The Manhattan Project

In partnership with the National Museum of Nuclear Science & HistoryNational Museum of Nuclear Science & History

Lionel Ames's Interview

Printer-friendly version

Lionel Ames' Interview

Lionel Ames is an Army and Manhattan Project veteran. In this interview, he talks about how his brother Maurice "Maury" Shapiro, who worked as a scientist at Los Alamos, was able to get him assigned to the top-secret site. Ames recalls his work at Los Alamos in the chemistry lab, and his role as a cantor for the weekly Jewish services. He also discusses daily life at Los Alamos. He concludes by discussing his post-war life as an entertainer.
Manhattan Project Location(s): 
Date of Interview: 
February 22, 2017
Location of the Interview: 

Kelly: I’m Cindy Kelly, Atomic Heritage Foundation. It’s February 22, 2017. I have Lionel Ames with me. My first question to him is tell us your full name and spell it, please.

Ames: Lionel Ames, L-I-O-N-E-L, Ames, A-M-E-S.

Kelly: Terrific. First question is to tell us something about yourself: when you were born and where.

Ames: Okay. I was born March 6, 1923, in Chicago, Illinois. Then I went to grammar school and went to high school, and I went to two years of engineering college, and then I was drafted. I was in the Army approximately ten months when my brother, Dr. Maurice Shapiro—I will shortly tell you why my name is different, because I was originally Lionel Shapiro. I was drafted in the Army approximately ten months, and my brother went to Los Alamos, New Mexico. He saw soldiers working side-by-side with civilians. He got me on Los Alamos, New Mexico.

I went there, and it was a wonderful place. I worked in the chemistry lab. I worked on the implosion part of the bomb. I loved it. I was there approximately two and a half years, approximately two, two and a half years. Being an entertainer and a freelance cantor, I conducted Friday night services there every Friday. I did it on my own, and I conducted a Passover Seder there at Los Alamos.

When my time was up, Dr. [J. Robert] Oppenheimer sent me a letter asking me to stay on. I was flabbergasted. When I got out, I didn’t accept it, because I wanted to finish college. I went back to Chicago and I finished my engineering degree in industrial engineering.

The next day, I went into show business. That was deep down inside me, went into show business. I changed my name to Lionel Ames, from Lionel Shapiro. That’s what I did. I was in Chicago about two years, and I went to New York for five or six years. I was in three Broadway shows, I did a lot of entertaining there, three Broadway shows as an actor and a singer. Then about five or six years later, I came with a show here, a ten-week show including Carol Burnett, who was there at the time. She was not well-known. It was many years ago. Then I came to California, and I went into show business. That’s my story.

Kelly: That’s a great story. I want to go back to Los Alamos.

Ames: Yes.

Kelly: I am very interested in your work as a freelance cantor, and what you can tell us about what the Jewish community was like among the scientists there on the Hill.

Ames: There were plenty of Jewish people there, because they had a lot of people came to my Friday night services, and they came to my Passover Seder.

I worked at the chemistry lab. Sometimes I went to work at night. I didn’t get paid overtime, but I loved what I was doing. As a matter of fact, I don’t want to brag about it, but I figured something out: the implosion part of the bomb, the liquid that we had to freeze, they froze with a lot of cracks in there. I came up an idea of how to eliminate the cracks. They gave me six people to help me, which I was flattered. Then we worked on it, and I don’t know what the results were, what happened after that. But I guess maybe that’s one of the reasons Dr. Oppenheimer sent me a letter to stay on. I’m not sure.

Kelly: Well, it must have worked.

Ames: Yeah, or something.

Kelly: You must have solved the problem.

Ames: I hope so.

Kelly: Yeah. That’s great. But you changed your name primarily—

Ames: Because I went into show business, from Lionel Shapiro to Lionel Ames, yes.

Kelly: Because of the prejudices in Hollywood?

Ames: It’s a so-called professional name for a better reason. Yeah, you could say that, yeah.

Kelly: I know your brother, your older brother [Maurice "Maury" Shapiro].

Ames: Yes, you told me you knew him well.

Kelly: I did. He was a marvelous man.

Ames: He was a great guy, a great brother.

Kelly: He was your older brother?

Ames: Yeah, he was my only brother. I had four sisters, and then he was my brother.

Kelly: He kind of shepherded you to Los Alamos?

Ames: Yeah. He got me into Los Alamos.

Kelly: You said that he said, “There are Army people, so why don’t you come?” Were you in the Army?

Ames: Not, “Why don’t I come?” He got me in. I wasn’t going to say no.

Kelly: I see. You had a direct invitation to work there. That’s very unusual.

Ames: It’s a good thing. The Army base that I was on was sent overseas. I could have, you know, who knows what would have happened. He saved my life, in more than one way.

Kelly: Yeah. Wow. What do you remember about living in Los Alamos? Where did you live?

Ames: I lived in a barrack, and I was two blocks away from where my brother lived. We used to play tennis together, and my nephew was born there. That’s how I got to see you, because my nephew donated $150 to the [Atomic Heritage] Foundation in my honor, which I was very flattered. Then you called me and here I am. I’m very touched and moved by it.

Kelly: That’s great. Did you work extremely hard? You say you worked some nights?

