NEW YORK CITY—THE EARLY DAYS, 1955 TO 1960
In New York City on WOR AM and FM until mid, 1966, when FCC rules required different programming on the two, so FM was dropped for Shepherd’s show. Although he claimed that he had come to New York City to become the host of television’s Tonight Show, evidence seems to deny this. Apparently he came to the city because it was the most important radio broadcasting center in the country, and because it was the intellectual and artistic goal of most creative types. He burgeoned.
He arrived in the New York Metropolitan area with his wife, Joan Warner and his young son Randall. His daughter, Adrian, was born soon after he left the family in New Jersey for life in the City.
1955 Beginning February he had several radio time slots on WOR during the day. Nothing is known of these programs.
1956 In January of 1956 he began his daily “overnight” shows, from 1:00 to 5:30 A.M. This was the beginning of “The Night People” phase of his radio work. Although the phrase continued to be used for his later broadcasting, the seven-and-a-half month overnight period most properly owns this appellation. Although recordings of these shows have yet to emerge, memories suggest that they consisted of Jean’s extemporized and laid-back, jazz-inspired talk, interspersed with occasional complete pieces of contemporary jazz recordings in addition to some classical cuts. Among his cult-like listeners were major artists, musicians, writers, and other creative types. Young actress Lois Nettleton was among his early fans. Because she called him during a broadcast and he continued the custom of speaking to her by phone while on the air, she soon became “The Listener.”
Although he never told his friends where he lived, Shepherd probably lived in Greenwich Village starting in his early New York days. Especially during this overnight period in 1956, and into a few following years, he immersed himself in the creative environment of that time, writing columns for the early Village Voice, emceeing major jazz concerts starring performers such as Billy Holiday and Charles Mingus, writing columns for jazz magazines and being named jazz personality of the year by one of them. He improvised the extended narration for the Mingus piece, “The Clown.”
He was a cult figure among the creative and disaffected, especially in the New York area and as far as WOR’s voice could be heard—twenty-six states and pirated elsewhere. Listeners included Jack Kerouac, jazz musicians such as Charles Mingus, and many others. But since the late hour of his broadcasts found few sponsors, station management considered him “non-commercial.” Because of this criticism and his refusal to play more music, he did a commercial for Sweetheart Soap, not a sponsor, and played even less music. In August 1956 they fired him. Fan protests and a late-night gathering of enthusiasts at the downtown burned-out shell of New York’s Wannamaker Building, the fans quietly milling around, led to major media attention. (Over the years, one of Shepherd’s pranks was to ask his enthusiasts to gather, move about silently, and then disperse, an act he referred to as a “mill.”) Sweetheart offered sponsorship. He was rehired to do a Sunday night show from nine P.M. to one A.M.
SUNDAY NIGHTS, 1956-1960 Sunday night programs began in early September, when Shepherd was rehired after the Sweetheart Soap and less-talk brouhaha. The few partial recordings of these shows that have emerged suggest the style that Shepherd probably used in the previous over-night period. Only four in-studio guests are known: comic writer S. J. Perelman, radio script writer of horror and science fiction stories Arch Oboler, cartoonist and playwright Herb Gardner, and actor John Cassavetes, for whom Shepherd on the air promoted the making of the first major American Independent film, Shadows, written and directed by Cassavetes. Among the film’s opening credits: “Presented by Jean Shepherd’s Night People.”
He edited and wrote a major introduction for a book of tales by humorist George Ade, perpetrated a major literary hoax, “hurled invectives” through his listeners’ radio loudspeakers, performed in off-Broadway theater pieces, and created his own “Look, Charlie,” theater piece staring himself and his friends Shel Silverstein, Herb Gardner, and Lois Nettleton. Silverstein drew the show’s program, Gardner demonstrated his incompetence at juggling, and Nettleton is said to have fed grapes to Shepherd. Gardner created the play and film A Thousand Clowns, the protagonist of which had unmistakable Shepherd-like characteristics. Shepherd claimed he sued.
Although he occasionally spoke for a few moments on the phone with a listener, call-ins were not part of his programs. He just talked and performed with the only tool available to him—sound. A tape of a television panel show immortalizes his performance of thumping knuckles on head to a sprightly tune. Among his familiar habits on the air was the use of words and phrases that became associated with him, such as “Excelsior,” “Excelsior, you fathead,” “Keep your knees loose,” “Flick lives,” “night people,” and “I was this kid, see.”
With the earlier time period, more college and high school kids, many of them outsiders, loners, intellectuals, males, were able to hear his broadcasts, and they became the majority of his fans. His direct and implied commentary of the cultural and commercial life that his young listeners had begun to question affected many—an early published piece was his 1957 article in Mad Magazine, “The Night People vs. ‘Creeping Meatballism.’” Many listeners were “Shep-cuckoos,” some of them fanatical. Some fans were thought of in their teen-years as nerds, yet many were influenced by Shepherd and made their careers in radio, some becoming prominent professionals in the arts and media. Among these were chess champ Bobby Fischer, U. S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins, cartoonist Shel Silverstein, and comics Andy Kaufman and Jerry Seinfeld.
Shepherd and Lois Nettleton married in December, 1960, though he kept their friendship and marriage secret not only from listeners, but from many of their close friends, reportedly to maintain his image as a swinging single and libertine. Lois said that they sometimes assisted each other in their theatrical roles, and also said that Jean was a gourmet cook. In the mid-1960s, Lois terminated their marriage in large part because of what she called his “secret life,” probably referring to his relationship with Leigh Brown, the hippie chick who would change and dominate his art and life. Her tell-all letters to her best friend lay bare mind, heart, aspirations, and intimate schemes to seduce and abduct our hero from his beautiful bride. Wow, what an expose! Leigh in the early 1960s began working at WOR as Jean’s go-fer, then assistant, editor, protector, producer, and eventually, when he was about to leave WOR in 1977, his wife.
NEW YORK CITY—THE LATER YEARS