I’ve always been aware that Shepherd was fascinated by sound in all its forms, but I had no sense of how I might discuss this as an entity beyond the chapters on sound and words in Excelsior, You Fathead! until I happened upon a brochure he wrote in 1958, which was offered for sale on www.ebay.com. I bought it. A folded, two-sheet stapled pamphlet advertising a speaker with his professing enthusiasm for it in the early days of hi-fi elicited the following essay, posted in two sections.
Front cover on right, back cover with description of Jean Shepherd on left.
(Click on image to enlarge for reading.)
Jean Shepherd, creative master of “talk radio,” extemporaneous, unstoppable monologist in public and private, described by the New York Times as a “raconteur and wit” when he died in 1999, was a connoisseur of sound. From the 1950s through the winter of ’77, Shepherd talked incessantly from Cincinnati, Philadelphia, and then, for over twenty-one years, from New York City’s clear channel, 50,000 watt WOR Radio, his programs broadcast, syndicated, and pirated country-wide, listened to by a wide range of “night people” such as insomniacs, major jazz musicians, artists, writers, and incipient intellectuals of all ages. With overarching wit and humor, he told stories, commented on the passing scene, decried human foibles, and expressed whatever happened to catch his attention or bubbled to the surface of his wide-ranging consciousness. And that was just the words, which he melded with every other form of sound he could concoct. If it was sound, he studied it, reveled in it, discussed it, and produced it with skill, usually to beguiling effect.
His fascination with audio in all its ramifications extended to his radio programs occasionally devoted to distinctive sounds from the past and the present—the cacophony of a steel mill, locomotive engines and their whistles, trains moving down the tracks, and a program sampling the variety of World War I airplane engines. He commented that just as historical photographs provide visual records of our culture, so sounds should be recorded and preserved. He discussed sound with one of the few guests he had on his New York programs, Arch Oboler, radio scriptwriter of Lights Out and other horror and science fiction series. A high point of the dialog was Oboler’s description of how he managed a special effect in one episode. At the very end of the story, a fugitive, trapped in an upper floor of a building and determined not to be caught, opens a window and we know what he is about to do. A few moments of silence is followed by a sound—the sound effects man, from a considerable height, let loose onto a concrete slab a watermelon. Yes, sound can have a considerable effect.
Beyond words and basic sounds, Shepherd loved those aural effects that go by the name of “music.” In addition to words, music had been a Shepherd passion from his early youth—he played double bass in his high school orchestra and once commented that in studying the tuba for the school’s marching band, he had experienced his first pleasure in creating art. In one program he gave us a tiny history of musical development in a riff contrasting aimless humming to the performance of complex modern music. In his early period on the radio, he emceed a Sunday afternoon program for the Cleveland City Opera, and those who knew him considered him an expert in all forms of classical music.
He gloried in all forms of music except rock and roll (although one might check out his interview of the Beatles in Playboy’s issue of February 1965). He was known to possess thousands of jazz albums—in his earliest New York radio days in the late 1950s, he would play extended pieces of avant guard jazz on his show. He emceed major jazz concerts starring the likes of Charles Mingus, Billie Holiday, and Stan Getz.
usually encountered in the full album
version with the clown’s face on the cover
He could scat and do a comic rendition of “After You’ve Gone,” with the best of them. (And one can only imagine the hours of practice he devoted to producing his expert renditions on kazoo, nose flute, jew’s harp, and by rapping his knuckles on his head to knock out a tune.) He wrote a short series of columns, “Jean on Jazz,” for the technically oriented Audio magazine in 1956, and in 1960, articles for Metronome, a jazz-oriented magazine, and garnered that publication’s 1959 award as “jazz personality of the year.” After those early years, he used music on the radio, not in the main as a stand-alone feature, but, like a jazz musician, by combining sound as a seamless component with his improvised words. Sound effects, words, and music were as one in his art.
As a connoisseur of music, he must have been overjoyed by the advances in sound fidelity in recording and playback equipment in the 1950s. Newly engineered “hi-fi” was the watchword of the day. One of the earliest sponsors for whom he gave extended endorsements was an establishment on Greenwich Village’s 8th Street, The Electronics Workshop. He promised that the experts there would choose just the right components for you and even install them and guarantee their performance. A WOR Radio time-salesman, remembering one such radio testimonial, described how, on the day following an endorsement by Shepherd, he saw at the store, “a steady parade of people coming in to buy what he was talking about.”
