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“EXCELSIOR” a play about JEAN SHEPHERD maybe with Stephen Wright, or who?! [E]

play cover 2play scene 4

(The lights very slowly come on but remain somewhat dim.  SHEPHERD is still seated in the chair with his back to the audience.  Very slowly he gets up and leans with both hands on the table.  The phone rings and he picks it up.)

SHEPHERD  Hello.  (He listens for about ten seconds.)  Charlie, no more bad news.  (He hangs up the phone wearily.)  I’m getting old.

(He stands, and with a swipe of his hand knocks over the director’s chair. He looks at the maroon radio on the table face down, hesitates, then fondles it gently.  He continues to look at it, then picks it up and places it right-side-up on the table to the right front.   He goes to a pile of audio tapes on the floor and picks up a tall stack of them and puts them on the table.  He pulls the tape player forward to the left front of the table.  He looks around at the floor.  Then he walks slowly toward the right wing and wheels his office chair back on stage and puts it centered in front of the table.  He removes the jacket he had worn through Scene Three and tosses it onto the left end of the table.  There is a wide black armband on his white shirt.) 

SHEPHERD  (Turns his head, looking back at the audience.  Pause.  He  fingers the black armband.)  It’s an old family tradition.  Yes, Leigh’s gone.  Leigh’s dead.  You have no idea how much I love her.  How much I need her.  She was supposed to outlive me.  (Pause, then he continues, almost uncomprehendingly.)  I depended on her.  (Turns completely around center stage front and bends forward at the waist.)  Not a word to anyone, ya fatheads.  Not a word—never!

______________________________

leigh in bird book

Page in a guide book to

North American Birds

found in Jean and Leigh’s

house in Maine.

_____________________________

(He turns back to the table, sits on the desk chair facing the table and shuffles some of the tape boxes, chooses one and puts it on the machine.  He flips on the play switch and walks to stage right, waiting for the audio, lowering his head a bit in anticipation.)

SHEPHERD ON TAPE  (it is part of his broadcast from Scene Two.)  I have a suspicion that these are the things that if somehow we could clear the decks—get rid of all the glop—and admit once, to ourselves, we’re not going to do it—and throw all this stuff out.  We ought to have a Dream Collection Day.

SHEPHERD  (Startled.)  Oh shit no.  Wrong tape.  Not that.  (He walks back toward the table, moving more slowly—it is an old man’s walk now.)

SHEPHERD ON TAPE  (As he is moving toward the table.)  You know how they have rag collection days, and old metal collection days?  We ought to have a Dream Collection Day.  (Annoyed, he turns off the tape. He sits again.  Removes tape and puts on another.)

SHEPHERD    Let’s try that again.  (Turns on tape player.  Turns around by swiveling the chair as he had in the beginning, facing the audience.)

SHEPHERD ON TAPE    Just a philosophical question.  I mean, who does who in—in life?  Or—and this is the worst question of all to ask—Do you do yourself in?—Aaaaa?  “Oh no, it can’t be!  No, no, that’s ridiculous!  No, no!  It was society that did it to me!  Rotten, crummy, evil society!”

SHEPHERD    No!  Where the hell did that come from?  Le…!  She was supposed to toss all that batch, damn it!  (Stops tape and removes it.)  She was a good wife.  The best.  And a darn good assistant, most of the time.  (Pause.)  She got such a kick out of being an extra—you know, in some of my films.

022_leigh_phantom

Lovely Arlita in “Phantom of the Open Hearth”

(He puts on another tape and pushes play.)

SHEPHERD ON TAPE    Now all of this might seem to you to be a mélange of nothingness—but isn’t really a mélange of nothingness.  Not at all.  Because it is a mélange of our life, the existence we live.  And if you’re going to be fulfilled, you’ve got to live your existence out.  You’ve got to play out the string.  It’s—it’s just the natural course of events.

SHEPHERD    (Nods his head.)  Yeah, that’s more like it.  Listen to this(He stops the tape and fast forwards.  Then starts the tape again.)

SHEPHERD ON TAPE    Something that bothers me is to find a man who—who will walk away from things which are going on because he doesn’t like them.  This is—this is wrong—you should stand and look.  You should watch this great crowd at the ball game, you should hear this guy hollering, “Come on, baby, hang in there!”  This is all part of it, you know.  You should go to the snake chucking.  And—and—just stand off and look.  And if you do stand off and look enough you’ll begin to have this great love of it all, which is an undeniable thing.

SHEPHERD    Now we’re getting it.  More, give me more!  Remember this one?  Of course you do.  (He quotes from himself.)  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 cauldron, the fruitcake of life, and I realize—I realize I’ve hardly scratched the surface…. (He fast forwards and starts the tape again.  He is looking down, contemplating.)

