(Note that portions of this radio play and the forthcoming
theatrical, one-hour play contain some direct transcribed Shepherd quotes
as found in my EYF!)
I have a suspicion that these are the things that, if somehow we could clear the decks and admit once, to ourselves, we’re not going to do it, and throw all this stuff out, we’d be better off for it. We ought to have a Dream Collection Day. You know how they used to have rag collection days, and old metal collection days? We ought to have a Dream Collection Day. Where everybody takes the half-finished model airplane out of the basement, the half-finished novel, the cracked guitar, and puts it out in front of the house. As a kind of public recanting, you see, for the salvage people to finally come and get. We’ll clean out all these poor, wonderful, idiotic, debilitating, defeating dreams. What a magnificent idea! Magnificent moment.
Me complaining? Oh, Shepherd’s not complaining, not at all. There is not one single word of complaint you’ll hear from me about life. Not one. I mean, I sit here looking at the raisins and I sit here looking at the dried apricots, I sit here looking at the vast, steaming, bubbling, hissing caldron, the fruitcake of life, and I realize—I realize I’ve hardly scratched the surface. Maybe one day I’ll grab that brass merry-go-round ring—that Dream!
And then one day back in the ‘80s, I really did hit the jackpot. After the jazz scene, the Playboy stories, the TV series, and all those other, lesser dreams, we made a movie that went all the way. At least it did on cable TV. Over fifty million people watch my movie every holiday season when it’s shown for twenty-four hours straight. Oh, come on, you know! A Christmas Story. The one where the kid almost shoots his eye out with the BB gun. The one where good old Santa kicks the kid in the face with his big black boot. Hilarious.
(“Bahn Frei” plays for a few moments, then stops.)
SHEPHERD My cherished theme music! I hear that thing sometimes and it drives me out of my skull. I got a letter from a kid. “Have you thought of changing your theme?” he asks. No!— No! I couldn’t conceivably do that. Now the reason I have this theme—are you listening, kid—is not because it’s a good piece of music. But for exactly the opposite reason—which to me makes far more sense. This piece of music, kid, is probably the most mediocre piece of claptrap that has ever been perpetrated on the listening public since Marconi. It always sounds like it’s going to break into something better—but never does. It gallops off in all directions and It arrives at none of them! How like life itself, ah, kid? Well then, how could I conceivably think of doing away with this piece of—uh—claptrap—which, by the way, I think is a great word. Would you please play a little more of that claptrap, Herb? Just hit it there.
(Beginning of the “Bahn Frei” theme music starts.)
SHEPHERD Listen to this—it starts with a bugle! Oh, man! Anything that starts out with a bugle is, you know—filled with portent!
(A few moments of the theme music continues, then stops.)
SHEPHERD It’s all of us! And that’s exactly why I use it! (He laughs.) And it’s timeless. An unrealistic dream! And yet, kiddies, we carry on, don’t we? Marching ever onward—and having fun if we’re smart, enjoying every moment we’ve got in this nutty fruitcake existence, keeping our knees loose and following our dreams.
Speaking of dreams. You remember we were speaking of dreams. We’ve all got dreams, right? I suspect that at least fifteen percent of the population of New York City—particularly Manhattan—concealed someplace in a pile of papers—the beginnings of the eternal novel. A poem, a play, “A thing I was gonna write once. And I am going to write it yet—you just wait and see!” And the cracked guitars that are hanging in basements covered with dust that haven’t been strummed since 1967—after the second lesson. I have a feeling that these things are holding us down. (Pause.)
(He reads part of “Excelsior” with exaggerated drama and enthusiasm.)
The shades of night were falling fast,
As through an Alpine village passed
A youth, who bore, ‘mid snow and ice,
A banner with the strange device,
You know how it goes—the villagers warn him repeatedly but the damn fool continues, verse after verse, climbing up the mountain in a blizzard! Until the inevitable—until he ends up just like the rest of us.
A traveler, by the faithful hound,
Half-buried in the snow was found,
Still grasping in his hands of ice
that banner with the strange device,
Excelsior! You see what mindless glop? All you innocent believers in that onward and upward crap. That if you “give it your best” you’ll succeed against all odds. What crap! H. W. Longfellow, you fool! (Pauses.) You know something? I’m part of you too. I don’t exclude myself, you know. See why it’s my favorite expression? We’re all doomed to dream we’ll win—and then be defeated. Ha! But no matter what you do, don’t let it get you down. Savor it all! Ah, yes, folks, don’t give up that dream. Even though you know it won’t come true.
Play me some more of my theme.
SHEPHERD The world of dreams and of excelsior. Excelsior you fatheads! Excelsior—my most famous saying. You’ve heard me say it a million times. Have you ever heard me read the “Excelsior” poem by Longfellow?
SHEPHERD It’s a great piece of glop, I’ll tell you. Magnificent glop!
