From 1948 to 1971, The Ed Sullivan Show absolutely dominated North American variety TV programming. Whatever was hot in show business found itself on this program, every Sunday night at eight pm. This was the showcase for everyone from Elvis to the Beatles, from Marlon Brando to the Muppets. Everyone watched. Ed Sullivan would usually present something “for the kids” – a clown, jugglers, you-name-it. Parents knew that whatever was on Sullivan would be fine for kids to watch.
On May 27, 1956, I was a happy nine-year-old who, like most of my generation, was sitting down to an hour of Ed Sullivan variety. Little did I know, until close to the end of the show, that I was about to watch something so horrible, so traumatizing, that the memory is still etched indelibly into my inner being.
What Sullivan did was air an animated antiwar film by Joan and Peter Foldes called A Short Vision. In his introduction, all he said to parents was “I’m gonna tell you if you have youngsters in the living room tell them not to be alarmed at this ’cause it’s a fantasy…It is grim, but I think we can all stand it to realize that in war there is no winner.”
So the film started – oh, great! a cartoon. A calm but stark British voice narrating. Something in the night sky, changing shape. Animals look up, are frightened. Visions of adults and children asleep in their beds. And then…horror. A nuclear bomb goes off. We’re given images of flesh melting off faces, eyeballs shrivelling, nothing left of earth but a single flame that soon goes out.
I was scarred by those images. Probably any child who saw it was. Strangely, there was no talk of it. Not at home. Not among friends. Not at school. Maybe we thought that talking about the experience would be reliving it, and thus had to be avoided. Every child I knew must have taken this experience and buried it in a dark place where fears reside, shape our psyches, and rarely surface but in nightmares. And, believe me, there were nightmares.
My younger cousin Mark was often teased by our fourteen-year-old cousin Joel. All Joel had to to bring Mark to panic and tears was to move his fingers down his face, mimicking the melting of flesh in the film. It worked every time.
For the next several weeks when Sullivan came on, I would stay out of the TV room until I knew that the act on the show was safe to watch. Here’s the kicker: Sullivan showed the film again by request two weeks later!
This film has haunted me for almost fifty-seven years. Yesterday, I decided to see if I could find it. I did. I watched it. I remembered almost every moment of it. Even the weird music. The only difference was that when I first saw it, of course, it was on a black and white TV.
Here are two articles on Sullivan’s showing of the film. If you choose to, you can watch the actual film there. A Short Vision is a brilliant antiwar animated film. Sullivan’s motive for showing it was probably courageous and noble. But he should never have shown it to kids at prime time. If you’re my age, and you were living in North America in 1956, you probably saw it. If so, what have you done with the memory of it?
A warning: This film is gruesome, even by today’s standards…