONELRAD at the National Archives. The following words appear on the reverse side of a glossy black and white still of the sign:

SC 587821 Washington D.C.

The National Fallout Shelter Sign will be a familiar sight in communities all over the United States next year. It will mark buildings and other facilities as areas where 50 or more persons can be sheltered from radioactive fallout resulting from a nuclear attack. The sign will be used only to mark Federally-approved buildings surveyed by architect-engineer firms under contract to the Department of Defense. The color combination, yellow and black, is considered as the most easily identified attention getter by psychologists in the graphic arts industry. The sign can be seen and recognized at distances up to 200 feet. The shelter symbol on the sign is a black circle set against a yellow rectangular background. Inside the circle, three yellow triangles are arranged in geometric pattern with the apex of the triangles pointing down. Below the fallout symbol, lettered in yellow against black, are the words FALLOUT SHELTER in plain block letters. Yellow directional arrows located directly underneath the lettering which will indicate the location of the shelter.

1 December 1961 Name of photographer is not given

Most newspapers regurgitated the highlights of the government-supplied text, but one photo caption writer for a Kansas daily could not resist editorializing and called the sign “grim.”[vii]


“My best salesmen are named Kennedy and Khrushchev”

--Home Fallout Shelter Salesman, 1961[viii]

The sign image published in the paper that day was but a small sidebar to a much larger story about the Kennedy administration’s ambitious plans to provide public shelter to 20 million Americans in the event of a nuclear attack. The National Fallout Shelter Survey and Marking Program, as it was officially titled, was the President’s costly reaction to the negative public perception of home fallout shelters and pressure from civil defense hawks like New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller (viewed by the administration as a likely 1964 Republican candidate for president).[ix]

During Kennedy’s campaign for the White House and his first year in office, a debate over the morality of private shelters was being argued throughout the land and across the airwaves of the popular culture. The famous Twilight Zone episode The Shelter dramatized with chilling clarity the underlying fear of neighbor turning upon neighbor over access to a family fallout shelter. Perhaps the most notorious salvo in the debate came in September of 1961 when Father Laurence C. McHugh wrote in the Jesuit magazine America that Americans had the moral obligation to defend their shelters from their neighbors.[x]

McHugh’s comments and the reaction he incited even reached Kennedy’s inner circle. “There’s no problem here,” Robert F. Kennedy cracked to the President and his advisers at a late November 1961 meeting in Hyannis Port on the dilemma over shelters, “we can just station Father McHugh with a machine gun at every private shelter.”[xi]

The national dialogue over shelters was hitting a fever pitch around the same time that the administration was changing its approach to civil defense. President Kennedy himself stoked the concern over the issue in a significant portion of his famous Berlin speech of July 25, 1961:

President John F Kennedy1

We have another sober responsibility. To recognize the possibilities of nuclear war in the missile age, without our citizens knowing what they should do and where they should go if bombs begin to fall, would be a failure of responsibility. In May, I pledged a new start on Civil Defense. Last week, I assigned, on the recommendation of the Civil Defense Director, basic responsibility for this program to the Secretary of Defense, to make certain it is administered and coordinated with our continental defense efforts at the highest civilian level. Tomorrow, I am requesting of the Congress new funds for the following immediate objectives: to identify and mark space in existing structures--public and private--that could be used for fall-out shelters in case of attack; to stock those shelters with food, water, first-aid kits and other minimum essentials for survival; to increase their capacity; to improve our air-raid warning and fallout detection systems, including a new household warning system which is now under development; and to take other measures that will be effective at an early date to save millions of lives if needed.

In the event of an attack, the lives of those families which are not hit in a nuclear blast and fire can still be saved--if they can be warned to take shelter and if that shelter is available. We owe that kind of insurance to our families--and to our country. In contrast to our friends in Europe, the need for this kind of protection is new to our shores. But the time to start is now. In the coming months, I hope to let every citizen know what steps he can take without delay to protect his family in case of attack. I know that you will want to do no less.[xii]

Kennedy’s remarks on shelters—which were embedded in the sober speech on his vow to go to the nuclear mat to protect West Berlin from Soviet aggression—sparked a boomlet in survival-mania. With the promised public shelters still months away, private fallout shelter companies saw a decided rise in interest (if not business). There were also numerous other merchandising gimmicks unleashed by the Commander-In-Chief’s official endorsement of civil defense. Aside from the expected survival accoutrements (Geiger counters, Emergency Drinking Water, etc.), films, spoken word LPs, and even pop music 45s were also released.[xiii]

The Kennedy administration itself contributed two prominent “collectibles” to the hoopla. Shortly after the Berlin Wall was erected in August of 1961, the President wrote a memo to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara asking for a weekly report on civil defense. The President also asked in his memo: “Do you think it would be useful for me to write a letter to every home owner in the United States giving them instructions as to what can be done on their own to provide greater security for their family?” The idea of a government mass mailing was replaced by the more economical measure of allowing Life magazine to reproduce a letter from Kennedy in their September 15, 1961 cover story on civil defense.

One can only wonder whether the administration knew how over-the-top Life would go with its presentation. The President’s letter—which serves in part as an advertisement for the magazine’s feature—has a mushroom cloud background. And the cover of the magazine that week had a rather alarming image of a man in a “civilian fallout shelter suit.” So much for calming the nation.[xiv]

The administration spent more time tinkering with the other “collectible” from this period: a 46-page yellow, black and white civil defense pamphlet eventually titled “Fallout Protection: What to Know and Do About Nuclear Attack.” The first draft of the booklet was prepared by a team from Time-Life hired by the Pentagon. The ad men came up with an unrealistically optimistic document that dismayed Kennedy’s advisers. John Kenneth Gailbraith took particular exception to the fact that the pamphlet appeared to be targeted at the upper middle class (with yachts, no less!):

I am not at all attracted to a pamphlet which seeks to save the better elements of the population, but in the main writes off those who voted for you. I think it is particularly injudicious, in fact it is absolutely incredible, to have a picture of a family with a cabin cruiser saving itself by going out to sea. Very few members of the UAW can go with them…

The booklet that was subsequently published on December 30, 1961 made no mention of sea-faring suburban survivalists. It also downplayed the earlier draft’s excitement over “a new market for home shelters” that “is helpful and in keeping with the free enterprise way of meeting changing conditions in our lives.” The passage that appeared in the final version was decidedly less “rah-rah”: “A number of firms have entered the home shelter field. As in any new commercial activity there are abuses…” Indeed.

Lo-JFK Booklet-Cvr

Twenty-five million copies of the pamphlet were distributed to post offices and civil defense branches around the country, but plans for a supporting “fireside chat” by the president on civil defense were scrapped.[xv] The surviving draft written by Ted Sorensen, however, spells out the new emphasis on public shelters. In the speech that never was, Kennedy was to have stated the following on the diversity element of the project: “This will be a democratic shelter program. There can be no discrimination in civil defense between rich and poor, between home owner and apartment dwellers, between people of different religions or different ethic backgrounds.”[xvi]

The editorial evolution of the booklet and the draft of the aborted “fireside chat” are excellent showcases for how the administration’s position on civil defense changed in a very short period of time. It was at the Hyannis Port meeting referred to earlier that a discussion on the funding of new shelters—in addition to marking existing ones—took place. The budget never did materialize for the new shelters, but the intensity with which the subject was analyzed and how it gradually receded to the background of the official policy is fascinating.