I think my mental gymnastics
regarding a recent Marin pursuit might be of interest
not only to my wife, but to a couple of other artsy people.
In Pursuit of a John Marin
John Marin (1870-1953) was a major American artist affiliated with the Alfred Stieglitz group (which included Georgia O’Keeffe and Arthur Dove). Best known for his watercolors, he also produced numerous etchings, one of the best known being “Sailboat” (1932).
I have a small, signed, original watercolor, and an etching only signed in the plate by him, both bought decades ago when prices were much lower. I recently encountered for sale on ebay, a damaged image of “Sailboat,” a rather small etching. I was presented with two problems: my lack of funds, and, is it real?
Ebay description: Original etching by John Marin/signed in the plate/Title: Sailboat/Medium: Etching/Date: 1932/Size: 7×9¼ inches/Edition: Approximately 200 (unsigned)/ Condition: Toning throughout. Mounted to board. Please examine image/Ref.: Zigrosser 155
The copy for sale is very “toned,” which generally means it was too long in bright light and/or is backed by non-acid-free board, as described—the mounting glue may also be a culprit for the darkening of the paper. No gallery or serious collector (one with cash to fritter on art) would look twice at such a disfigured example, but we, with several poor-person’s artsy collections, are not that kind of collector, and would take what we can get.
As the etching is backed by a board, I can’t determine whether the proper stamp is present as described in my copy of the catalog raisonne of Marin’s etchings. However, the ebay description is knowledgeable, the highly rated seller confirmed to me it’s for real, and the image is so browned over decades by bad mounting that I conclude that it’s very probably authentic.
I desired the piece for my very own, and the opening price was about within reach (especially if I paid for it by selling a book of Picasso reproductions that is so heavy and cumbersome that I only look at it once a decade). Our bid was higher than we should really spend on artsy now. I daily look at how the bidding is going, and only fear that a sneak, shock-and-awe, last-ten-seconds-scoundrel might pounce.
If successful, I intended to buy for it, a cheap-but-nice 10” X 12” frame and have a matte cut for it, then place it on the wall with my other two Marins, where I’d view it every day in our dining area. I also devised an image to use to illustrate the result if I didn’t win the auction.
I was outbid by a last-two-seconds-scoundrel.
The underlined portion of this radio play is a direct quote from Shepherd on the air.
SHEPHERD (His voice is slow, knowing, irony-tinged) Have you ever thought that you were in a play—maybe a short radio play and you have no idea if there’s anyone out there listening, ‘cause all you see is your microphone in front of you and you’re in your lonely studio and there’s a guy behind the glass pushing buttons. Stay tuned, friends. You’re out there, aren’t you? And, of course, you are my friends, right? I’ve only got a few free moments, friends. I’m waiting for a call with the biggest deal in my career. Ah, the thrill of anticipation! Even bigger fame about to jingle-jangle itself from this black, plastic, antediluvian, land-line gadget they call a phone.
(Music fades out)
Yes—Excelsior! Stay tuned. We’ll be here for a few minutes pursuing what mankind has always pursued. Now that, of course, has been the problem that many of us have pondered back and forth—this business of what mankind has always pursued. We’ve gone through all the surface things. And you’re out there in radioland listening to the radio. We can only extend our hand in quiet, sympathetic good will to you. Here we sit. I’m here and you’re there. I’m in studioland.
And you’re out there in radioland, where things are lush and green, where things grow—out there where people do things—like send in box tops, answer questions, write letters of protest. You’re out there in radioland—the real world. The real world. Ever occurred to you that what you have out there is real? What we have here is like a dream. But you gotta cling to something. To dreams—belief or two. Jean Cocteau said, “Destroy the dream, you destroy the man.”
Over the years I’ve written two different plays about Shep. The short radio play (about 15 minutes) was in response to a radio station’s request for entries of short plays from the public. It was not broadcast. I reproduce it in a few parts.
The other one, an hour long, was presented on a small Long Island stage for two glorious performances some years ago. I’ll be posting that in many parts to come.
The two plays are rather different from each other–though related in my understanding of what Shepherd was all about (in public).
EXCELSIOR, A RADIO PLAY ABOUT JEAN SHEPHERD
Eugene B. Bergmann
JEAN SHEPHERD A performer/creator on radio
Time: The play takes place in the present
Place: A radio studio
Length: One act in about 15 minutes.
The play is a monolog for one male performer, using the conceit
of him reminiscing on the radio about his career.
