Carl Abbott is Professor Emeritus of Urban Studies and Planning at Portland State University and author of Imagining Urban Futures: Cities in Science Fiction and What We Might Learn from Them (Wesleyan University Press, 2016)
Credits for the 1957 CBS airing of The Day Called ‘X’ list the cast as “the people of the city of Portland, Oregon.” City officials, including the mayor, got lead roles.
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Portland, Oregon, was already a television star a half century before Portlandia. On December 8, 1957, CBS aired The Day Called ‘X’, a documentary style dramatization showing the city responding to an impeding nuclear attack from Soviet bombers arcing over Alaska.
The 27-minute film opens with wailing air raid sirens wailing and Portland’s mayor speeding to an emergency headquarters. It then cuts to an introduction by actor Glenn Ford, who sets the serious tone and provides the narrative voice-over. Viewers see the beginning of “an average day in an average American city,” with paper routes, breakfast routines, men at work, and kindergarteners in their classroom. Five and a half minutes into the film—at 10:32 am on a clear sunny day—the news breaks that bombers are a little more than three hours away.
Portland springs into action: City workers know their jobs, hospitals evacuate, children hurry home from school, a mom calmly packs four kids into her sedan to head beyond the radiation zone. Downtown empties as drivers follow the rules and traffic flows smoothly outward at a steady 15 mph. The story cuts periodically to the operations center where police, fire, engineering, and health officials share updates. The story ends three hours after it starts—the sirens sound again, evacuation stops, and people take cover with bombers supposedly overhead, leaving viewers to contemplate what might happen next to a city “the size of Hiroshima.”
Portland had already shown its enthusiasm for civil defense. Two years earlier the city and state had staged the preparedness drill Operation Greenlight, which provided a template for the 1957 script. On September 27, 1955, 101,000 Portlanders evacuated 1,000 blocks in the center of the city and headed for dispersed reception centers as they followed flashing green traffic lights that marked escape routes. The exercise mobilized medical personnel, highway crews, and emergency responders at staging centers 20-30 miles outside the city center and even designated the number of evacuees that would be assigned to each Oregon county.
The city cooperated with the filming. The credits list the cast as “the people of the city of Portland Oregon,” playing themselves. Portland officials got lead roles. Mayor Terry Schrunk, in the first of four terms, acquitted himself well in front of the cameras. The city made its new emergency command center available for dramatic scenes in which civil defense workers track the approach of the bombers on a giant wall map. Built into a hillside six miles from downtown, the Kelly Butte Control Center could accommodate three hundred people for up to a week with its own power, telephone system, and air filtration.
Portland was an ideal city for testing out civil defense efforts—an adamantly ordinary place that served the farm and forest industries of the Pacific Northwest, ran regional resources through mils and factories, and shipped their output from the region’s busiest port. Portlanders were overwhelmingly white, conservative, and tight with their tax dollars.
The Day Called ‘X’ was a late installment in the optimistic civil defense program of the Eisenhower years. By 1963, when Portland mothballed its own civil defense effort, unstoppable ballistic missiles were replacing bombers and the growing power of thermonuclear warheads was rendering evacuation plans obsolete. When Dr. Strangelove arrived in 1964, the 1957 CBS program was a relic of a different era.