Steuart Lansing Pittman, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Civil Defense recalled the debate in a 1970 oral history interview that is not without some bitterness.[xvii] Pittman wLo-Pittman-Imageas a 42-year-old Washington lawyer who was chosen to become the country’s first cabinet level official for civil defense. His chief responsibility coming into the position was to manage the National Fallout Shelter program. In a New York Times profile from October 30, 1961,  Pittman explained his reasons for leaving a profitable law practice to take a $20,000-a-year government job: “If I weren’t convinced that the President and Secretary McNamara were behind the program, I’d never have taken the job.”[xviii] The oral history interview makes plain that less than a month after this sunny statement, reality began to set in:

...This extension (the funding of new public shelters) of the program has never happened to this day. Most of my tenure in the job was a struggle to make it come to light to get that end of the program launched. At Hyannis Port it was very curious: Secretary McNamara went along on paper with this middle position that I just described, signed the recommendation to the President, but at the meeting at one point he quite clearly said that he really preferred stopping at marking and stocking shelters. At this point Bobby Kennedy was out playing touch football in the rain and came in dripping wet with a red shirt on in the middle of the meeting. The Joint Chiefs and twenty people were there. This was one of many important national security subjects that were being discussed over, I think, a two day period. He (RFK) discovered what was being talked about, and said that he’d give this a little thought and he didn’t think we ought to get involved in anything beyond marking and stocking shelters until we organized the country; that this was going to take intense local organization which should come first, and that there ought to be several years of that. McNamara agreed with him. (Jerome B.) Wiesner (Science Adviser to JFK) was there. He had continuing reservations about this program throughout my tenure. He made only one statement at the meeting, which was to tell the President that fallout shelters would be obsolete within five years. This was a five-year program which would be completed only at the end of five years. Obviously it made no sense whatsoever if you believed that they’d be obsolete within five years. Nobody seemed to answer him. The President didn’t say anything. I finally filled the silence with my version of why this wasn’t so and the subject was dropped.

I say this to convey the impression that this meeting seemed quite unreal to me. There wasn’t a real coming to grips with the issues of whether this kind of a program made sense over the long haul, or whether we should commit ourselves to it. The decision was finally made when I said to the President something about his May 25th statement, which had called for a continuously increasing federal financial involvement in a shelter program. He (JFK) said, “What did I say?” McNamara read him a short part of his speech which he had in the packet there, and he in effect, said, “Well, it seems to me we can’t do anything less than this middle position.” The implication being quite clear that having said this I’m not going to retreat. It was that kind of decision. So already the uncertainty had set in.

Actually, (Arthur M., Jr.) Schlesinger was the only person, other than myself, at this meeting that spoke in favor of the position that was being recommended. (Theodore C.) Sorenson spoke against it briefly. He had prepared a memorandum arguing strongly against it a few days earlier. So there was a decision made to start the nation down the path of a nationwide shelter program with major reservations and dissensions among the people around the President. I remember the President at the end, having made a decision, he turned to me, looked at me and he said, “You’ve got the most difficult job in Washington next to mine.” There was sort of nervous laughter around the room, and then he asked McNamara and (Rosewell) Gilpatric to retire with him to another room. They came back five minutes later and the President said, “Here’s how we’re going to proceed.” And said, “Mr. (Carl) Kaysen will follow this from the White House, and Mr. McNamara will pay personal attention.” I took this personally, that the President sort of looked at this inexperienced lawyer in government and said, “How is he going to do this?”, and went out with McNamara and said “How is he going to do this? And who is really going to get this done? You better be darned sure you’re involved.” I suspected he sort of threw it to McNamara to be responsible.

When we got back to the Pentagon, we sat down with each other. McNamara started laying down the law about how we’re not going to get involved in anything except what we can do at the federal level, and the responsibility of local government is not our business. I was very upset about that because it was clear to me by this time that the whole thing builds on local responsibility inspired by federal direction and support, and you won’t get anything done without it. I told McNamara I didn’t think that was possible and that it was a great mistake and he said, “Never mind. That’s how it is.”

So a piece of paper was prepared. Adam Yarmolinsky was actively involved in preparing it. This was the internal guidance later revealed to the governors and put out as a policy paper, and that had at its principal: We’re not really taking the responsibility for civil defense. We’re just doing certain parts of the job at the federal level and we’re looking to state and local to do the main thing. This was totally impractical, and was a way of retreating from the decision that was made, in my view. That began a long series of friction points between me and McNamara which resulted in his finally staying clear of the subject. Let me more or less run with it until it came to budget time. I wouldn’t see him much in between.[xix]

Whatever his misgivings, Pittman soldiered on—overseeing the shelter surveying, marking and stocking program of existing spaces—until he submitted his resignation on March 8, 1964 and returned to his private law practice (in a building that by that time presumably had a marked and stocked public fallout shelter).[xx]



The September 1st 1961 edition of the White Plains, New York newspaper, the Reporter Dispatch, proudly announced White Plains as being one of three cities chosen to participate in an “Atom Shelter Study.” Baltimore and Washington, D.C. were the other two test areas where architects under government contract would identify shelter space for 50 or more people. The enthusiastic article is noteworthy for being the very first publication that CONELRAD was able to find that references what would soon come to be known officially as the National Fallout Shelter Sign. Ten paragraphs into the story the following mention appears: “The survey teams will seek permission to enter all buildings to be surveyed…Later they will ask permission to install uniform signs being designed in Washington identifying the shelter area.”[xxi]

Lo-S-Shelter Sign copy

Before 1961 public shelters were found primarily in large urban areas and were designated haphazardly with signs that frequently featured a large “S” character. Many of these shelters were left over from the World War II era when conventional air raids were feared. Some shelters were built after 1949 when the Russians tested their first atomic bomb. There was no standardized national oversight of these public shelters. Even after the National Fallout Shelter program was well beyond the planning stages, the sign that was to be deployed to identify these spaces was treated almost as an afterthought.[xxii]

In May of 1961 Robert W. Blakeley had just returned to his Washington, D.C. Army Corps of Engineers office from a three week vacation out west. He found a note on his desk from the Deputy Chief of Engineers, Major General Keith R. Barney (1904-1977), which said, to the best of Blakeley’s recollection in an exclusive CONELRAD interview: “When you get back I want to talk to you about producing some posters on railroad board for a shelter program that is being considered.”[xxiii]

Blakeley-1970s copy 
At this stage in his career, Blakeley, a veteran of World War II and the Korean War was a high-level civilian with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. He had been recruited into the Corps from the Veterans Administration where he had worked after his military service and some study in Engineering at the University of California at Berkeley. At the time that he was drafted into his Fallout Shelter Sign mission, Blakeley’s official title was Director of the Administrative Logistics Support Function. To say that he was very accomplished in his field would be an understatement – he had an extensive staff and was responsible for more than 60 engineering operations around the world. More than 40 years later the now retired Blakeley is at a loss for how, at his level, he was targeted for what he considered to be merely an “Action Officer” (or Project Manager) task.[xxiv]

But targeted he was and when Blakeley entered the Major General’s office later that morning, the “grand old man” asked him to explain what railroad board was. After Blakeley’s brief tutorial on the material, Barney explained the mission, “Well, from what I understand, we’re going to do a survey program to identify shelters for people throughout the country. It’s not well defined, but all these people are going to have to have some way of knowing where these shelters are. What do you think we should do?”