SHEPHERD’S VOICE Okay, I’m ready. Is this mike on? (Sound of tapping on the microphone.) Are we rolling? Three, two, one. Take one. Jean Shepherd career retrospective capsule summary. (Pause. Voice is now pompous to the level of parody, with the sound of a standard professional announcer.) Now it’s time for Jean Shepherd, humorist— raconteur and wit—genius and first master of talk radio, who created a style—who influenced decades of comedians and radio talkers. Shepherd began talking—improvising on New York radio without a script—from one a. m. to five-thirty, five nights a week. His ability to connect with the minds and sensibilities of tens of thousands of listeners created a dedicated cult of “Night People” that included students and many leaders in the creative arts in 26 states, his programs syndicated and pirated elsewhere. For 21 years he tickled the better parts of intelligent minds.
SHEPHERD (His voice changes to that which he uses from now on. He is overly self-satisfied and proud.) Yes, folks, that was me. Let me introduce myself. I’m Jean Parker Shepherd. I’m an entertainer. I used to talk on radio. And this little gig here is just a one-shot deal—reminds me of what I used to do. For forty years, in addition to my radio broadcasts, I produced fine work in other fields. I’ve performed live at Carnegie Hall, Town Hall and I created that holiday favorite movie, A Christmas Story, in which the kid nearly shoots his eye out with his BB-gun present. Yeah, I’m the one who did that! And now, here I am, the one and only creator of talk radio, unparalleled creator in every damn field you can think of, Jean Shepherd! Hit it big, Herb!
(Music starts. It is a bright, bouncy tune begun with a fanfare.
It is Shepherd’s theme song, “Bahn Frei.” Boston Pops version. Available on CD.)
LOIS NETTLTON “INTERVIEW”
Followers of www.shepquest.wordpress.com may remember posts about my contacts with Jean Shepherd’s third wife, actress Lois Nettleton. I’d hoped to interview her for my Excelsior, You Fathead! book, but she had been quoted as saying previously that she didn’t want to talk about him, so I didn’t try (Anyway, how could little Genie Bergmann even make contact with a movie star?). After the book was published, Shep enthusiast Doug McIntyre informed me that through his wife, he’d been able to interview Lois. He sent me an audio copy of the interview and her Hollywood address. I sent her an inscribed copy of my book and a note.
She called me with enthusiastic thanks for writing the book and for sending her a copy. She also sent me a multiple-page hand-written letter, saying among other things, “Thank you, thank you, thank you” for writing the book. I also have other quotes from her including that she considered his radio work that of a genius, above her own profession of acting.
She invited me to meet with her the next time she would be in New York, but before that could happen, she succumbed to her terminal illness in 2008. I think about her often, and sometimes note down questions I would have asked her. Here are some of them.
Why, in an interview, had you firmly stated that you didn’t want to talk about your divorce from him, and how/why did you change your mind?
You were one of Jean’s earliest followers (during his early 1956 “overnight broadcasts). What drew you to his program and, because of your phone calls to him on the air, becoming known as “The Listener”?
In The Golden Girls television episode of 1986, “Isn’t it Romantic?” (about 20 years after you separated and were divorced from Jean), in playing a lesbian, why did you take the character-name of “Jean”? Was it a negative comment about him? Were you just teasing him?
I know you preserved a lot of material about your career over the years. Can you tell me why you came to preserve so much material by and about Jean?
Can you explain more fully why you considered him such a unique person, such a genius?
It’s wonderful that you so often append the word “happiness” to your autographs. Can you express how and why you chose to do this?
As a finale for postings of my transcribed Shepherd kid stories manuscript, here is a version
of the query letter I sent out around 2014:
(Note that the CBS TV website no longer seems to contain the 8-minute interview.)
I wrote the foreword to A Christmas Story: Behind the Scenes of a Holiday Classic, and I’m the author of the only book about Jean Shepherd, Excelsior, You Fathead: The Art and Enigma of Jean Shepherd (Applause Books, March, 2005). As of February, 2013 it has sold over 7,500 copies in its hardcover format, and it’s still selling. In addition to numerous, very positive print reviews, I was interviewed on a dozen radio programs, including those of New York City’s and Chicago’s most popular author-interview shows.
Shep’s Army: Bummers, Blisters, and Boondoggles (Opus Books, August, 2013) is my second Shepherd book, for which, so far, I’ve been interviewed on a half-dozen radio programs and on CBS TV’s Sunday Morning Show (http://newyork.cbslocal.com/2013/07/21/new-book-looks-at-jean-shepherds-fictional-military-service/). Shep’s Army contains nearly three-dozen of Shepherd’s army stories told on the radio, which I transcribed, organized, edited, and for which I wrote an extensive introduction and commentaries. I’ve yet to receive an accounting of its trade paper sales.
PUBLISHERS WEEKLY review of SHEP’S ARMY: Editor Bergmann attempts with much success to simulate a posthumous memoir of author, comedian, and radio personality Jean Shepherd’s army years….Bergmann has assembled a surprisingly unified and confident account….a compliment to Shepherd’s usual storytelling….a presentation that, against the odds, captures the energy of an oral telling.