SHEPHERD ON TAPE     How can I say it?  How can I say it?  How can I say it?  You know, when you’ve said it all.  You still haven’t said any of it.  You really haven’t, you know.  You try to get it out—you try.  I’m looking out, and I see a white ship way off in the distance, trailing a long black streamer of smoke.  And I see a white cloud and gray gulls.  I can hear that wind beating down from the north.  There’s a kind of coolness in the air.  There’s always a coolness in the air in summer that says one day it’s going to be winter.  It’s going to be winter.  And in winter there’s always a softness you can find that says it’s going to be summer.  And so it shall be.

SHEPHERD     (He stops the tape.)  And so it shall be.  Yes.  (He starts the tape again.  He stands, turns and glances up at the audience.  He remains looking at them.)

SHEPHERD ON TAPE     I’m standing there, and I’m trying to figure out how to say it to you.  I can’t.  Never can.  I guess that’s the final frustration.  That nobody ever can say all of it to somebody else.  No matter how hard you try, no matter how much you want.  And in fact, I think that the more you want to say it, the less likely and the less able you are to do it.   I’m standing there, and that ship finally just disappears.  Hear it?  Did you get?—listen.  Listen—you hear it?  I’ve been trying to say it.  What I have been trying to say all along.  Yeah.  There’s not much time left.  But you’ve got to hear it.  You’ve got to be able to hear it.  I guess you can’t.  I guess everybody hears what he is hearing.  Nobody else can hear it.  Did you hear that?  Oh yeah.  You know, it’s going to be summer soon.  Yes.  Yes.

SHEPHERD    (He turns back and stops the tape. He sits facing the desk, elbows on the desk, with forearms raised.  He bends his head down, resting it in his two hands over the desk.  After a long pause he speaks very slowly, wearily.)  It’s over.  All over.  Lost and there’s nothing to be done about it.  I lose.  (He puts his hand over the black armband and rubs it gently up and down.) Leigh baby, where are you?  Leigh?

(The general lighting dims slowly, almost out, remaining that way as he slowly grasps his head in two hands.  Then the overhead spotlight comes slowly on until it is very bright on him.  After a few moments he slowly rises like an awakening giant.  He pushes back the chair and climbs onto the table, picking up the signs he had cut down earlier.  He turns around to face the audience.  He looks at each of the signs and places each back flat on the table. As he stands back up he accidentally knocks into the four-sided sign with the scene titles on it.

SHEPHERD    Goddamnit!  What fool?! 

(He looks at the sign box, then, ducking, steps inside the openwork box.  He lifts the last sign out—DREAM COLLECTION DAY— and, handling it slowly so the audience can read it, tosses it to the floor dismissively.  It makes a loud, clattering sound as it hits, then he does the same with I’M AN ENTERTAINER, and THE MONEY BUTTON, each clattering loudly.  When he lifts HIGH ON A MOUNTAINTOP, he contemplates it for a long time, then, bending over, places it upright against the maroon radio so the audience can still read it.  

play scene 1

zenith 2.26.13
The “Boodle-Am” music begins at very low volume andstanding now, still on the table inside the now empty openwork box, he tilts his head, listening.  The music fades slowly out and he looks back at the audience.  He takes a deep breath.  The openwork box rises slowly out of sight.)

SHEPHERD    (He looks down, encompassing the entire audience, talking to them in a conversational tone.)  Don’t you ever feel the desire once in a while to run away into an esoteric world?  Yeah.  (He cocks his head as if he has heard an audience response.)   No, no—no, no, no.  Everybody says, “Just run away.”  That’s no good, because the devils and your illusions pursue you to the ends of the earth.  And—yeah, they nip and yell at you and bite at your elbows.  Oh yeah, you just can’t run away from them because they’re—now don’t get me into this philosophical concept—they are you.  Did you ever try to run away from your own shadow?  (He stares into the audience for a few moments.)  Man back there nods his head yes.  (Pause.)  Well, have you ever succeeded in doing it?  Let me tell you about the cartoon one time I saw as a kid.  I don’t know whether any of you ever saw this one but it haunted me—for years.  It still does.

(SHEPHERD becomes more energetic, moving back and forth along the table top, very engaged in explaining all this to the audience.)

SHEPHERD    I’m this kid, see, and there was a nutty cartoon series that used to show up in the movies—where a guy would open up an inkwell, and you’d see this big hand and it would start drawing.imagesKoko the Clown

Well I’m sitting there and I’m watching—on came the cartoon (He half-sings the following quickly, imitating the cartoon’s music.) Rica tica ta ta rica tica ta ta wa wa rica tica tica ta ta ta.  And the name of the cartoon was something like, “Me and My Shadow and Me—Whoopy.” And you see the big drawing board and the hand starts to go.  (He moves his hand in front of him as though pen in hand, quickly drawing, concentrating on the imaginary drawing board as he whistles quick little notes as he draws.)  It’s drawing (Whistles, draws.) and it draws one of those little cartoon clowns(Whistles, draws.)  He draws a little cartoon hat on him. (Whistles, draws.)  And then, there’s a little clown—a creature.  And the creature looks out at him.