More to come
tribute to Jean Shepherd, January 9, 2000.
From time to time I receive a special laudatory email. We know that Jean Shepherd—especially through listening to him—has changed many peoples’ lives. He certainly affected my way of seeing the world, and for over a decade, he has kept me busy and given me unending pleasure. It’s very gratifying to be told that my Excelsior, You Fathead! has sometimes strongly affected people also.
A recent letter of that sort has inspired me to forego my already inconstant reticence. I’m here today to blab and give myself congratulatory whacks on the back. Although I’m quoting parts of letters, I’m not revealing who the senders are. First, part of an email I wrote to one of the correspondents below:
As a start, I can tell you a bit about myself. When I was a kid I wanted to be a writer and win the Nobel Prize in literature. But I also had a great interest in art—I became the Senior Exhibit Designer at NYC’s museum of natural history, and for most of 34 years felt creatively fulfilled in the way my designs combined words with visual media to tell the curators’ scientific stories (One of them was Margaret Mead).
Lunch hours I wrote, and over the years produced three unpublished “literary novels,” then wrote over a hundred poems, four of which got published. [!]
When Shep died in 1999, I realized that I’d lost an old friend—a mentor on the radio—and though I’d vowed not to attempt another book, I read, listened, watched, studied what Shep had accomplished, and wrote my book. Trying to get a book published is hell, but I lucked out. Over 7,000 copies sold and still selling, no Nobel Prize, but I do feel that it’s a creative accomplishment not too much less than “literature.” It’s also a great pleasure to find that some people (especially a creator such as yourself) appreciate it.
From emails received:
TEACHER AND PARENT (A)
I would like to thank you for the pleasure your book on Jean Shepherd has given me. I’ve gone back to it many times, and it never fails to deliver new insights into our old friend. As a school teacher, I have found so many ways to use Shepherd’s techniques, concepts, and stories in the classroom. As a parent, I have spent many hours listening to and discussing his broadcasts with my kids. Like a lot of people, I owe him quite a debt.
PERFORMER, PLAYWRIGHT, VIDEO AND FILM CREATOR (B)
[A friend] learning of my devotion to Shep, sent me your book. I read and re-read it. So much fell into place for me that my stars have shifted position and new constellations appeared.
I have often acknowledged Jean as a major influence when questioned about my formative influences, live performance, playwriting, film and video projects. I never realized the debt I owe him.
Now, being one of the beneficiaries of your impeccable research and what is clearly a heartfelt, literary labor-of-love, the presence of my raconteur hero is writ large-r.
I’m truly grateful to you for this gift of understanding, analysis and inspiration. EYF is a scholarly undertaking, enhanced by your attention to detail and nuance; magnified by your sensitive handling of the material and the man.
COMEDIAN, ACTOR, AND VISITOR TO MY “SHEP SHRINE” (C)
As to Shep, I cannot tell you how transforming the visit was. Even having read your book – which fleshes the man out far beyond the impression one THINKS one has of him after listening to hundreds of shows – the visit to the Shrine took me far, far beyond… There was something transporting, enchanting, and very touching in seeing so many personal artifacts (is that the word I want?) of his life. The love letters, the photos, and particularly the pen sketches & valentine-like card. There was a peculiar sense of eavesdropping, too – a slight embarrassment, almost, at the intimacy – I sort of felt like I was going through a dead man’s effects (which I was) but almost as though I was rummaging through his drawers and closets just after he had died.
PROFESSIONAL MUSICIAN (D)
I thought I knew stuff about art and music, but your book was a major turning point for me….yours is a book by a guy who knows not just music, but art in general, the business of art, the lifestyle of artists, knows about the time the artist lived in, and how it all interacts…. I assumed the guy was in 7th heaven, being where he was, with a radio show and the Limelight, and a published book. I told myself if I ever got what he had, I’d be in 7th heaven. But read on…
[I] started playing live late in life….I played 3 gigs a week…. I played until they shut the lights out every night, so most nights I’d start at 6 and play until 11 PM. After a year I realized my rap onstage was heavily influenced by Jean Shepherd. My brother’s [a very well-known rock musician], and I’ve been offered the recording contract but didn’t want to tour…. I don’t like huge audiences either, so I got a job … and raised my son.
