Texas Has A Brand New School
Office of Civil Defense
"In South Texas, they grow cactus, and kids! Some think the cactus has all the luck, all it really has to do is stand there-the kids go to school." To put it simply, while the cactus can protect itself, the children cannot. As an opening line, this interesting biological comparison establishes the plot for Texas Has a Brand New School, a 1965 production released by The Office of Civil Defense. (1) That year, in the vast flatlands outside of Laredo, the governing board for The United Independent School District voted to build a brand new senior high school. The decision to move forward with such an ambitious project was not made lightly, but in fact came after many months of heated debate, fiscal planning and architectural negotiation. In addition to a state-of-the-art facility equipped with modern learning tools and infrastructure, the board's ultimate goal was to have the school function as a custom built fallout shelter, capable of offering protection to students, staff and the surrounding community in the event of an enemy attack with nuclear weapons. At the time of the film's release, the Office of Civil Defense was actively promoting its National Fallout Shelter Plan and heavily encouraging the inclusion of shelter space in new public building designs. Utilizing The United Independent High School as a prime example of this campaign, Texas Has A Brand New School offers a comprehensive look at the planning and construction stages of a public fallout shelter. It also details feedback from parents and teachers as to how students respond to learning in protected spaces. The film achieves this with a unique, and occasionally haunting, cinematic technique where still images are strung together with voice-over narration (often from the local Texans featured onscreen). Prolific character actor David Wayne provides a tone of calm authority throughout the film.
Wayne, perhaps best remembered today for his roles in Adam's Rib, How to Marry a Millionaire and the 1970's sci-fi hit The Andromeda Strain, examines mankind's comfort with enclosed, naturally protected spaces. This can be anywhere from an office cubicle, to subway stations to the bargain basements of department stores. Acknowledging such areas have been designated as fallout shelters, however, can quickly raise negative connotations. Aware of this problem, architects with the Wyatt C. Hedrick firm (responsible for many historic Texas buildings) sought to make The United Independent High School as "open" as possible. This was done by designing the shelter areas with an abundance of live plants, spacious hallways, artwork, mirrors and ample lighting. Neil Dawson, architect, explains in a smooth Southern drawal, the goal is "to press upon the student that life is about him at all times". Aesthetics aside, the structure also needs to provide physical protection from fallout radiation. The architects opt to do this by placing the majority of the school underground, beneath a fourteen-inch concrete slab. The re-enforced concrete slab would serve as both the shelter roof, and the floor for the gymnasium, auditorium and industrial technology workshops which would be located above-ground. Other staples of a typical school, classrooms, restrooms, administration offices, a cafeteria and a library, are situated in below-grade windowless areas. The film takes several minutes to examine the psychological effect of such a space. Far from feeling claustrophobic, students enthusiastically describe a freedom from distracting outdoor commotions which windows may otherwise offer. Similarly, parents describe increased grades and a greater focus on studies. After this testimony, the tone of the film shifts to a darker mood of emergency preparedness, driven home by a particularly eerie scene. Flashing images of students dancing to a sharp, Mexican-styled melody get increasingly frenetic until they are interrupted by the clanging of an alarm bell.
Wayne elaborates that the school was planned to alleviate any concerns of "double construction"stressing that all areas used for fallout protection would otherwise be needed for a functioning school. For example, the phones and intercom systems located in the administration office make it ideal to serve as a communications center for civil defense. Similarly, the cafeteria easily converts to an emergency kitchen should the need arise. In fact, Wayne proclaims proudly, only one room of the school was needed solely for fallout shelter. This is the storage room for shelter supplies. Located off of the cafeteria, the camera pans along rows of civil defense water drums, food rations and medical supplies. Wishing maximize the comfort of shelter occupants, the school board also voted to include a deep well and a back-up electrical generator in the sheltered area. As the credits role, the scene returns to the students dancing in the auditorium, however, each time they pause to clap with the music, an image of civil defense supplies flashes across the screen. Although the film provides an intrinsic look at the shelter planning process, with run-time of 20 minutes, it was deemed too long to screen for the passing crowds at traveling civil defense displays. To get around this problem, thrifty editors with Du Art Film Labs pared down Texas Has a Brand New School into a 6 minute version titled The Protected School. This abbreviated version was released in February of 1965, 3 months before the premier of the longer film. (2) Interestingly, by 1972, it appears that The Protected School was the only version still available to rent or purchase from government catalogs. Although Texas Has a Brand New School does not appear to have officially been deemed obsolete, it is not listed among other available civil defense films. (3)
How we come across the films featured on this website can often provide an interesting story in its own right. The folks here at Atomic Theater would like to take a moment to express our sincere thanks and gratitude to David Selness for his help in unearthing this difficult to find film. In early 2018, Mr. Selness purchased some film stock online, intending to use it to test a projector. He was pleasantly surprised to find that instead of scrap film, he had actually purchased a complete motion picture: Texas Has a Brand New School. His curiosity led him to research this title and eventually brought him to our summary of The Protected School. Mr. Selness not only reached out to us, but also to The Texas Archive of The Moving Image and media department at The United Independent High School (which still stands in Laredo, Texas). As a result of his efforts, this film was digitized and we were able to provide this write-up of it. Additionally, the staff of United Independent High School received copies of Texas Has a Brand New School and The Protected School, allowing them to teach future generations of local students about their school's unique contribution to America's Cold War history. It is this kind of tenacity and appreciation for otherwise obscure historical subjects which allows us to continue working to preserve and study these films. Thanks again Dave!
Texas Has a Brand New School may be viewed, in its entirety, HERE.
1. Office of Civil Defense. Motion Picture Catalog. U.S. Government Printing Office, 1966. 27.
2. Office of Civil Defense. Motion Picture Catalog. U.S. Government Printing Office, 1966. 22.
3. Department of The Army. Index of Motion Pictures and Related Audio-Visual Aids, 1972. 343.