(SHEPHERD cocks his head and looks up with a silly creature-like smile.  Whenever the creature speaks, it is in a funny, high-pitched voice and a silly smile.)

SHEPHERD    (In high-pitched voice.)  “Hey whoopy.  How are you?”  (Then normal voice.)  And he waves at him. (Whistles.)  And the little creature looks around and he starts to go, and all of a sudden the guy, the voice—the man’s voice who’s drawing says (Man’s voice is a bit authoritarian, but friendly, as though speaking to a small child.), “Wait a minute.  Just a minute.”  The little creature looks up and says, “What do you want?”  Says, “Wait a minute.  Here.  I haven’t drawn your shadow yet.”  “Oh, oh. Oh yeah.  Yeah, yeah, okay doc.”  So he goes (Whistles, draws.)  He’s sketching in this black shadow, see (Whistles, draws.)  He says, “Okay, there you are.”  And you see the shadow there, see, back of him.  He says, “Okay, there you go.  Good luck, bye bye.”

(SHEPHERD acts as though he is the artist, smiles approvingly at his work, folding his hands in front of himself for a few moments, contented.)

SHEPHERD    And the little thing goes (Whistles.)    Starts to walk off, says, “So long, doc.”  Starts to walk off the page but his shadow doesn’t go!  He walks to the edge of the page  (Mimicking the creature, he walks to the edge of the table and continues acting the creature’s part here with exaggerated cartoon-like movements.)  And suddenly he realizes, see, he comes back and he makes a grab for the shadow.  He’s going to hook it on the back of him.  He grabs for the shadow, pulls it towards him like a rug, you see.  But the shadow goes Woop!  Right out of his hand—tica tica tica tica and runs off and down the page (SHEPHERD uses his fingers to indicate the quick scurrying back and forth of the shadow.)  and the entire scene resolves itself into the problem of this thing chasing all the way through the streets and up and down over rooftops yelling and hollering with the cats and the dogs after him.  He is chasing his shadow.  And then once in a while the shadow gets away from him and hides behind the chimbly, as we said in Hammond, Indiana—it’s a kid thing.  Hide behind this chimbly, see.  And this guy’s looking around.  (Creature voice and smile.)  “I guess I lost it!  What good is anybody when they don’t have a shadow?!  Where’s my…”  And he starts looking down the street (He goes to one edge of the table and, raising his hand shielding his eyes, searches out into the audience, looking back and forth) and this little thing would look out.  (He now peers out, imitating the shadow, makes rings with both thumbs and forefingers around his eyes.)  You see these two little eyes, see.  The shadow has eyes looking out  “Heh heh,” (Said in a cartoon-sinister voice.)  The shadow laughs and then suddenly the shadow starts running behind him making all kinds of wild scenes behind him, that are not at all his shadow!

(SHEPHERD in the following, imitates the monster gorilla and the creature with appropriate, exaggerated movements and voices.)

SHEPHERD    Like there would be a shadow of a gorilla walking!  “Huh! Huh!” behind this little guy!  And he’s walking down the street and he walks past a lot of people standing around—just little rabbits and elves and stuff—whatever it is that lives in cartoonworld, you know.  And they see this shadow of this monstrous gorilla!  “Huh! Huh! Huh!”  And there’s this little tiny squirt walking in front of the shadow!  And there’s “Ah! Whoh!” (Amazed voices of cartoonworld creatures.)  And they can’t figure out whether the gorilla is real, or whether this guy is inside of him a genuine gorilla!  Fantastic monster!  And they’re all running.  They’re scared of him!  And he looks and all of a sudden he feels real big—he’s caught up in the illusion.  “Oh boy!” you know.  He says, “Alright, alright you guys, don’t—don’t hang around.  I’ll fight—I’ll fight you!”  And then, as they turn around to look it’s no longer a shadow of a gorilla behind him, it’s a shadow of a tiny thing!  It’s a little tiny shadow.  (He slows down, sad, as he continues.)  Smaller than he ever thought it would ever be.  (He laughs a nasty, hostile laugh.)

(SHEPHERD smiles a big sheepish grin.)