[He explains that after some time playing he was out of commission and had time to think.] It was your book that woke me up to what I am. A guy with a “cult following.” The kind of personality and musician who attracts a “cult following.” I haven’t gone through the book yet to make a list of all the ways you nailed the characteristics of such an artist and the kind of art he does, but I will compile a list for my own amusement and education. It took me a while to see it. At first I was enthralled by how much like Shepherd I was, but then I got to that point in the book where he might have been offered the Tonight Show, and you explained why that wouldn’t have worked anyway. That’s when I got it….I thought at the time I had failed, but now I see I succeeded in ways I didn’t comprehend at the time. I had been turned into Shepherd by Shepherd, and I couldn’t compromise, it’s not in me.
I had gotten caught up in a lust for fame and fortune that’s worse than Signing The Contract and becoming the Company Man for the record companies. [D writes that he recognized the trap he had gotten into— you’re convinced that you’re the greatest but not sufficiently recognized—like Shepherd]….you buy into it. That’s when you’re screwed.
But over these years of thinking it over, I’ve realized that the playing itself, the interaction onstage with other musicians, the joy of life that can be communicated onstage, the joy of experience, the openness, was being conveyed real-time to total strangers, who came back again and again to relive the experience. It was your book, talking about Shepherd, that helped me completely come to terms with that. I took all the chances he took. I got to an audience that, for the most part, I didn’t know. I really had no idea of the scope of the impact I had on the world. It was happening live, 3 times a week.
…through your book I’ve come to understand what I do, what I am, and the effect it has on people and other artists. I started down that road that Jean went down, and you finally put all the pieces together so I could really learn to love it the way it is, to see the good stuff.
Gene, there’s the two sides to all of us who perform, and of course Shep understood the fearsome glory of what he did live each night, for a small audience in a small arena. At the same time he wanted it all, on his own terms. You can hear in his voice that in spite of himself, he saw the beautiful reality of what he was doing.
Do me a favor, and make sure you keep your eye on the ball, make sure you appreciate what you’ve done. On its own terms, on your own terms. It’s with me each time I sit down at the keyboard and practice up for my Comeback Tour….
[After that first email—that sent shivers down my spine—D wrote again] The good news is that since you so neatly nailed the bad stuff any artist can get stuck in – not just Shepherd but all of us – I’ve been able to let go of it. You’ve also nailed the good stuff. About 3 weeks before I got ahold of your book, I had downloaded a good amount of Shepherd’s stuff off the internet. I remember thinking “Oh shit…now I’ve gotta listen to a million hours of this stuff and figure out what he did and how he did it.”
I haven’t had to do that. You did it. The book outlines not just Shep’s philosophy but how he pulled it off.
(In the best sense of the word.)
! ! ! MUSICAL TRIVIA MYSTERY STORY ! ! !
From time to time, Shepherd ridiculed the silly nature of his theme song, yet listeners were delighted when they heard “Bahn Frei” at the beginning of each show, and Shep knew it. Here he delivers an ironic riff as the opening music plays:
Oh boy! You’ve got to admit that when you hear those first thunderous tones of this deathless theme, little tinkles of excitement, anticipation, run up and down your backbone, your spine, right, gang? [Laughs.] Right? Oh boy.
It’s certainly an exciting world. All you have to do is hang onto the old hanging straps, keep your knees loose, and keep those old onions skinned. Watching that arcing, curving sky overhead there, just ahead. Just at the other end of the turnpike. Yes, press down on that vast accelerator of existence. Pick up steam! Oh! Listen to that theme. Ohhhhh! For the next forty-five minutes really live, friends! Bring it up there! All the way up, Skip. Listen to that. Isn’t that fantastic music?!!! [Scats along.] The thunderous, feckless, racehorse of life!
The momentous question of when and why his voice, with the enigmatic “Ahhhh,” was added to the ending of his theme song has bedeviled Shepherd freaks for decades. (Yes, I know—don’t we have better things to do with our time than worry over such minutia?) We knew it wasn’t there in the 1950s and into 1960, but there it was starting sometime in the mid-1960s. Engineer Herb Squire had been told that the original record had broken and they had to make a copy from an old show, from which they didn’t quite manage to remove Shep’s voice, and they decided to leave it in. Shepherd on the Alan Colmes interview show of 1998 kiddingly said the “Ahhhh” was there because “I thought it was interesting.”