Jean Shepherd’s most popular creations are his “kid stories” (As exemplified by the movie A Christmas Story, which he not only wrote, but narrates). His best-selling books, In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash (1966—now 40th printing) and Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories and Other Disasters (1971—now 30th printing), consist, in the main, of his kid stories improvised on the radio, which he transcribed and edited for print publication. As you can see, each continues to sell in trade paper. Other than the reprint-packaging of five of his A Christmas Story stories (in 2005, story books first published in 1966 and 1971), no books of his kid stories have appeared in over forty years.
My completed manuscript of I Was This Kid, See: Kid Stories by Jean Shepherd contains over three dozen transcribed and edited stories, organized chronologically, as I did with my Shep’s Army. These stories, none of which have been previously in print, form a near-continuous narrative from kindergarten, through high-school dating, and college stories presenting Shepherd with epiphanies: there’s a wider world of art and life out there!
Books and films by and about Jean Shepherd enhance the enthusiasm for his works. The immense popularity of all things related to A Christmas Story certainly shows this. My proposed book of Shepherd kid stories will surely profit from and expand on this trajectory.
May I provide you with samples or, indeed, my complete manuscript of I Was This Kid, See?
No more kidding around.
When Did That Arrive?
What follows is the listing of the audios I used for all the Kid Stories I’ve posted here.
Wouldn’t it be nice if these stories could be published in book form.
(Yes, I’ve tried.)
- ELEMENTARY MATRICULATION
- First Day of Kindergarten September 21, 1969
- Left-handed Disability August 24, 1965
- Decayed Tooth, Balsa Wood, and Silly Putty July 28, 1965
- LEARNING WRIT LARGE
- Welcome to the Library April 29, 1976
- Great Crashing Waves of Words January 15, 1974
- Erector Set and Tinker Toy December (near 12/25)
- Atomizer –Ah-eeeek-ah-eeeek! December 23, 1963
- Grab Bag Surprise May, 1963
- KID ENCOUNTERS
- Selling Seeds, Door to Door, to Door October, 16, 1964
- Collecting Teeth September 17, 1966
- April Fooled April 1, 1977
- HAM RADIO
- Dots and Dashes March 8, 1976
- The Light of My Life January 29, 1965
- Struck By Lightning July 5, 1972
- Forty Words Per Minute January 6, 1965
- MUSICALLY INCLINED
- Lessons March 24, 1976
- Life as a Tuba Player April 9, 1965
- Halftime Sousaphone October 4, 1969
- EARLY TOIL
- Paperboy Skirmishes July 15, 1970
- Worm King of Cleveland Street May 22, 1971
- Fireworks and Unguentine July 4, 1963
- CURIOUS HAPPENSTANCES
- Disorganized Baseball June 29, 1966
- Crashing Picnics June 19, 1970
- Pharmaceutical Adventure October 20, 1072
- Fixing the Old Man’s Car September 18, 1970
- Public Speaking—“Araya Yabaya Arayaa! April 9, 1965
- STEEL MILL DAYS
- Let Me Tell You About That First Day
- Mailboy With Tornedo April 12, 1965
- The Soaking Pit November 6, 1969
- Rot-Gut With Beer Chaser March 5, 1965
- Champion Rat Catcher January 15, 1973
- REARING ITS LOVELY HEAD
- Bud on the Rose April 23, 1962
- Uptown Pearl July 4, 1964
- Turkeys Galore November 22, 1973
- Date With Flies June 8, 1973
- Scragging March 23, 1968
- EXTRACURRICULAR EPIPHANIES
- Escargot November 28?, 1969
- Bugatti 1976
“Escargot” appeared in a shorter form in my 2005 book Excelsior, You Fathead! The Art and Enigma of Jean Shepherd. “Bugatti” appeared in a different form in my article published in the American Bugatti Club’s quarterly, Pur Sang Winter, 2010.
Note that titles sometimes vary, depending on who originally named the specific audio, based on what seemed to be the major topic of the show in question, or the taste-in-titling of the recorder regarding subject matter. In some cases, because the original audio’s title did not apply to the segment containing the story in question, or because I preferred something different I created my own title.
Most of the dates are consistent as given from format to format, although a few vary. For example, although most are dated by the original person who recorded it when it was broadcast live from WOR in New York, some seem to have been recorded and thus dated, from a rebroadcast at a later date. Over the years, a few dates have been altered based on newly discovered information that corrects earlier assumed dates.
In two instances in this book, two stories have the same date: the tuba story and the public speaking story of April 9, 1965; and the two steel mill stories of January 18, 1973. He seldom told more than one story on a broadcast, and despite the common misconception, neither did he tell a story on most of his programs—it only seems that way in retrospect because, I believe, mixed in with his shorter commentaries and many other pieces of humorous business, the stories tend to stick better in the memory.
More later, dude.