Lacking an immediate answer for the Major General, Blakeley considered the idea over the next several weeks in a kind of back-burner fashion. It wasn’t until a Lieutenant Colonel from the Civil Works function contacted him, that the sign became a primary focus. The man, whose name Blakeley doesn’t recall, was a liaison to Civil Defense for the shelter program. Blakeley and the liaison conducted “bull sessions” regarding what was required of such a sign. And at a certain point, Blakeley recalled, the pair approached their deliverable from “the point of view that whatever we developed, it would have to be useable in downtown New York City, Manhattan, when all the lights are out and people are on the street and don’t know where to go.” With this criterion in mind, they both concluded that railroad board was not going to fit the bill: “Railroad poster boards were not going to work in downtown Manhattan because they don’t have telephone poles (to post the signs on).” Left unsaid was the obvious: Railroad board would disintegrate instantaneously in the heat of the fires that would follow an atomic bombing.

With the ludicrous notion of railroad board off the table, Blakeley met with some Corps graphics people and discussed the options. From the outset of this phase of the sign’s development, he was opposed to using the existing radiation danger symbol trefoil design because of a perception that it was not used in a consistent manner. However, by 1960 the radiation symbol had been completely standardized and was, indeed, registered by the American Standards Association (now the American National Standards Institute).

So Blakeley sent representatives from his team to the design vendor, Blair, Inc., a graphic arts company then located at Bailey’s Crossroads in Fairfax, Virginia. Blair, Inc. frequently worked on government contracts and the ideas generated in Blakeley’s office were shared with their designers. Blakeley stated to CONELRAD that he provided the following basic guidelines to his people to convey to Blair, Inc.: “I gave them the fact that it had to be a simple reproducible image…and I did say ‘tell them that in the design they had to have a place for us to print directional arrows.’” card-front Blair, Inc. was also instructed by Blakeley that the sign “had to be something that would get people’s attention and give them direction to the location.” To this end, Blakeley said that he asked a representative from the company what the best color combination was for this purpose. The response that came back as quoted by Blakeley was: “orange or yellow and black is the one that is most dominantly used in the graphics field.” He added “And I said ‘if that’s right, let’s do that and it was that simple.”[xxv]

Blair, Inc. was founded in 1952 by transplanted Chicagoan Shy S. Greenspan. Greenspan was a decorated veteran of World War II who was recalled to serve at Fort Belvoir in Virginia during the Korean War. Bob Love, a Blair employee who started with the company shortly after the Fallout Shelter Sign contract was completed in 1961, recalled in an interview with CONELRAD that he was confident that Greenspan himself would have been involved in the work. Blair’s art department in those days, Love said, was “seven or eight people” and Greenspan was “hands-on,” so it was logical to Love that the company founder would have been involved in this project. Mr. Greenspan retired from Blair in 1984 and passed away at the age of 85 on September 3, 2000.[xxvi]


Blair Jackson, Greenspan’s daughter and the present co-owner of the company, conveyed to CONELRAD via her husband and business partner, Scott Jackson that she recalled her father speaking fondly about the company’s involvement in the design of the Fallout Shelter Sign. Ms. Jackson directly stated her personal impressions about this important symbol in an e-mail to CONELRAD: “I do remember the mixed feelings I had of, one, the excitement and pride in seeing the fallout shelter signs in every building and, two, the warning to be alert and realize there was a designated area to head to in case of emergency.”[xxvii]

Blakeley remembered that Blair, Inc. “came back with a number of preliminary sketches. I eliminated all but about six of them. And one of them did include a variation on the (radiation warning) trefoil without the center dot.” He decided to include it in his official presentation portfolio because he felt certain that someone in the approval chain would ask about such a design option.[xxviii] Ironically, despite years of debate over whether the Fallout Shelter Sign was simply a derivative of the radiation warning symbol, it could well be that it was inspired by a more obvious source: “Hornung’s Handbook of Designs & Devices” first published in 1932 and reprinted several times since.[xxix]

The book, a seminal graphics reference work widely used at the time, features a triangular design identical to the Fallout Shelter Sign symbol.[xxx] In fact, when the sign was submitted for certification with the Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) patent division this similarity did not go unnoticed by the government trademark attorneys. In a November 6, 1961 response from JAG to the General Counsel for the Chief of Engineers the following was pointed out:

The circle and triangle arrangement is not new and original. Fig. 349 in Hornung, Handbook of Designs and Devices (1946) shows this same circle-triangle arrangement.[xxxi]

Not mentioned by the government attorneys in their memo is that an endnote in the 1946 edition of Hornung’s book explains that the triangular shape arrangement seen in “Fig. 349” is a representation of “an ancient symbol for the Godhead.”[xxxii]

When asked about the other ideas Blair, Inc. came up with, Blakeley can only remember one: “one of them…showed a family of three, holding hands, moving graphically across the center…” In a subsequent e-mail he expanded upon this description slightly: “[it] showed a family of three moving in depth perspective to a shelter, had a small trefoil, without the center dot, in shadow background.” Unfortunately, Blair, Inc. no longer retains records from this era of its history and neither does the U.S. government, so we are left only with the intriguing word picture illustrated by Blakeley.[xxxiii]

Blair Inc.’s design work sat in Blakeley’s office gathering dust for about a month during which time Colonel Warren S. Everett (1910-2001), the newly named director of the National Fallout Shelter Survey and Marking Program, set up shop next doWarrenSEverettor to the engineer. Blakeley arranged this office proximity to better be able to hand off his Fallout Shelter Sign project to the Colonel.  “I kept telling Everett that I really ought to give this [the sign project] to him and let him finish it off. He said, ‘well, give me time, I’ve got to get my staff going, we’ve got to get this whole program up and running…’ I said, ‘well, someone’s got to approve something before we can go ahead and work it.’”

Not long after this conversation a meeting at the Pentagon was suddenly called by the Special Assistant to the Secretary of the Army, Powell Pierpoint (1922-1998), to formally review the sign options. Blakeley recounted how he got the word that an evening meeting had been scheduled: “One day, I went home early and I went to the pool with my kids -- we belonged to a community pool a half block from my house… My wife came down and said, ‘Col. Everett’s on the phone and says you have to be at the Pentagon for a meeting at 7 P.M. tonight.’”

Blakeley, slightly irritated by the inconvenience of having to fight Washington rush hour traffic, instructed Everett to gather the Blair, Inc. art from his office and to meet him at the Pentagon for the design review. In attendance at the meeting were just the three men: Blakeley, Everett and Pierpoint.

Blakeley remembered the meeting clearly and laughed several times in describing the circumstances to CONELRAD: “While we were in there at the dog and pony show, we had everything set up and we were going around and he (Pierpoint) looked at me and he said, ‘I’m used to vacuum cleaner salesmen, what do you recommend?’ And that stuck in my mind forever. I’m not sure if he was upset or he was just trying to tell me to get on with the program.”

