Racial tensions turn deadly in Rod Serling’s 1958 live TV drama, “A Town Has Turned to Dust”

By on June 12, 2018

Rod Serling‘s “A Town Has Turned to Dust” — which originally aired on June 19, 1958, on CBS’s “Playhouse 90″ — depicts how racial tensions turn deadly in Dempseyville, a fictional Southwest U.S. border town in the 1870s, suffering from drought, poverty and despair.

The live black & white dramatic TV play — collected in An Evening in the Zone — is now streaming on the other side of The Twilight Zone, on Night Flight Plus.

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“A Town Has Turned to Dust” begins with the saga of a 16-year old Mexican-American teen named “Pancho Rivera” (Mario Alcalde).

He’s awaiting trial after being charged with robbing the store and rape the wife of a white man, “Jerry Paul,” played by William Shatner, probably still best known as “Captain James Tiberius ‘Jim’ Kirk” from TV’s “Star Trek.”

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Shatner’s storekeeper stirs up the town’s racial tensions, and ultimately he leads an angry lynch mob to hang Rivera from the town’s flagpole.

The ineffectual Sheriff Denton — played by future Academy Award-winning thespian Rod Steiger — tells his deputies that Rivera’s lynching reminds him that some sixteen years earlier, during another brutal drought, he saw a “migrant worker” dragged to death behind a wagon.

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In a final voice-over narration, a reporter from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch named Hannify (legendary character actor James Gregory) tells the world what he’s just seen:

“Dempseyville got rain tonight… for the first time in four months. But it came too late. The town had already turned to dust. It had taken a look at itself, crumbled and disintegrated. Because what it saw was the ugly picture of prejudice and violence. Two men died within five minutes and fifty feet of each other only because human beings have that perverse and strange way of not knowing how to live side by side. Until they do, this story that I am writing now will have no ending but must go on and on.”

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Read more about Rod Serling’s “A Town Has Turned to Dust” below.

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Like much of Serling’s best-known dramatic work, there are a few twists and turns along the way in “A Town Turned to Dust,” one of the early teleplays written for “Playhouse 90,” which first began airing on October 11, 1956.

Serling’s stories often showed his deep concern for the human condition, and espoused his critical opinions about war, hate, racism, prejudice, bigotry and corporate bureaucracy, among other themes.

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Serling had originally wanted to tell the story of true-life lynching Emmett Till, but when he turned in the final script to CBS, it had none of its original black vs. white racial overtones.

During interviews, Serling didn’t hold back talking about his disappointments and struggles with network sponsors, censors or pressure groups.

Obviously still bitter about having to make revisions, he once told he Cincinnati Post:

“By the time ‘A Town Has Turned to Dust’ went before the cameras, my script had turned to dust. Emmett Till became, as Time noted, a romantic Mexican who loved the shopkeeper’s wife, but ‘only with his eyes.’ My sheriff couldn’t commit suicide because one of our sponsors was an insurance firm and they claimed that suicide often leads to complications in settling policy claims. The lynch victim was called Clemson, but we couldn’t use this ’cause South Carolina had an all-white college by that name. The setting was moved to the Southwest in the 1870s. The phrase ‘twenty men in hoods’ became ‘twenty men in homemade masks.’ They chopped it up like a roomful of butchers at work on a steer.”

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Serling also said:

“Drama and television must walk tip-toe and in agony lest it offend some cereal-buyer from a given state below the Mason-Dixon. So instead of a negro, we give battle against that prejudice visited upon American Indians or Alaskan Eskimos or Armenian peasants under the Czar. Now, yes, all prejudice is alike down at its very ugly roots, and all prejudice is indeed a universal evil, but you don’t conquer intolerance by disguising it, by clothing it in different trappings, by slapping at it with a wispy parable.”

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Serling had signed a one-year contract in mid-’58 with CBS-TV, but after having to deal repeatedly with network censors and the show’s producers, he decided to write less for live TV shows like “Playhouse 90″ and transitioned to scripted series.

In 1959, he created, wrote and began hosting “The Twilight Zone” series, which aired on CBS between 1959 and 1964.

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In 1960, Serling recycled some of ideas again found in “A Town Has Turned to Dust” for a “Twilight Zone” episode called “Dust.”

Shatner also revisited some of his character’s motivations for his first leading man role in a feature film, a racist rabble-rouser in Roger Corman‘s 1961 film The Intruder, set in the fictional small southern town in the Deep South.

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In 1998, cable’s Science Fiction channel filmed Serling’s “A Town Has Turned to Dust,” but its producers changed its setting from the 1870s Southwest to a distant, post-apocalyptic future, where all of planet Earth is a drought-parched desert.

Their production was dedicated to the memory of Emmett Till.

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Serling’s original “Playhouse 90″ teleplay for “A Town Has Turned to Dust” can be found at the Rod Serling Archives at Ithaca College, a private liberal arts college in New York’s Finger Lakes region, where Serling taught classes in his later years.

In 1975, he died two days after undergoing open-heart surgery in a Rochester, NY hospital. He was 50 years old.

Watch “A Town Turned to Dust” — directed by John Frankenheimer — on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.