Here’s more info—direct from the horse’s mouth as heard on a recently discovered Shepherd program when it was sold on ebay. On December 10, 1962, as he goes on the air he has a problem:
The way to do this is to sneak in quietly and pretend that everything is okay. Now as a matter of fact, that is the American way. [Shepherd and his engineer laugh.] You can be no more American than to try to phony it up. You know that, Bob, don’t you? Try to pretend? [Laughs.]
This is one of the wildest things that’s happened to me in a long time. I’ll tell you what happened. I might as well let you know. We have my theme song—the little thing that comes on—ricka-ricka-ticka… You know that thing that comes on. It’s the theme. Well, we have that on tape. And so tonight, or sometime, we don’t know when, somebody expeditiously erased the tape. [Laughs uproariously.] (December 10, 1962)
We have been bedeviled by this for decades. You see the sort of thing that has us kooks pacing the floor in the middle of the night—why, why, why? Are we about to find all the answers to the mystery? To replace the old tape of the theme, that night they find a tape of an old show that has the music on it—note that Shepherd doesn’t give its title. They play it and he scats along. The following night, and from then until the show leaves the air in April 1977, the Bahn Frei theme song, used at beginning and end of nearly every program, has the added “Ahhhh.” So now we know the when and what the problem was, yet not exactly why they didn’t simply find an old copy from a show that didn’t have the added voice. Maybe, as he said, he just liked it. Maybe it just became one more little piece of enigma. As for me, though, having that part of the puzzle solved, I sleep a lot better. : )
More to come
HAPPY MOTHERS DAY!
Here are the mothers of Jean Shepherd, aka Ralphie Parker
A CHRISTMAS STORY
PHANTOM OF THE OPEN HEARTH
THE GREAT AMERICAN FOURTH OF JULY
AND OTHER DISASTERS
THE STAR-CROSSED ROMANCE
OF JOSEPHINE COSNOWSKI
OLLIE HOPNOODLE’S HAVEN OF BLISS
IT RUNS IN THE FAMILY
aka MY SUMMER STORY
Jean Parker Shepherd’s fictional moms–all somewhat blurry–but that’s what nostalgia and computer-image-capture can do. (Yes, folks, I know–no ACS II or theatrical moms.)
Happy Mom’s Day, mom, and to my sons’ mom, too.
–Gene B. (aka eb)
Some official sources of information about the history of radio do not mention Jean Shepherd, or only give him inadequate coverage. And references to Shepherd have at least a few errors and/or misinterpretations, so that it’s very hard to get the “truth” about him, and from what I know of his MO, that’s the way he wanted it. Sometimes he lied, sometimes he manipulated, sometimes he innocently misremembered information about his own life and works, and sometimes informants just got it wrong. In my own writings about Shep, I’ve tried mightily to avoid all those swampy mazes of error—but no one’s perfect. So it’s good to be given an encyclopedia entry written by someone who actually knew him and worked with him back in the good old days when he was still improvising his way through the last days of his own radio broadcasts.
Laurie Squire was his radio producer during that final year while Leigh Brown, Shep’s producer during many previous years, was busy keeping his other creative projects in fine fettle. Shep, in those pre-women’s-lib days, called his producers “Little Leigh,” and “Little Laurie,” both referred to with an innocence of malice—with heartfelt affection. Laurie and her husband Herb Squire, Shep’s favorite engineer, were also essential parts of the operation that organized and ran one of Shepherd’s syndicated radio projects (International Jawbreaker), before the current era of mass syndication. They not only worked with Jean but were his friends.
* * *
The Museum of Broadcast Communications Encyclopedia of RADIO
Edited by Christopher H. Sterling, Volume 3
(Fitzroy Dearborn, an imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group, New York and London, 2004)
Contributing writer…Laurie Squire, Shepherd friend, partner (International Jawbreaker) and WOR Radio producer(1976-77)
SHEPHERD, JEAN 1921 -1999
American humorist and radio monologist
His fans called him “Shep”. Media guru Marshall McLuhan hailed him as the “first radio novelist.” Like a modern day Scheherazade, Jean Shepherd was a master storyteller who, with wit, tempered irreverence and a gimlet eye for the minutiae of growing up, spun an inexhaustible supply of tales to a loyal following of late night radio listeners.