After briefing Pierpoint and running through the different options for about ten minutes, Blakeley recommended the trefoil-like design because of its simplicity and its easily recognized colors. The Assistant Secretary then said “OK, go with it” and dismissed the meeting. It was this quickly deliberated decision that eventually led to hundreds of thousands of yellow and black signs across the country. When asked if he thought the Special Assistant Secretary realized the significance of his ruling, Blakeley said “I don’t think any of us did.” Pierpoint died in 1998 and apparently never committed his recollections of his pivotal role in Cold War history to print.[xxxiv]


After the Fallout Shelter Sign was “green lit” by Assistant Secretary Pierpoint, Blakeley returned to some earlier ideas that he had about utilizing the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company’s (better known as 3M, the company responsible for Post-It Notes) talents to mass produce signage that would have the maximum visibility and durability that would be needed for World War III. Blakeley’s inspiration to use 3M can be traced back to his earliest “bull sessions” with the Lieutenant Colonel about how the sign would be used:

During those discussions with that Lieutenant Colonel, we got talking about the pits of New York. We talked about immigrants; we talked about school children, in terms of need of quick recognition in that area. I do remember the discussion that led me and Everett to that reflective thing. I told him that I had been thinking about it and if nobody could see in downtown - what would a person have on their person in most cases that would help them find their way. We concluded that at least half the people in this country smoked at that time and therefore a cigarette lighter might be the only illuminating factor. So we thought in terms of if a cigarette lighter is lit, what can we see and how far.

It was the commonplace green traffic signs that seemed to provide the kind of reflectivity that Blakeley was seeking. He later learned that these particular signs used 3M’s patented sheeting technology. “I got a hold of Minnesota Mining and told them I wanted to talk to someone who knew something about these signs that they produce for around the country. And they had a man who came in to see me. He brought me materials. Later, I went to St. Paul (Minnesota) and went through their factory operations and learned how they produced the sheeting.”[xxxv]

CD Test Edition

Incredibly, the government was too cheap to put much funding into the research and development of the soon-to-be ubiquitous sign, so Blakeley was reduced to performing his own tests which he recounted in his CONELRAD interview:

Didn’t have any budget to put it [the materials] into a lab or anything of this sort to start playing, so whatever I collected from Minnesota Mining and from other discussions around the like, I took them home and I also found some paints that were reflective and I slopped those on a piece of wood. I was talking to my daughter just yesterday about this and she reminded me that what we did was we went down to the basement (with the lights out) and had them (the pieces of wood) set up and we were checking them with flashlights. And then later on we took the stuff out in the field and threw mud on it and water on it.

From these no-frills experiments, Blakeley was able to start writing up specifications for a potential vendor to produce the signs.[xxxvi]



With the approval of the design of the sign out of the way, Blakeley remained in the picture a while longer to work through some of the lingering problems that needed to be solved prior to mass production and handing off the contracting responsibilities to the Chief of Procurement at the Baltimore District of the Army Corps of Engineers:

After I had I had helped the office develop what we thought were going to be the signs and the needs, it became apparent that we were not talking about directional signs like right and left. But we had to have multi-directional arrows to show people to go up and down stairs and things of that sort. Fortuitously, when I had given them my initial notes and sketches, I kept a section on the top that showed an image here and arrows down below that I needed a space where we could print. But it bugged me because I got to thinking about the logistics of being able to store and issue signs and arrows and we even talked about capacity areas on the poster in those days that would tell how many could be housed in a particular [shelter] area. The multiplicity of trying to stock and handle all those things just blew my mind. While I was talking with the Minnesota Mining [3M] people we came up with the idea of small arrows that would show right, left, up and down that would be permanent adhesives that would be stuck on whatever sign we came up with. And we did the same thing with “capacity.” Well, that was going well and I wrote a specification based on a lot of material I got from the Minnesota Mining that would give us an opportunity to put a contract bid on the street to have X number of signs based on the design produced.


At this point it seemed like a foregone conclusion that 3M was the ideal company to meet all of the specialized demands of producing the Fallout Shelter Sign, but at the eleventh hour a competing company, Alfray Products, Inc. of Coshocton, Ohio, protested the proposed contract award. It turned out that Alfray could produce the signs using a cheaper technique than 3M’s proprietary sheeting process (“Scotchlite”). “I ended up in the Pentagon trying to defend why I had specified sheeting [for the sign],” recalled Blakeley with a trace of irritation in his voice. “Well, we backed off the sheeting and went for beads-on-paint [the cheaper competing process]. And that outfit got some of it [the contract] and Minnesota Mining, it turned out, still had their big production facility in Alabama and could [also] produce beads-on-paint. So that’s one of the little horror stories that went with getting it ready.”[xxxvii]

In announcing Alfray’s piece of the Fallout Shelter Sign pie on February 26, 1962, the Coshocton (Ohio) Tribune made certain not to mention the more famous out-of-town 3M:

Local Firm to Produce Fallout Shelter Signs

Alfray Products, Inc., North Fourteenth St., was awarded the contract to manufacture a million Type 2 fallout shelter signs, Alfred J. Riley, president of the firm, reported today.

Production will start in seven days on the signs to be manufactured for the U.S. Army Engineering District, Baltimore Corps of Engineers. The project is scheduled for completion in eight weeks.

Thirty-six companies throughout the nation submitted bids to do the work, but the local firm was the lowest bidder…[xxxviii]

Alfred J. Riley, the president of the company mentioned in the article and the then-mayor of Coshocton, died in 1995 at the age of 78. Alfray Products, Inc. no longer exists.[xxxix]

Bob Schoonover was a young chemical engineer at 3M only a few years out of college when he was tasked with “scaling-up production” of the larger aluminum Type I (exterior) Fallout Shelter Sign (Alfray, the other vendor, produced the smaller Type II sign which was made of steel and used in interior spaces). Lo-schoonover1963 CONELRAD located the now retired Schoonover and asked him to tell us about the experience from his unique perspective as “3M’s Fallout Shelter Guy.” In response to our question about what it was like to be presented with such an odd project, Schoonover said via e-mail: “In 1961 that product didn't seem quite as ‘unusual’ as it might 45 years later; and WWII had ended with the use of nuclear weapons ‘only’ 16 years earlier. After 3M won the bid I had to become more familiar with the specifics of the sign, but the design and colors of the Fallout Shelter Sign didn't seem unusual at all.”[xl]

When asked to describe how the Type I Fallout Shelter Sign was produced, Schoonover’s command of the ancient details is nothing short of impressive:

The process that I recall was that the aluminum substrate was provided in roll form (wide and long) by Alcoa from a plant in the quad cities area (Iowa and Illinois); coated black; sheeted in Alabama and delivered to our Guin, Alabama plant. 3M screen printed the yellow portion, dropped the beads onto the wet yellow coating and then cured (dried) the yellow coating.

