In 1967, Jeff Crane walked out onto North Canton Avenue and winced from his first view of sunlight in 16 years. As his eyes adjusted, he took a nervous look around and saw an unwashed, bushy-bearded, shabbily-dressed, long-haired man stumbling toward him, his eyes glazed and babbling incoherently. His worst fears were realized: civilization had ended.
He was wrong, of course, but how could Mr. Crane or any of the others know the difference between a hippie and a refugee in a post-nuclear barbarian society?
One October night in 1951, WKVD-AM disc jockey Wink Timbers, inspired by Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds” thirteen years earlier, decided to broadcast a similar dramatized program, the story of a nuclear conflict having begun against Soviet Russia, and the communist superpower retaliating with their own a-bombs and a legion of scientifically bred mole-people. With the formation of the Warsaw Pact and the Doctrine of Massive Retaliation having been enacted earlier that year, most elements of the broadcast were, perhaps, a bit too realistic for most listeners.
There was mass looting throughout the city by residents afraid of having to stock-up on supplies. A riot in Ataraxia Park resulted in 17 people being hospitalized and sword being broken off of the General Gainsborough statue for the sixth time in its history. It’s estimated that 64% of the city’s toilets were intentionally blocked up, following a radio warning that mole-people might try to climb up through the sewer system. One animal lover, concerned that communists might like to eat wild animals, managed to free roughly a quarter of the population of Pullman Zoo before being eaten alive by a just-released Bengal tiger. It’s believed that the famous parrots of Canberry Plaza are descendents of birds released that night.
Miraculously, that was the only fatality that night, and most of the damage to the community was quickly repaired. The only people to experience long-term damage from the radiocast were a handful of apartment-dwellers from the Hartshorne Tower, on North Canton Ave.
Sally Kerns, age 11, was unable to sleep, so she turned on the radio and heard the broadcast. Terrified of the images it conjured of destructive bomb blasts and large-eyed commie mole-men, Sally ran through the family apartment and to her parents’ bedroom. After putting their clothes back on, they listened to the radio for just a few seconds before flying into a panic.
Barry Kerns, Sally’s father, ran to the door of his best friend and next-door neighbor, Jeff Crane, telling him that they might still have time to get into the bomb shelter under the abandoned Aulaeum Theatre across the street. Crane roused his family and the two men decided to also “rescue” the old widow who lived by herself down the hall. Dressed in pajamas and robes, the Hartshorne Tower residents hurried downstairs, across Canton Avenue, into The Aulaeum. Once inside the bomb shelter, they bolted the door and prayed the communists would never find them.
The shelter’s new residents included The Kerns: Barry, wife Linda, and little Sally; the Cranes: father Jeff, wife Terry, 14-year old Scott, and 8 year old Tyler aka “Tuffy”; widow Mabel Drake and her beloved exotic shorthaired kitten, Mr. Wheezers.
The shelter had massive stockpiles of canned food and running water. And, since it had been used a storage area during the theatre’s heyday, an eclectic collection of costumes, and a few set pieces.
The whole story of the group’s underground ordeal can be read in Tyler Crane’s 1978 autobiography, “My World – Population: Nine.”
* the death of Mabel Drake, four years after locking the shelter’s door. The patriarchs of the Crane and Kerns families had to break her hands to rescue the still-living Mr. Wheezers. Kerns then “buried” her in a costume trunk that was placed in a corner and rarely approached or spoken about thereafter.
* The marriage of Scott and Sally, six years into the stay. He was 20 and she was only 17. There was, of course, neither clergy nor justice of the peace present during the brief ceremony, but everyone felt it that as all right, considering the circumstances. The rest of the survivors agreed to shut their eyes and plug their ears for a full day for the honeymoon, though in his autobiography, Tyler admitted to some glances.
* The production of 45 separate plays, all written and directed by Tyler, frequently dealing with themes of the apocalypse, fratricide, and beekeeping. Only Tyler himself ever felt comforted by these productions, though everyone participated. Linda echoed the thoughts of the group in an interview many years later when she said, “it was something to do.”
* The birth of Scott and Sally’s baby girl, Mabel Crane, eight years into the exile.
The food finally ran out after 16 years, and Jeff Crane volunteered to head outside and see the current state of the city and civilization. When the first person he spotted was the aforementioned drug-addled hippy, he ran back inside and bolted the doors again. For the next three years, the families survived on rats, bugs, and for one glorious Thanksgiving dinner they ate the aged Mr. Wheezers (they actually had no idea what time of year it was, having long since lost track of the days, but took comfort in calling it Thanksgiving).
Three years later, 19 years after their initial retreat from the world, the entire group emerged together to face whatever fate the world had in store for them. Mabel Crane, now 11, had never been outside of the shelter in her life. This time, they quickly discovered their exile had been unnecessary.
What came next?
The Cranes and the Kerns sold the movie rights to Hollywood for several million dollars, though a movie was never made. Executives deemed two-hours made up predominantly of people staring at each other in silence would be too boring. “Try it for 19 years,” was Barry’s response.
Tyler Crane wrote the aforementioned best-selling autobiography, but fell into depression when his fictional works for the stage failed to connect with audiences not actually forced to stay in the room. In 1987, he was found dead, back in the Aulaeum Theatre bomb shelter, dressed in drag and the spitting image of the late Mabel Drake.
Mabel Crane seemed to suffer no ill-effects of experiencing her childhood in a single small room underground and went on to record the disco-era hit “Bomb Shelter Baby.” She is now happily married and still living in the city.
When asked, years later, if he felt sorry for the trouble he’d inadvertently caused the city and, especially, Bomb Shelter Nine by playing his prank, Timbers said, “Hell no! Too bad for those folks, but it turned out to be great publicity for the station! Plus, while that recording was on I was making it with the KVD night secretary in the janitor’s closet. Hot-cha!”
– B. Brockie