He was born Jean Parker Shepherd 21 July 1921 in Hammond, Indiana, a steel mill town just outside Chicago. During World War II Shepherd served in the Army Signal Corps (an experience which provided fodder for a number of his stories) and briefly attended Indiana University. He began his career in entertainment as a performer at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre.
Between 1950 and 1954 Shepherd was a deejay at WSAI in Cincinnati, doing live remotes from a restaurant called Shuller’s Wigwam and hosting a nightly comedy show, Rear Bumpers, on WLW. In 1956, he moved to New York’s WOR where the Jean Shepherd Show broadcast for the next 21 years to an audience that swelled to as many as 100,000 listeners all along the eastern seaboard, courtesy of WOR’s 50,000 watt clear channel signal.
The 45-minute show opened with the familiar racetrack bugle call that heralded his theme song (the Bahn Frei Polka by Edouard Strauss). Working without a script, Shepherd embellished tales of his boyhood years hanging out with pals “Flick”, “Schwartz” and “Brunner,” and of time spent in the Army. Sometimes an entire show would be built around an absurd news story, and on occasion he read selections from favorite literary figures, like poet Robert Service. No Shepherd tale ever proceeded in linear fashion: there were detours everywhere. He’d go off on a tangent, digress, interrupt himself with an overlapping story and then, even as his closing theme started to play, easily and logically tie all the loose ends together.
The narratives combined nostalgia without cloying sentiment, they were cynical without being destructive. Shepherd spoke of the ordinary, the remembered things–his mother standing at the kitchen sink in her stained chenille bathrobe making a meal that was always red cabbage, meatloaf and Jell-O…the perpetual whining of a younger brother…his father’s Blatz Beer burp. His delivery was conversational, punctuated by the occasional staccato burst of laughter, a chortle, conspiratorial whisper, a musical interlude which included anything from a kazoo solo to “kopfspielen” (musical sounds created by tapping on one’s head) to recorded selections (most requested was The Bear Missed the Train, a parody to the tune of Bei Meir Bist du Schoen). And as expression of the very apex of human triumph, he’d utter the word “Excelsior!” (“excellence!”)
The stories were richly detailed. Walking to school during an Indiana winter meant wearing “a sixteen foot scarf wound spirally from left to right until only the faint glint of two eyes peering out of a mound of moving clothing told you that a kid was in the neighborhood.” The exaggerated anticipation of waiting for the mailman to deliver a coveted radio premium (the Little Orphan Annie Secret Decoder) described as “At last, after at least 200 years of constant vigil, there was delivered to me a big fat lumpy letter. There are few things more thrilling in Life than lumpy letters…Even to this day I feel a wild surge of exultation when I run my hands over an envelope that is thick, fat and pregnant with mystery.” Many of the tales were written later as short stories for a variety of magazines, several were collected into books.
Shepherd described himself as a humorist rather than a comic. “A humorist looks outward and sees the world,” he said, “a comic looks inward and sees himself.”
His familiar manner combined with the intimacy of the medium encouraged almost cult-like devotion, prompting Shepherd to observe, “I had five million listeners and each thought he was the only one.” Fans felt like they had a secret pact with him, as if he and they were the only ones in on a big joke…and sometimes they were. More than once he’d tell his audience to crank up the volume on their radios and shout along with him, “Drop the tools, we’ve got you covered!” One evening, Shepherd encouraged listeners to leave their radios, go to a street corner in Manhattan and just mill around. Thousands showed up…and so did the police, who had gotten reports of a mob gathering. But the WOR listeners had been advised to simply and quietly mill…and then go home.
The greatest prank ever played by Shepherd and his devotees was the celebrated “I, Libertine” hoax in which he told listeners to go into their bookstores and ask for a nonexistent book called “I, Libertine.” Prompted by the sudden demand, booksellers frantically tried to locate the book. Articles began appearing about the publishing sensation—the New York Times Book Review even included the book in its list of newly-published works. “Friends would call to tell me that they’d met people at cocktail parties who claimed to have read it,” Shepherd recalled. When the hoax was finally revealed, one of the publishers who had been pursuing paperback rights to the ‘sensation’ persuaded Shepherd to actually write it.