Before the company rolled out what Schoonover estimates to be hundreds of thousands of signs, they produced samples for the government: “We did make prototypes to demonstrate that we had the capability, as well as to demo the product.”[xli] It was a demonstration sign that was used for the very first sign unveiling ceremony at the Westchester County Building in White Plains, New York at 148 Martine Avenue on October 4, 1961. That first sign, designating a shelter capacity of 1,730, was important enough to warrant a curtain call for its chief architect from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.[xlii]



“Well anyhow, I thought everything was going well,” Robert W. Blakeley recalled of the sign’s progress through the bureaucracy, “and I got call from (Col.) Everett one day and he said, ‘somebody’s gotta be in White Plains, New York for a press conference. They’re going to have a press conference after the first posting of the sign. Can you do it?’ And I said, ‘Well, I have to go to New York anyhow, so sure, I’ll do it.’ So, I went up there and met with the [man in charge of the facilities] and we were running a little bit late and he said, ‘let’s go down the backstairs to get to the conference room.’ So we started down the stairs and we saw a (interior Fallout Shelter) sign on the wall and he said, ‘those damned kids have been in here again!’ They had pulled the arrows off and put them in the wrong direction. I about perished because those arrows were supposed to go on and stay permanently. So I got back to Minnesota Mining (3M) and told them that we had a problem and then I advised the contracting officer.”

The exterior Fallout Shelter Sign, Blakeley recalled, was already posted on the building, but “draped” for the ceremonial purposes of the small (“I don’t think there were more than a dozen people there”) gathering. He remembered that he was recognized as representing Washington, but that he was not asked to speak. After the sign was uncovered Blakeley said, laughing, “We gave a sigh of relief and went home.”[xliii]

Months later Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, Abraham Ribicoff, complained in a letter to Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara that the Fallout Shelter Sign looked too much like the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) radiation symbol and that he was worried about the risks that this similarity posed (“…in the event of nuclear attack, some people might mistake the shelter sign as a danger warning and avoid entering an approved shelter.”).

But this was no longer Blakeley’s headache and Assistant Secretary of Defense Steuart Pittman wrote Ribicoff back on behalf of Secretary McNamara. Pittman’s letter detailing the pains that were taken to prove that the new sign could not be confused with the existing radiation sign included a reference to a Human Factors Research Psychologist named L.E. Baker. Unfortunately, no files from these studies exist and the psychologist who conducted them, Dr. Lynn Erland Baker, died in 1992. According to a biographical reference book Baker was born in 1909 and at the time of the Fallout Shelter Sign development he was “U.S. Army chief psychologist.”[xliv]

In a later memo, seemingly assuaging the concerns raised internally, civil defense official Gerald R. Gallagher wrote a memo for the Director of Federal Assistance, William P. Durkee, assuring him that representatives of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) had “made no objection to the use of [the Fallout Shelter Sign] symbol and indicated that there was, in fact, no actual similarity when the “Radiation Area” sign and the “Fallout Shelter” sign were viewed side by side.”[xlv]

Of course, the White Plains ceremony was just the first sign posting (the second, as cited in the JAG file, was at Holabird Elementary School in Baltimore, Maryland).[xlvi] As the 1960s wore on, close to a million signs would be affixed to buildings and in hallways and lobbies around the country.[xlvii] In the early years, mayors and governors and other public officials would exploit these sign hanging events for their own political gain just as peace activists would use the sign for protest purposes.[xlviii]


And to make absolutely certain that no one missed the purpose of the new sign - the government launched a public awareness campaign that included, among other things, a radio PSA in which a woman talked to her psychiatrist about the new civil defense symbol. There were also television spots, billboards, pamphlets, and subway and bus ads.[xlix] But soon enough the yellow and black sign simply faded into the background of everyday life.


The Cold War may be long over, but the handiwork of Robert W. Blakeley and Bob Schoonover can still be seen on buildings across America (the government never had a formal program for removal)[l] and in “cameo” appearances in movies and on television programs. The Fallout Shelter Sign is even featured on the cover of Bob Dylan’s classic “Bringing It All Back Home” album from 1965.[li] And a yellowing newspaper advertisement clipping for The Who’s 1973 rock tour that appropriated the signage icon resides, rather improbably, in the official Judge Advocate General’s “certification mark” file in Arlington, Virginia.[lii]

Also buried deep within this file is a memo dated October 12, 1961 that gives credit to the person who was chiefly responsible for the iconic sign. The simple line of text states for the record that “The design was perfected by Mr. R.W. Blakeley…”

blakeley-credited-10-1961 (1) 
Decades later the retired engineer remains humble when asked about the reaction of his friends and family to his unique place in Cold War history:

Well, frankly, I’ve never had a lot of discussion (regarding the sign). My daughter remembers our episode in testing materials. And when they (his children) were young, we’d go down the street and one of the kids would say, ‘hey, Dad, there’s one of your signs.’ But you know, other than that it’s just like many of the other things that happen in life. It’s just one of those routine things. I don’t know if I’ve ever had an occasion to tell anybody that I was involved in it because I don’t think it’s ever been high on my priorities. I guess I have never viewed it as significant item such as it apparently is.[liii]



At this point the reader may be left wondering how we found the answers that eluded the reporter from Rolling Stone and at least a few others who have pursued the origins of the Fallout Shelter Sign. Well, not unlike the sign itself, the key to unraveling the story was hidden in plain sight from the beginning. On most Fallout Shelter Signs (and the one that resides in our office) there is the following fine print: “Not to be used or reproduced without Department of Defense permission.” From day one this should have been a red flag to us that the sign was registered with some legal authority with a corresponding paper trail explaining its development. Unfortunately, it took us another few years to realize this point and to finally reach our “Eureka!” moment. Instead, we contacted the Department of Defense to ask about the ownership of the sign. This was, of course, an utter waste of time.[liv]

It was not until 2006 when we were performing a top-to-bottom review of all of the materials that we had amassed on our subject that we saw the thread of the lead that would prove to be the roadmap to completing our research. In one of the documents related to the radiation warning symbol we noticed that the symbol was referenced as having been accepted by the National Bureau of Standards (now the National Institute of Standards and Technology or NIST).[lv] It immediately dawned on us that the same might be true of the Fallout Shelter Sign and we quickly sent an e-mail inquiry to NIST.

About a week later a response came back from a librarian who stated that the sign was not on file with her agency, but was in the online database of the U.S. Patents and Trademark Office. The information provided in the U.S. Patents and Trademark record was, of course, a goldmine of data – particularly because it named the JAG attorney of record for the most recent renewal of the sign’s Certification Mark (in 2003) – a Mr. Peter Nyce, Jr. An e-mail inquiry was sent to Mr. Nyce asking, among other things, whether the name(s) of the person(s) responsible for the sign might be included in the original Certification Mark request from the early 1960s.

A comprehensive reply came back a day later from Nyce’s colleague, J. Scott Chafin, the Trademark and Copyright Attorney in the Regulatory Law and Intellectual Property Division of the U.S. Army Legal Services Agency, Office of the Judge Advocate General, Department of the Army. Mr. Chafin provided the name from the file of the man who “perfected” the design of the Fallout Shelter Sign, “Mr. R.W. Blakeley.” As luck would have it, Mr. Blakeley was still among the living and was interviewed on the telephone a few days later. In this interview he provided details of the design evolution of the sign that, heretofore, have never been published. Mr. Blakeley’s recollections provided another crucial lead – to the vendor that prepared the mock-ups of the design options of the Fallout Shelter Sign, Blair, Inc. This and other finer points helped make this story the complete picture that it is. We could not have have written it without the enthusiastic cooperation of Robert W. Blakeley.



