TARGET...AUSTIN, TEXAS is a fascinating local television artifact from 1960 that presents the fates of several people who choose to embrace or reject civil defense practices in the face of a missile attack on the capital city. The movie was written and narrated by Austin broadcasting legend Richard "Cactus" Pryor for the Lyndon B. Johnson family-owned TV station KTBC. The 20 minute black and white film has a foreboding vibe and spooky public domain soundtrack that distinguishes it from the typical Cold War educational reel. Indeed, it is more CARNIVAL OF SOULS than DUCK AND COVER.
TARGET begins with shots of a routine June morning in the life of Austin: Congress Avenue traffic, swimming at Barton Springs, an Ernest Borgnine picture (the spy thriller, MAN ON A STRING) playing at the Paramount Theater, students attending summer classes at UT. Mr. Pryor's pitch perfect narration accompanies this lengthy montage of the ordinary. And it is during this sequence that we meet our archetypal players going about their normal, pre-Bomb lives. They are:
Caroline Gilbert, a secretary in the Perry Brooks office building who, we learn from our omnipotent narrator, is taking advantage of her boss being away on business by catching up on her personal correspondence.
Clarence Phillips, an insurance salesman who is dining with client Matt Martinez at Martinez's business establishment, the El Rancho, a Mexican restaurant.
Dorothy and Kathy Klukis, a mother and daughter, are hanging up the wash in the back yard. Dorothy's husband, Roger, is working in his law office at the downtown Brown Building.
The action of the film is set in motion when Bob Gooding, a KTBC radio announcer reacts to a civil defense alert that occurs right in the middle of his Safeway supermarket spot during the noon news. Gooding immediately switches the station to the CONELRAD frequency of 640kc and loads the pre-recorded CONELRAD announcement tape reel. Within moments, government official Terrell Blodgett appears at the studio and makes the following dire announcement:
This is your Austin Civil Defense Director with an urgent message: Enemy missiles have been reported over Canada traveling in a southerly direction. An air raid warning has been declared in this area. This means that possibly within 20 minutes the Austin area may be hit with missiles. There will not be time to evacuate. REPEAT: There will not be time to evacuate.
At nearby Bergstrom Air Force Base, the pilots scramble to their B-52s in a "well-rehearsed routine." And bureaucrats are shown assembling in a massive fallout shelter / control center located beneath Austin's Public Safety Building.
The three main characters are now revisited so that the viewer can appreciate how they react to the crisis and hopefully learn something about survival:
Dorothy Klukis—representing the Klukis family— is robotically calm and thus the film dwells on her civil defense approved actions. Cactus drones on approvingly as she closes her drapes:
But Dorothy Klukis does not panic. She knows they are prepared. That their home contains a fallout shelter designed specifically for this emergency. She knows that the shelter room is stocked with at least two weeks supply of canned food, bottled water and fruit juices. Methodically she begins to close the windows of the house.
The secretary, Caroline Gilbert, on the other hand, reacts with mild annoyance that civil defense authorities are ruining her private correspondence time with another one of their "drills." She casually applies make-up before heeding the order to descend into the building's basement.
Ironically, it is the insurance agent, Clarence Phillips, who completely loses his cool. He dashes out of the Mexican restaurant in a cold sweat, hops into his car and brazenly defies the official instructions not to evacuate the city.
Can you see where this is all heading?
At 15 minutes past the original radio alert, Roger Klukis arrives home and the family descends into their private (and presumably secret) shelter and they— this is important— "lock the thick door." The narrator's subtext is clear: Better batton down the hatches or risk the radioactive Kravitzes from next door wandering in for a cup of sugar and all your canned goods.
And what is inveterate letter-writer Caroline Gilbert thinking at this perilous time? Cactus channels her peeved inner thoughts in his mellifluous tones:
She's not frightened, only irritated. She's convinced that this is just another practice alert. She's fretting because they won't let her leave to call her mother and tell her she'll be late for lunch. She's considering writing a complaint to the Director of Civil Defense for this "useless inconvenience— grown men playing war!"
Predictably, Clarence Phillips' panicky "plan" to burn rubber out of the city has been met with tragic results. After he runs out of gas on a road just outside Austin, the insurance man jumps out of his car and begins running wildly. The already obvious point is hammered home in a delightfully Serling-esque touch of narration: "Clarence Phillips is a very frightened man."