A WOR staffer once commented, “nobody at the station worked with Shepherd, instead they tried to work around him.” His working relationship with WOR tended to be scornful, even antagonistic, and Shepherd made little attempt to soften this contempt: when giving the station ID he’d say “speaking of relics, this is WOR Radio,” and he was annoyed by the necessary interruptions imposed by the commercial break, instructing the engineer to “hit the money button.” His 21-year run on WOR Radio ended in April, 1977.
In the 1970s, the Jean Shepherd Show was syndicated nationwide to public radio and college campus stations and for the next two decades Shepherd made a series of personal appearances, including Carnegie Hall and an annual Princeton University show. He also began a longtime collaboration with the Public Broadcasting Service and eventually became involved in feature films. The film, A Christmas Story, which he co-wrote and narrated, has become a holiday classic.
Jean Shepherd. Born Jean Parker Shepherd in Hammond, Indiana, U.S.A., 21 July 1921. Married: 1) Joan Warner, 2) Lois Nettleton, 3) Leigh Brown. Served in US Army Signal Corps, World War II. Briefly attended Indiana University. Deejay, WSAI, Cincinnati and host, Rear Bumpers, WLW, Cincinnati, 1950-54; own radio series, Jean Shepherd Show, WOR, New York, 1956-77 and nationwide syndication (International Jawbreaker), 1975-77; radio and TV voiceovers for major sponsors; television series Jean Shepherd’s America, 1971, 1985 (PBS), Shepherd’s Pie, 1978 (New Jersey Network); writer/narrator, the American Playhouse series, 1976, 1982-83, 1989 (PBS/WGBH); co-writer/performer, New Faces of 1962; one-man shows at the Limelight Café, NYC, 1962-67, Carnegie Hall, NYC, 1971-75, Princeton University, NJ, 1966-96; co-screenwriter and cameo appearance in film A Christmas Story, 1983; author, In God We Trust All Others Pay Cash, 1966, Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories, 1971; contributor, Village Voice, New York Times, Playboy Magazine, Mad Magazine. Four-time winner, Playboy Magazine Humor/Satire Award; Honorary doctorate, Purdue University, 1995. Died near home at Sanibel Island, Florida, U.S.A., 16 October 1999.
1950-54 Rear Bumpers
1956-77 The Jean Shepherd Show
The Phantom of the Open Hearth, 1976, The Great American 4th of July and Other Disasters, 1982, The Star-Crossed Romance of Josephine Cosnowski, 1983, Ollie Hopnoodle’s Haven of Bliss!, 1989 (American Playhouse, PBS/WGBH); Jean Shepherd’s America, 1971, 1985 (PBS); Shepherd’s Pie, 1978 (New Jersey Network)
The Clown, Atlantic Jazz, 1957 (reissue 1984); Jean Shepherd Reads Poems of Robert Service, Folkways, 1975; Shepherd’s Pie, Dorset Audio, 1988; audio cassettes of Jean Shepherd reading several of his stories are available from Barnes & Noble
The Light Fantastic, 1964; Tiki Tiki, 1971; Lenny Bruce without Tears, 1971;A Christmas Story, 1983; My Summer Story, 1994 (aka It Runs in the Family), 1994
Goodman Theatre, c. 1949; Voice of the Turtle, 1961; New Faces of 1962, 1962; one man shows at Limelight Café, Greenwich Village, NY, 1962-67, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, 1966-96, Carnegie Hall, NY, 1971-75
I, Libertine, New York: Ballantine Books, 1956; The America of George Ade, 1866-1944, New York: Putnam, 1960; In God We Trust All Others Pay Cash, New York: Doubleday, 1966; Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories, New York: Doubleday, 1971; The Ferrari in the Bedroom, New York: Dodd,Mead, 1972; A Fistful of Fig Newtons, New York: Doubleday, 1981
Words and other sounds were Shepherd’s only
tools on the radio,
he was a master of their use–and he knew it:
“You guys just don’t realize you’re dealing with a pro.
You don’t! My work is highly complex.