Researching the definitive history of the Fallout Shelter Sign was a lengthy, complicated endeavor and one that generated piles of documentation (and no shortage of dead-ends). Consequently, there are many sources that must be cited in this section. CONELRAD’s investigation also led us to meet a number of dedicated officials, archivists and librarians who aided in our quest. In some cases these information professionals were utterly baffled by the nature of our inquiry, but they helped anyway.

As mentioned in the main article, the impetus for our project began in 2003 when Rolling Stone magazine reporter Lee C. Smith contacted CONELRAD for input on a piece about the origins of popular symbols (the Happy Face, the Peace Sign, etc.). Smith was seeking guidance regarding the evolution of the Fallout Shelter Sign symbol. Unfortunately, our crash effort to help the reporter failed miserably and Smith’s subsequent article omitted any reference to the famous yellow and black sign. Because it was Smith’s question that set us off on our multi-year quest, it is only fitting that he be thanked first.

We would also like to thank Robert W. Blakeley, formerly with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, for his willingness to speak with us in detail about his critical role in the development and refinement of the actual sign. Mr. Blakeley was the man we had been searching for all along, but we didn’t even know his name until the very last phase of our research. We found Mr. Blakeley’s name by researching the Fallout Shelter certification file maintained by the Judge Advocate General. We are deeply indebted to the folks at JAG for helping us in this regard. Bob Schoonover, formerly with 3M, provided an invaluable perspective on the production side of the Fallout Shelter Sign.

Michael J. Broadhead of the Army Corps of Engineers History Office provided invaluable guidance in filling in some of the gaps in the story of the Fallout Shelter Sign.

Dr. Paul W. Frame’s research and guidance regarding the origins and evolution of the radiation warning symbol was essential. Dr. Frame is the Director of Professional Training at Oak Ridge Associated Universities (ORAU).

As always, the staff at the National Archives (including the Eisenhower and Kennedy Presidential Libraries) was incredibly helpful in providing key documents related to both the Fallout Shelter sign and U.S. civil defense in general.

Eric Green founder and curator of the amazing online Civil Defense Museum provided the Fallout Shelter Sign “awareness” images used in this article. Those images and hundreds of other civil defense photos and documents are available for viewing on Eric’s site.

And special thanks to Blair Jackson at Blair, Inc. for speaking with us and providing her recollection and some archival images from the company. Thanks, too, to Bob Love at Blair, Inc. for speaking with us.


Additional Reading: CONELRAD’s interview with Robert Murtha, a man who helped post Fallout Shelter Signs during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

[i] Robert W. Blakeley oral history conducted by Frank N. Schubert, April 9, 1986 and June 25, 1986; U.S. Army Corps of Engineers History Office Archive; p. 63.

[ii] Evidence of 1961 “first use” of the sign found in: Memorandum RE: Statutory Rights to Design of Fallout Shelter Sign from William R. Orlandi, Deputy General Counsel, Office of Engineers, November 21, 1961 to the Chief, Patents Division, Judge Advocate General, Department of the Army. From the Capacity Fallout Shelter Sign Certification Mark file maintained by U.S. Army Legal Services Agency, Office of the Judge Advocate General, Department of the Army.

[iii] For current examples of Fallout Shelter Signs still posted in major cities see CONELRAD’s “Real Life Fallout Shelter Sign Sightings” Facebook Gallery.

[iv] Lee C. Smith e-mail to Bill Geerhart, April 11, 2003. Smith had been referred to Geerhart by Cold War history professor and author Laura McEnaney.

[v] As the totality of this article demonstrates, the full answer to Mr. Smith’s inquiry was not readily available in any published form in 2003.

[vi] Lee C. Smith, “Signs of the Times,” Rolling Stone magazine (RS # 992), May 15, 2003, pp. 119-120.

[vii] Examples of the announcement of the Fallout Shelter Sign include: “Shelter Sign,” Washington Daily News, December 2, 1961; “Follow the Arrows,” Los Angeles Times, December 2, 1961; “Shelter Question,” December 3, 1961, New York Times; “A-Shelter Sign,” Racine Journal-Times, December 2, 1961; “Fallout Shelter Sign,” Portsmouth Herald, December 2, 1961; for “grim” reference see “Sign of the Times,” Hutchinson News, December 4, 1961; For official caption of government release of Fallout Shelter Sign photograph see National Archives and Records Administration (hereafter, NARA), College Park, Maryland, Records Group 397-MA-19, Folder 27, 27-S-11, Shelter Survey, Department of Defense. Note: The text of the caption closely mirrors that of a draft Fallout Shelter Sign Fact Sheet which can be viewed here:

[viii] “Civil Defense: Boom to Bust,” Time magazine, May 18, 1962. The name of the businessman is Frank F. Norton, president of the National Shelter Association and owner of the Atomic Shelter Corp.

[ix] John M. Goshko, “$93 Million U.S. Hunt for Shelters Started,” Washington Post, December 2, 1961. For the Rockefeller reference and an excellent history of the origins of the fallout shelter program see Fred Kaplan, The Wizards of Armageddon (New York: Simon and Shuster, 1983), pp. 307-314.

[x] L.C. McHugh, “Ethics in the Shelter Doorway,” America, September 30, 1961. For more on McHugh see:

[xi] Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., A Thousand Days (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1965), p. 749.

[xii] President John F. Kennedy, “Radio and Television Report to the American People on the Berlin Crisis,” July 25, 1961, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. To view and listen to the speech see:

[xiii] For examples of some of the more absurd civil defense accessories see Edward Zuckerman, The Day After World War III (New York: Viking, pp. 137-138).

[xiv] Life magazine, September 15, 1961; Fallout Protection: What to Know and Do About Nuclear Attack, For more on the JFK Life issue, see:

[xv] Department of Defense, Office of Civil Defense, U.S. Government Printing Office, O—621904, 1961, 46 pages. Civil Defense Fireside Chat – 1961, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Theodore Sorenson Papers, Box 30, Civil Defense. For more on the civil defense booklet, see: For more on the Fireside Chat, see:

[xvi] See above citation for “Fireside Chat.”

[xvii] For reference on civil defense budget see Fred Kaplan, Wizards of Armageddon (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1983), p. 314 (Kaplan describes how the Kennedy administration’s total civil defense budget request of $695 million was “whittled down” by Congress to just $80 million by the summer of 1962); Pittman’s bitterness over how he was stymied in his role in the Kennedy administration is a subjective opinion, but one that we feel is clear from reading the entire oral history interview.

[xviii] “Director Chosen for Civil Dense,” New York Times, August 31, 1961; “Molder of Civil Defense, Steuart Lansing Pittman,” New York Times, October 30, 1961.

[xix] Steuart L. Pittman oral history interview by William W. Moss, September 18, 1970, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, pp. 6-8.

