Fifty years ago tonight, a jolly (i.e. alcohol-fueled) birthday party was interrupted by an emergency radio announcement: unidentified objects, presumably enemy missiles, have been spotted heading toward the US. Sheesh, talk about a buzzkill.
“The Shelter,” written by Rod Serling and directed by Lamont Johnson, has all the hallmarks of a classic Serling script: crisis (the possibility of a nuclear attack), moral dilemma (only one family on the block has a bomb shelter), and a preachy indictment of man’s tendency to act badly in the face of adversity (the rest of the neighborhood wants access to the bomb shelter, and isn’t interested in taking no for an answer). What’s missing? Well, there’s virtually zero supernatural or fantasy trappings (in fact, this is the third straight TZ episode that lacks an overt divergence from reality), but that’s not an automatic deal breaker.
What is a deal breaker, however, is the fact that Serling already told this same story, back in season one’s “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.” The unseen menace there was a presumed alien invasion, but the basic story --- in which neighbors turn on one another --- is essentially the same. As with last week’s “The Arrival,” Serling’s idea well seems to have run dry, so he’s pilfering earlier episodes for ideas. It’s a disappointing trend that will continue throughout the rest of the series. Great, even brilliant Serling-penned episodes are still to come, but consistent quality is no longer guaranteed. The glory days of the first two seasons are clearly over.
Having said all of that, “The Shelter” is by no means terrible. It’s just… stale. Predictable. Maybe it was more shocking and relevant in 1961, given the political climate. My mom remembers lying awake at night when she was young, scared half out of her mind that Russia could launch its missiles at any time. Even as late as my own childhood in the 70’s and early 80’s, all-out nuclear war was a real and vivid possibility. Remember that 80’s TV movie The Day After? I was in 7th grade when it aired, and let me tell ya, that thing scared the shit out of me. Fast forward 30 years: how often does the concept of World War III even cross our minds? The world is a different place now. My kids, who are now transitioning into adulthood, have never lived in fear of a nuclear holocaust. The more plausible threat to their way of life? A complete economic collapse, followed by worldwide Chinese rule.
“The Shelter” sports two familiar TZ faces: Sandy Kenyon (who we last saw in season two’s “The Odyssey of Flight 33,” and who we’ll see again in season four’s “Valley of the Shadow”) and Jack Albertson (who will appear --- and reappear --- as the titular genie in season four’s “I Dream of Genie”). Albertson is better known as Grandpa Joe in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, not to mention “The Man” himself on TV’s Chico and the Man.
“The Shelter” does not feature an original musical score; rather, existing cues were selected by the series’ musical director Lud Gluskin from the vast CBS Music Library (this practice is commonly referred to as “stock scoring”). Most stock-scored episodes feature cues by various composers from various sources; however, almost every cue heard in “The Shelter” was composed by Robert Drasnin from a suite called, simply, “Serling.”
Drasnin is also responsible for one of my all-time favorite exotica LPs, 1959’s Voodoo: Exotic Music from Polynesia and the Far East (he recorded a follow up in 2007, Voodoo II, which is equally wonderful). Drasnin isn’t typically named among exotica luminaries like Les Baxter and Martin Denny, presumably because of his relatively slim contribution to the genre, but what he did give us is simply marvelous. As of this writing, only the first Voodoo volume is available on iTunes, but both are readily available from Amazon.com. I highly recommend both of 'em. For more information on Mr. Drasnin, go here.
Flashback to 1983: my 7th grade literature teacher, Mike Nygren, gave us an intriguing assignment: create a radio play based on an existing literary work. Having recently discovered The Twilight Zone, I immediately hit upon the idea of adapting an episode. I hadn’t seen “The Shelter” at that point, but I had read Serling’s short story version in his New Stories from The Twilight Zone paperback. The dialogue-heavy story seemed well suited to radio, so I condensed the story into a ten-minute script. My group for the assignment consisted of myself and my friends Donovan Littlejohn and Ignacio Palacios (both of whom I'm still in touch with). We recorded the script using my old Radio Shack tape recorder, and we even included Marius Constant's classic TZ theme (taped directly from a syndication airing on KPTV-12; I tape recorded many episodes before my parents finally gave in to my impassioned pleas and bought a VCR). We got an A for our efforts, as I recall. Damn, I’d love to hear that recording again. I don’t recall if Mr. Nygren kept it, or if maybe I ended up with it afterwards, but either way, I’m pretty sure that cassette is deep inside a landfill by now. Shame. If by some crazy twist of fate I find it, I'll upload it for your listening pleasure (torture?).
Next week: Scarlet O’Hara meets Nicole Kidman. Don’t worry, it’ll make more sense in context.