It really is. Weaves in and out.“
LISTENING TO SHEP
From his earliest days, right through to the end. Listening for the sound, listening for the word. The sounds of Shep—always exciting. Listeners to Jean Shepherd are a varied sort. The pre-New York, Cincinnati and Philadelphia crowd and the one to five-thirty a.m. WOR night people—very few of these listeners have come forward and the ones who have remember very little. Few remember his Sunday night shows from summer 1956 to 1960. I’m one of those lucky ones.
Those who began listening in the 1950s were, probably, almost all adults, including some college students. The earliest listeners were indeed, by inclination or profession, creatures of the night—jazz musicians, artists, writers, Beats, hippies, late-shift workers, insomniacs–and students finishing up their homework.
Listeners in the 1960s and 1970s didn’t hear the overnights or Sunday from nine p.m. to one a.m. programs, but heard the mostly forty-five-minute programs that ended before midnight, the earlier times more acceptable to parents of school-age kids. These fans were more likely to be college students and younger, including many high school and some grammar school students, many with small, inexpensive transistor radios. (The newly developed transistor sets, available by 1954, only became cheap enough to become common by the end of the 1950s and early 1960s.) These radios were widely remembered by listeners as having been hidden under the covers to avoid detection by parents trying to wrangle kids to sleep early on school nights. So common, amusing, and nostalgic to contemplate was the transistor-under-the-pillow image that it became the cliché for describing Shepherd’s listeners. I feel left out, as I began listening on Sunday nights during the mid-to-late 1950s in the kitchen after homework was done while my parents watched TV in the living room.
Just like the one I listened on, with AM and FM
stations on the big simulated gold dial.
All those listeners from the mid-1950s to April Fools Day, 1977, had the special experience of hearing Jean Shepherd in real time—when Shepherd would be there live talking to them (or seemingly live but occasionally taped because of a trip out of town). Listeners who only hear him on recordings are also greatly entertained, but they can never have the special feeling that a man was creating and giving them new and unpredictable moments of radio, of genius, right before their very ears.
More to come
Regarding knowledge and understanding of Jean Shepherd, a new addition is my forthcoming SHEP’S ARMY: Bummers, Blisters, and Boondoggles, nearly three dozen transcriptions I made of Shep’s army stories never before in print, publishing date now scheduled for August 9, 2013. It includes my long introduction giving an overview of Shep’s stories, and short introductory comments by me for each group of tales in the book. The book is organized into a chronological sequence of Shepherd’s experience of army life. At about the time of publication, I’ll be posting much more about his army stories. The foreword is by political commentator Keith Olbermann.
Also of major interest is Caseen Gaines’ new book, A CHRISTMAS STORY: Behind the Scenes of a Holiday Classic due in October 2013. The book gives extensive info about the making of the film and about the many additional offspring the film has engendered: The A Christmas Story House, tree ornaments, table ornaments, books, plays, etc.
I wrote the long foreword to the book, focusing on Jean Shepherd and his importance in the film’s creation. Close to the time of publication I’ll write more about the book and what my foreword contains.
More to come
The most important Internet site regarding Jean Shepherd
is Jim Clavin’s www.flicklives.com.
It is extraordinarily comprehensive and always up-to-date on all things Shepherd. I make use of it all the time as an important research source. Two other websites, http://www.keyflux.com/shep/ and http://www.bobkaye.com/Shep.html have worthwhile stuff but have had nothing new to say in years, and thus do not follow any developments in the continuingly evolving and expanding world of Shep.
The Wikipedia entry for Shepherd was a problem. When I first looked at it a number of years ago, I encountered lots of misinformation. I corrected as much of it as I saw and added a single short reference to my Excelsior, You Fathead! Subsequently somebody added a redundant second reference to my book. My cursory glances over the next years have not encountered more errors, but don’t depend on it.
When Citizendium, another Internet encyclopedia-like site, began I wrote the Jean Shepherd page. I don’t know to what extent it may have been subsequently amended and/or may have been infiltrated with errors.
A major Shepherd reference is the
Paley Center for Media site which did their
“Remembering Master Storyteller,
Jean Shepherd: With Jerry Seinfeld” http://www.paleycenter.org/
on January 23, 2012.
Jerry Seinfeld spoke with New York Times writer Bill Carter. The site has a four-minute clip of Seinfeld talking during the tribute. They produce for sale DVDs of their events but have not yet done one for this tribute. I got to meet Seinfeld, had a front-row seat for the event, and got to make a couple of comments from the audience.