[xx] Jack Raymond, “U.S. Civil Defense Director Resigns,” New York Times, March 9, 1964. Note: In a December 19, 2003 e-mail response from Pittman’s secretary, Linda Loomis, to Bill Geerhart, she quoted her boss as saying “If I was involved in decisions on the fallout shelter sign, I have no recollection of it…”

[xxi] “White Plains Selected for Atom Shelter Study,” Reporter Dispatch, September 1, 1961.

[xxii] For description of pre-National Fallout Shelter Program shelters and signage see the report “Status of Civil Defense in America’s Largest Cities,” American Municipal Association, Washington, D.C., November 1954. For reference to WWII-era shelter signs see “CD Head Fends Questions on Closed Dupont Shelter,” Washington Post, June 1, 1963. The “afterthought” nature of the handling of the sign is evidenced in Blakeley’s narrative of how he came to be chosen to head up its development.

[xxiii] Bill Geerhart interview with Robert W. Blakeley, August 12, 2006. For biographical information on M.G. Keith Barney see: “Gen. K.R. Barney, of Army Engineers (Obituary),” Washington Post, January 13, 1977.

[xxiv] Bill Geerhart interview with Robert W. Blakeley, August 12, 2006. Note: In Blakeley’s 1986 oral history interview for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, he stated the following when asked why he might have been chosen for the Fallout Shelter Sign project: “Well, it initially came because they saw it as a printing matter because of that railroad board. But that was not the solution to the problem. When I found out they didn’t have criteria (for the sign), I created my own criteria.” -- Robert W. Blakeley oral history conducted by Frank N. Schubert, April 9, 1986 and June 25, 1986; U.S. Army Corps of Engineers History Office Archive; p. 65.

[xxv] Bill Geerhart interview with Robert W. Blakeley, August 12, 2006. For radiation symbol reference see “Additional Comments on the Development of the Radiation Warning Symbol,” by Saul Harris, a paper contained in the book by Ronald L. Kathren and Paul L. Ziemer, Health Physics: A Backward Glance (New York: Pergamon Press, 1980), p. 108.

[xxvi] Detail on founding date of Blair, Inc. derived from Shy S. Greenspan biographical material provided to CONELRAD by the current co-owner of the company, Blair Jackson; other biographical details, including date of death, derived from the following: “Shy S. Greenspan, Commercial Artist (Obituary),” Washington Post, September 8, 2000; Details on size of Blair, Inc.’s art department and Shy S. Greenspan’s “hands-on” worth habits derived from an August 22, 2006 interview with Blair, Inc. employee Bob Love conducted by Bill Geerhart. Mr. Love started with the company in October of 1961.

[xxvii] Scott Jackson e-mail to Bill Geerhart, August 15, 2006; Blair Jackson e-mail to Bill Geerhart, August 31, 2006.

[xxviii] Bill Geerhart interview with Robert W. Blakeley, August 12, 2006.

[xxix] The debate over whether the Fallout Shelter Sign symbol was influenced by the radiation warning symbol seems to have been started by Saul Harris in a paragraph in his paper “Additional Comments on the Development of the Radiation Warning Symbol” which appeared in the book by Ronald L. Kathren and Paul L. Ziemer, Health Physics: A Backward Glance (New York: Pergamon Press, 1980), p. 108. Harris’s assertion that “the original symbol proposed for the fallout shelter program was the standard radiation symbol, and in red and yellow” is directly contradicted by the comments to CONELRAD by Robert W. Blakeley. Biographical notes on Harris (who died in 1983) that accompany a description of his papers at the University of Maryland state that he worked for the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare (DHEW) from 1961 to 1972. It is possible that Harris’s claim re: the Fallout Shelter Sign stems from the belated 1962 complaint from DHEW Secretary Abraham Ribicoff to Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara that the existing Fallout Shelter Sign too closely resembled the radiation warning symbol. See reference to this in the main body of the article. For biographical information on Harris see:

[xxx] Clarence P. Hornung, Hornung’s Handbook of Designs and Devices, Second Revised Edition (New York: Dover Publications, 1946), p. 39, figure 349. Steven Heller, former art director for the New York Times, confirmed in an April 20, 2010 e-mail to Bill Geerhart the prevalence of the book: “Yes, the Hornung book was very well paged in its day and after.” Bob Love stated in an April 20, 2010 telephone interview with Bill Geerhart that he does not remember seeing the book in the Blair, Inc. offices in the early 1960s, but added that he could not rule out its use either.

[xxxi] Memorandum RE: Statutory Rights to Design of Fallout Shelter Sign from Lt. Col. George F. Westerman, JAGC, Chief, Patents Division to General Counsel, Chief of Engineers, November 6, 1961. From the Capacity Fallout Shelter Sign Certification Mark file maintained by U.S. Army Legal Services Agency, Office of the Judge Advocate General, Department of the Army.

[xxxii] Clarence P. Hornung, Hornung’s Handbook of Designs and Devices, Second Revised Edition (New York: Dover Publications, 1946), p. 207.

[xxxiii] Bill Geerhart interview with Robert W. Blakeley, August 12, 2006. Per co-owner of Blair, Inc., Blair Jackson in an August 31, 2006 e-mail to Bill Geerhart: “We, presently, do not have any info relating to the design of the fallout shelter symbol in the 1960s. The company moved twice in its 54 years and old files were then discarded.” A November 19, 2003 National Archives and Records Administration e-mail to Bill Geerhart described a limited number of textual materials related to the National Fallout Shelter Program, but there were no “mock-ups” of other versions of the sign. The only material the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers retains on the development of the Fallout Shelter Sign is the oral history with Robert W. Blakeley previously cited.

[xxxiv] Bill Geerhart interview with Robert W. Blakeley, August 12, 2006. Biographical information on Col. Warren S. Everett and confirmation that he was the Director of the National Fallout Shelter Survey and Marking Program in 1961 derived from Who’s Who in the World, 1991-1992 (Wilmette, IL: Marquis, 1992), p. 315 and obituary published on the Association of Graduates USMA website (www.aog.usma,edu/class/crmp/2004/bios/everett.htm). Confirmation of Powell Pierpoint’s position as Special Assistant to the Secretary of the Army from Michael J. Broadhead, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, History Office, in an e-mail to Bill Geerhart dated August 30, 2006. Biographical information on Powell Pierpoint derived from “Deaths, Pierpoint, Powell,” New York Times, November 20, 1998.

[xxxv] Bill Geerhart interview with Robert W. Blakeley, August 12, 2006.

[xxxvi] Bill Geerhart interview with Robert W. Blakeley, August 12, 2006.

[xxxvii] Bill Geerhart interview with Robert W. Blakeley, August 12, 2006. The Annual Statistical Report for the Department of Defense, Office of Civil Defense, Fiscal Year 1962 issued June 30, 1962, p. 12, spells out the initial “Shelter Sign Contracts” in great detail: Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Co. (3M) was awarded a $354,000 contract to produce 400,000 “Outside Type I Aluminum” 14” x 20” signs at a unit cost per sign of $0.88500. Alfray Products, Inc. was awarded a $345,800 contract to produce 1 million “Inside Type II Steel” 10” x 14” signs at a unit cost of $0.34580 per sign. Elman Labels of Baltimore, Maryland was awarded a $750 contract to produce 1 million “Marking Stickers (on) Sensitized Paper” at a unit cost of $0.00075 per sticker. According to the 1963 edition of the Statistical Report, p. 13, several other companies were also awarded slices of the Fallout Shelter Sign pie including Nidical, Inc. of Bridgeport, Pennsylvania, Selecto-Flash, Inc. of East Orange, New Jersey and American Art Works of Ohio—a subcontract to Alfray, Products, Inc. 3M continued in fiscal year 1963 to have the largest contract at $240, 000 for the production of 250,000 additional Type I signs.