At 19 minutes past the alert, the missile hits 25 miles west of the city in the hills of the Edwards Plateau. Meanwhile, off camera somewhere in Moscow, one imagines that a Russian targeting specialist is surely being stripped of his rank and shipped to the nearest gulag for not properly mapping the coordinates of Austin. The film depicts the explosion with stock footage of a mushroom cloud and close-ups on the terrified faces of those left out in the open to greet the Bomb's merciless fury.
After the blast, state and local government is shown to be functioning smoothly as if nothing stronger than a swarm of tornadoes has swept by. Weather reports of fallout patterns are calmly teletyped from the State Control Center to civil defense directors around the state and then communicated to local residents who were smart enough to take cover with a radio:
This is your Austin Civil Defense Director. Heavy radioactive fallout is expected along the line from San Antonio to Waco to Mason to Brenman and 15 miles on either side of this line. This fallout may be expected at any time. This fallout will be very heavy in the Austin area and anyone in the open will receive a lethal dose in a short period of time. Take shelter immediately.
Safe from this fallout, the Klukis family dines on a meal of "canned beef, peas and bottled water" in the comfort of their shelter.
Caroline Gilbert, finally convinced that this is no drill, helps the building manager itemize the food (and beer!) scavenged from neighboring restaurant establishments before the Bomb.
The pitiless voiceover conveys the sad condition of our insurance man: "Clarence Phillips, several miles outside of Austin, is not thinking about food. He's been vomiting for some time now. He's also suffering from diarrhea."
And then the wait begins. A montage of a deserted Austin (including the Paramount theater marquee) is shown while Cactus's narration is heard:
Quietly the radioactivity decays... the streets become less deadly...the days become a week— two weeks. In the shelter of the Klukis home, the occupants are becoming restless (editor's note: Roger Kluklis has finally removed his tie). They long for sunlight and fresh air...
But just as the Klukis family is getting a little stir crazy, the radio announcement they have all been anxiously waiting for is heard (Roger Klukis reacts to the radio as if the Longhorns have just scored a winning touchdown):
This is your Austin Civil Defense Director. Our monitors report that radiation in the city is now decayed to a point where those in shelters may come out without harm.
To wrap things up, Cactus fills us in on what the news means to each of our three characters:
To Roger and Dorothy and Kathy Klukis, this is the end of the storm. To Caroline Gilbert, this is the answer to a prayer. To Clarence Phillips, this news is of no consequence (a shot of Phillips dead on the side of a road is seen).
The lesson of this cautionary atomic tale seems to be that if you don't panic and can endure two weeks of close confinement, canned food (and beer!), you, too, can beat the Bomb. And just what does beating the Bomb get you in the surreal world of TARGET? Based on the post-blast mosaic of a quieted Austin presented in the movie, the promise of less traffic on Congress Avenue and the opportunity to finally catch that Ernest Borgnine flick at the Paramount! However, it would probably be best to skip that evening dip at Barton Springs (at least for the next few generations).
NOTES:CONELRAD wishes to thank Coleen Hardin who provided us with a copy of TARGET...AUSTIN, TEXAS. Ms. Hardin, who co-stars in the film as Mrs. Dorothy Klukis, only recently rediscovered the film in her home after many years. Ms. Hardin has remained friends with her screen husband played by Harvey Herbst for decades. Mr. Herbst, along with Coleen and her real life husband, perform in a seniors' singing group called Getting Better All the Time (GBATTS).
Thanks also to history researcher, Susan Burneson, for putting us in touch with Ms. Hardin. If you require research assistance in the Austin area, drop Susan a line.
Perennial Austin personality, Richard "Cactus" Pryor, who was the guiding force behind TARGET, can still be heard on KLBJ-AM (formerly known as KTBC) which is where he began his broadcast career in 1944. In 1968, Pryor appeared in John Wayne's THE GREEN BERETS.
Gordon Wilkison, TARGET's director and editor, has another notable credit to his name: He was the first news photographer on the scene during Charles Whitman's infamous 1966 sniping spree from atop the University of Texas Tower. Wilkison's film footage and his recollections of the event can be seen on here.
Matt Martinez's El Rancho Restaurant is still open for business (in a different location than as depicted in the film). When in Austin, always dine at Matt's El Rancho!
Finally, Susan and Coleen inform CONELRAD that the family fallout shelter seen in TARGET still exists. It is located in a fenced off area near Barton Springs in Zilker Park in downtown Austin.
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