Paley curator for television and radio, Ron Simon, titled his essay on their website, “Seinfeld and Shepherd: Much Ado About Nothing.” It begins:
“The late radio raconteur Jean Shepherd and the master of his domain Jerry Seinfeld are obsessed with the minutiae of daily life. Nothing is too small in the detritus of human existence for contemplation. For Shepherd and Seinfeld, meaning is not found in pondering the huge metaphysical questions that have perplexed Plato onward; life is discovered in the lint, that small detail that informs us who we really are.”
[Recently on http://splitsider.com/2013/04/jerry-seinfeld-on-jean-shepherd-the-voice-behind-a-christmas-story/ in an essay titled “From the Archives,” Ramsey Ess wrote extensively about Shepherd and the Paley tribute.]
On his site www.scratchbomb.com, Matthew Callan sometimes writes extensively and intelligently about Shepherd.
Several years ago, Donal Fagen of Steely Dan wrote for Internet site, Slate, “The Man Who Told A Christmas Story,” subtitled “What I Learned From Jean Shepherd,” (now in a recently updated version) It’s a long and very good article. http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2008/12/the_man_who_told_a_christmas_story.html
He writes, “Shepherd did a nightly radio broadcast on WOR out of Manhattan that enthralled a generation of alienated young people within range of the station’s powerful transmitter. Including me: I was a spy for Jean Shepherd.” He describes Shep as with sort of “a contemporary urban twist: say, Mark Twain after he’d been dating Elaine May for a year and a half.” He goes on to say, “The guy is a dynamo, brimming with curiosity and ideas and fun. Working from a few written notes at most, Shepherd is intense, manic, alive, the first and only true practitioner of spontaneous word jazz.”
OTHER COMMENTS ABOUT JEAN SHEPHERD
Other books and Internet sites have had comments on Shepherd, but the above posts of mine indicate the major ones I’ve encountered. For me, outrageously ignorant/unconscionable lapses in knowledge/judgment have resulted in many seemingly authoritative sources of information on the media, and on radio in particular, including big books on the history of radio, with no mention or only inadequate coverage of Shepherd. To slightly paraphrase a time-honored saying, “A Shepherd is not without honor, except in his own country, …”
Even more to come
Manhattan Memories (2009) by John Wilcock
John Wilcock wrote the “Village Square” column for the early Village Voice, knew Shepherd, and wrote about him. I interviewed him for my book. He writes about Shepherd in his Chapter 3: “Our favorite Radio DJ, the all-night talker Jean Shepherd, was the complete opposite of our nagging novelist [Norman Mailer, a co-founder of the Voice]: an amiable, offbeat intellectual with the ability to get his way through charm and humor….An entire generation grew up listening to him, utterly captivated by his personality and, who knows? Having their views shaped for years to come.”
Top portion of a chapter in a comic book
biography of John Wilcock
by Ethan Persoff and Scott Marshall.
Backing into Forward (2010) by Jules Feiffer Feiffer knew Shepherd from the early days of the Village Voice, where Feiffer drew the immensely popular, weekly cartoon, early-on titled “Sick Sick Sick.” He became a playwright, film script writer, and book author. In Backing into Forward he says he used to listen all through the night to Shepherd in 1956 while he worked on his cartoons. In his interview for my book as well as in his own book, he goes out of his way to disparage Shepherd, especially in his misunderstanding of Shepherd’s antipathy toward Herb Gardner’s “A Thousand Clowns.” (See my Excelsior, You Fathead! pages 176-177 where I describe the connection and probable cause of Shepherd’s anger. My belief is based on what are significant aspects of the play/film that relate to Shepherd. My publisher recently wrote that Herb Gardner told him that the impetus for his lead character in “A Thousand Clowns” was indeed Shepherd.)
The chapter on Shepherd is titled “A Voice in the Night.” He knew Shepherd for years and I interviewed him for my book. I traveled to Boston to be interviewed about my book on his WGBH radio program. In his book he comments, “I like to think I ‘got’ Shepherd, through all the walls he might throw up, despite his tending to relentlessly be ‘on’; that I understood the chronic need, this business, to be appreciated and heard.” He ends this chapter with a very enthusiastic comment on my Excelsior, You Fathead!
More to come