[xxxviii] “Local Firm to Produce Fallout Shelter Signs,” the Coshocton Tribune, February 26, 1962.

[xxxix] Alfred J. Riley, Obituary, Coshocton Tribune, November 1, 1998. Directory and Internet searches for the company yielded no current listings for the company.

[xl] Robert J. Schoonover’s connection to the production of the Fallout Shelter Sign was initially determined through an entry in the Fall 2005 online edition of the University of Minnesota Institute of Technology Chemical, Engineering and Materials Science Alumni magazine, p.13. In his Class Notes update Schoonover refers to his responsibilities as the company’s chief Fallout Shelter Sign production expert and how he became known as “The Fallout Shelter Sign Guy.” Bill Geerhart interviewed him via e-mail on August 22, 2006 and August 23, 2006.

[xli] Bill Geerhart interview with Robert J. Schoonover August 22, 2006; Schoonover’s estimate of the number of signs made by 3M is accurate. According to the Annual Statistical Reports from the Department of Defense, Office of Civil Defense, 3M was contracted to produce 400,000 Type I signs in fiscal year 1962 and an additional 250,000 in fiscal year 1963.

[xlii] Bill Geerhart interview with Robert W. Blakeley, August 12, 2006.

[xliii] Bill Geerhart interview with Robert W. Blakeley, August 12, 2006.

[xliv] Ribicoff-Pittman correspondence RE: Fallout Shelter Sign and Radiation Symbol, March 20, 1962; March 31, 1962; NARA, Records Group: 397, Box: 105, Folder: Shelter Signs. Biographical information on Dr. Lynn Erland Baker derived from the following resources: American Men and Women of Science (New York: R.R. Bowker, 1973), p. 98; February 2, 2004 e-mail from an alumni representative at the University of Wisconsin-Madison to Bill Geerhart confirmed Baker’s date of death as May 8, 1992 with no surviving family.

[xlv] Memorandum RE: “National Fallout Shelter Signs and Symbols,” February 6, 1962 from Gerald R. Gallagher to William P. Durkee; NARA, Records Group: 397, Box 105; Folder: Shelter Signs.

[xlvi] Reference to the October 4, 1961 “first use” of the sign at the Westchester County Building in White Plains and the “first use in commerce” at the Holabird Elementary School No. 229 on October 11, 1961 found in: Memorandum RE: Statutory Rights to Design of Fallout Shelter Sign from William R. Orlandi, Deputy General Counsel, Office of Engineers, November 21, 1961 to the Chief, Patents Division, Judge Advocate General, Department of the Army. From the Capacity Fallout Shelter Sign Certification Mark file maintained by U.S. Army Legal Services Agency, Office of the Judge Advocate General, Department of the Army. Note: CONELRAD was curious to learn whether these first two signs still existed and contacted representatives of the Westchester County Building and the Holabird Elementary School (now Holabird Academy). Per William Murphy who worked in Westchester County Emergency Operations for many years, the… Per Holabird Academy Principal Lindsay D. Krey, the sign was taken down during the summer of 2009 and now resides in a trophy case in their lobby (e-mail from Lindsay D. Krey to Bill Geerhart, April 22, 2010).

[xlvii] According to the 1965 Annual Statistical Report for the Department of Defense, Office of Civil Defense, the number of exterior signs posted as of June 30, 1965 was 140,000 and the number of interior signs was 475,000.

[xlviii] Examples of sign markings as political events include: “First Fallout Shelter Area,” Lancaster Eagle-Gazette, January 13, 1963 (on the front page of the newspaper there is a photograph of Lancaster, Ohio Mayor Walter Kaurneyer overseeing a sign posting); “Fallout Shelter,” Ironwood Daily Globe, October 19, 1962 (Ironwood, MI Mayor Pro Tem Stanley Nezworski is seen in a photograph posting a Fallout Shelter Sign); “Mark Shelters,” Manitowoc Herald-Times, January 24, 1963 (Manitowoc, WI Mayor Robert Rand presided over the first Fallout Shelter Sign marking in his county. For other examples see: Examples of Fallout Shelter Sign protests can be found here:

[xlix] Memorandum RE: “Proposal for Shelter Sign Awareness Campaign,” March 3, 1962, from Omer D. King, Jr. to Mr. Smith; NARA, Records Group: 397, Box 105; Folder: Shelter Signs.

[l] To this day, a reference can be found on the FEMA website to “public buildings…designated as fallout shelters.” See “Before a Nuclear Blast,” subheading “To prepare for a nuclear blast, you should do the following…” located at this URL: (accessed by CONELRAD on April 27, 2010). An e-mail to FEMA on February 27, 2010 inquiring about whether a federal directive was ever issued to remove Fallout Shelter Signs from buildings was responded to the same day with the above link. A follow-up e-mail advising the sender that the link does not answer the question has not been responded to yet. If it is, this endnote will be updated. Note: As late as 1982 new Fallout Shelter Signs were still being issued to local civil defense authorities. See Gloria Hizer, “Plans Made to Handle Nuclear Crisis,” Pharos-Tribune (Logansport, IN), September 3, 1982. Marilyn Braun, who was the Greensboro, NC Emergency Management Coordinator from 1979 through 2009 told Bill Geerhart in an April 27, 2010 interview that she never saw a federal directive to remove Fallout Shelter Signs from buildings. She added that this does not mean that one was never issued.

[li] For examples of the Fallout Shelter Sign in popular culture see:

[lii] November 18, 1973 Washington Post clipping of an advertisement for The Who concert (for December 6, 1973 at the Captial Centre) using the Fallout Shelter Sign can be seen in the Capacity Fallout Shelter Sign Certification Mark file maintained by U.S. Army Legal Services Agency, Office of the Judge Advocate General, Department of the Army.

[liii] Bill Geerhart interview with Robert W. Blakeley, August 12, 2006.

[liv] After several communications with the Department of Defense Bill Geerhart was referred to speak with the Historian of the Office of the Secretary of Defense, Dr. Alfred Goldberg. Dr. Goldberg--who has since retired--told Geerhart in September of 2003 that he knew nothing about the history of the sign. Other government and private entities contacted by CONELRAD about the Fallout Shelter Sign include: NARA, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (U.S.A.C.E.), the Government Services Administration, the Department of Energy, the Naval Facilities Engineering Command Historian’s Office and the American Sign Museum in Cincinnati, OH. NARA and the U.S.A.C.E. provided some documentation and guidance, but otherwise, it was a long slog.

[lv] Dr. Dennis Patton, “The Evolution of the Radiation Symbol,” The Journal of Nuclear Medicine, Vol. 42, No. 6, June 2001, p. 33N.