Ames: I worked the nights on my own. I didn’t have to, nobody told me I had to, but I loved it. I didn’t get overtime, I was in the Army. But I loved it, so I loved what I was doing there. It was a wonderful experience for me in many ways.

Kelly: Do you remember some of the people who inspired you or people you worked with, or your colleagues at Los Alamos, other than your brother? Any names?

Ames: Not really. My boss there, I don’t remember his name, but he was my boss there on the project.

Kelly: Did it feel like a small community to you?

Ames: Oh, sure, oh, sure. It was a very private then. Not many people knew what the place was all about, for obvious reasons.

Kelly: Right. Did you get out at all? Did you get down to Santa Fe?

Ames: I did, yeah. I went there once in a while.

Kelly: Do you remember going to La Fonda, the hotel on the plaza?

Ames: No.

Kelly: It’s just the same. They’ve just restored it to look like it was then.

Ames: Yeah.

Kelly: Did you happen to go through the 109 East Palace, the office where Dorothy McKibbin held forth? Maybe you didn’t need to do that?

Ames: No.

Kelly: No. That doesn’t ring a bell? So, you had a very special experience.

Ames: Yeah. I’m a very lucky man, very lucky. God was on my side.

Kelly: You were technically still part of the Army, though, right?

Ames: Yeah, oh, sure.

Kelly: You weren’t part of the Special Engineer Detachment?

Ames: No, no. I think some of the people who I worked with were civilians.

Kelly: Sure. It was mainly civilians.

Ames: Oh, yeah, sure.

Kelly: But in the barracks, you were with other—

Ames: In the barracks, I was with all soldiers.

Kelly: Right. Did you have to wear your uniform?

Ames: I wore my uniform. I was a staff sergeant then.

Kelly: How did you get around? Did you have access to a Jeep? Did you bicycle?

Ames: That’s a good question. I don’t remember how we got to Santa Fe when I visited there. I don’t remember. It wasn’t last week!

Kelly: Right, exactly. I’m probing deep memories. How old were you when you—

Ames: I was about twenty-two, twenty-three.

Kelly: Wow.

Ames: Now, in two weeks, I’m going to be ninety-four.

Kelly: Oh, my. Congratulations.

Ames: Thank you. I’m very lucky. I have young genes, that’s why I don’t look my age. I’m also a holistic person, so I try to take care of myself.

Kelly: Are you still performing?

Ames: Not anymore.

Kelly: Did you ever get involved in entertainment at Los Alamos?

Ames: I was in a play there, too. I didn’t have a big part, but I was in a play. I forgot the name of the play. But as far as entertaining is concerned, it’s the cantorial thing that I did on Friday nights and Passover.

Kelly: How did you learn to be a cantor?

Ames: My father was an Orthodox rabbi, and I grew up in that surrounding.

Kelly: Can you tell me more about him?

Ames: He was a wonderful father.

Kelly: Where was he born?

Ames: He was born in Europe, but at an early age he went what was then called Palestine, then eventually became Israel. That’s how I got my training and became a cantor, because I was able to sing. I became a cantor and also an entertainer, an English entertainer. I mixed everything together and separately.

Kelly: That’s great. There were a lot of creative people at Los Alamos.

Ames: Oh, sure.

Kelly: Also, musically inclined and theatrically inclined. Did you ever go to any plays in the Little Theatre, as they called it?

Ames: Where?

Kelly: The playhouse at Los Alamos?

Ames: I participated in one play. But, that’s about it. I don’t remember if I went to another, I don’t know how many times they had plays there, I don’t remember. It wasn’t yesterday, you know.

Kelly: Right. You had four sisters. Where do they fall in the sibling order? Were they younger than you?

Ames: I was second to the youngest. The three sisters were older than me. They were born in Israel, and my younger sister and myself were born in Chicago.

Kelly: Were they involved in the war? Did they get caught up in World War II?

Ames: No.

Kelly: Interesting.

Ames: Of course, there was my brother. He was involved at Los Alamos, of course.

Kelly: Exactly. I can see him now. We had a conference there he spoke at, in Los Alamos, in the big gymnasium or auditorium they have at the high school. That was a while ago, too, 2001 or ’02. Let me ask you some more about, about your services. Do you remember where they were held?

Ames: Which services?

Kelly: The ones you were cantoring.

Ames: There was a hall there at Los Alamos. I don’t remember. It was a hall that I used that we had whatever amount of people we had there. The same hall when we had the Passover Seder, I conducted at the same hall. We had a couple hundred people there.

Kelly: What did your father think of that? Was he proud of you?

Ames: I’m sure he was.

Kelly: That’s great. After this, after Los Alamos, you got your degree?

Ames: Then I went straight into show business, yeah. First, primarily as an actor and an entertainer, and then I gave up the acting, because it was a precarious profession. I stayed in entertaining. I was an entertainer, I was a corporate entertainer and I provided music and entertainment, other than myself. I was an event planner, that’s the word I was looking for. I was busy seven nights a week.

Kelly: Oh, my goodness.

Ames: I had a wonderful wife, and have three great children. You may know one of them. You know the television show “Everybody Loves Raymond?” Brad Garrett is my son.

Kelly: Oh wow.

Ames: Raymond’s brother in the show.

Kelly: That’s fun. Like father, like son.