SHEPHERD    I used to tell lots of stories about my kid-hood.  (He shakes his index finger at the audience like a pedant giving a lesson.)  Be careful about the shadow you’re casting.  Shadows and illusions.  (Pause.)  Speaking of shadows and illusions, (he grasps an imaginary microphone out of the air and speaks into his thumb,)  this is WOR, a mere shadow of its former self.  (He holds the imaginary microphone at arm’s length and stares at it, gives a big silly grin, and casually tosses it back over his shoulder.)  Very instructive cartoon.  Remember, I’m a kid—about six months after that I was extremely conscious of my shadow.  And I would try to run away from it once in a while, you know.  But I never could quite make that, and then on top of it sometimes the shadow would disappear completely like you’re casting no shadow at all.  And then I would have that same naked feeling that the crea…. (Creature voice.)  “Hey, help me, doc.  My shadow’s gone.” (Laughs.)  I’d look behind the tree—see if I could find it.  Pause.)  The problem of the shadow.  It’s difficult for us to know whether we are the shadow  or the shadow is us.  (Pause.)  And I remember this old radio show used to open up (In a deep, slow, hollow voice.)  “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?  The Shadow knows!”  Now here was an ancient, creaky radio show.  There is not one, single rinky dink television show—or one half-baked movie with a thirty-million-dollar budget that comes out with even a sliver of wisdom that remotely approaches that opening line.  “What evil lurks in the hearts of men?”  Yes.  I don’t know what would happen if that opened up the old Mary Tyler Moore Show,—or Sesame Street.  Never see it discussed on the New York Times op-ed page, no mention ever by this current crop of talk jocks.  “What evil lurks?”  A proposition we generally like to ignore—and when I say “we,” I don’t exclude myself, you know—I’m just as big a self-reflective son of a bitch as the next man-jack among you!  (He looks toward the back of the audience.)  You too, wise ass!

(He sits at the front edge of the table and dangles his legs.)

SHEPHERD    (He speaks very slowly.  He is weary and is speaking to himself, as though there is no audience.)  We figure that somehow the shadows will go away if we just exercise some willpower.  Just stand up straight all you American men, tall straight American women, tall straight pimply-faced kids from Jersey and Queens.  But shadows are lurking behind every privet hedge—behind us all.  If we had the guts to take a peek back maybe we’d see a giant gorilla or feel a clammy, hot, fetid breath of whatever it is behind and we’d look down into some kind of swirling vortex.  There’s a moment of combined—what is it?  Worry?  Concern?  Athlete’s foot?  We go back to the football game, the tuba playing and the cheerleaders.  For a brief moment there—(Though not singing, the rhythm reflects that of the song he quotes.) “that was a worrisome thing that will lead you to sing the blues in the night”—if not worse.  Yeah!

(He stands and faces the table, and with considerable effort, gets back onto it in a kneeling position, back still to the audience.)

SHEPHERD   (Subdued, he half sings the title of the song from the first scene.)  “Blues I Love to Sing.”  (He manages to stand, and turns and faces the audience, realizing that they are there.)  It’s nearly over for me—and for you.  Before you disperse out there into your own personal stygian darkness, listen to this.  Listen.  (He reaches down to his jacket on the table and pulls a small crumpled tatter of paper from the inside pocket and flattens it out, holding it up high with both arms outstretched, so he can see the audience under it.  He seems to gather strength.)  This is from one of my early shows—radio.  (He looks at the paper and reads it slowly, no longer weary, looking down at the audience from time to time.)  We’re all born butterflies.  Each one of us.  With these beautiful, magnificent wings ready to fly in the sunshine.  For those slow barrel rolls and loops.  And slowly, oh, ever so slowly, we burn those wings off—in flame.  And we wind up where we are now.  Me here.  You there.  Both of us eternally hitching, hitching a ride along the US4 of life.

(He nods his head in agreement.) 

SHEPHERD    He crumples the paper and tosses it away.  (Crumpling the paper, he tosses it away.)  Not to worry, folks, Shepherd isn’t serious—no tears now, madam.  He was just joking around—just making little funnies.  Cherish your illusions, folks—make ‘em work for you—what else ya got?  “In hoc agricola conc” he says enigmatically.

(He raises his arms like an orchestra conductor, turns for a moment to the engineers’ window and gives a start sign, then faces the audience again.)

SHEPHERD    (Speaking loudly.)  Bring it up big!

(He gives the downbeat and his theme, “Bahn Frei,” comes on loud.  He scats along and plays a bit of kazoo through its entire two-minute length, his arms waving, conducting energetically all the way to the triumphant, bombastic finale.  He bows deeply to the audience and the spotlight fades out to darkness.)

The End.

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(NOTE: I consider the above play and all other blog  material posted by me to be my personal property, and as such, to be within my exclusive rights to republish at my sole discretion. I expect that there is a book in there somewhere. Stay tuned for more  goodies from the world of Jean Shepherd.)

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“EXCELSIOR” a play about JEAN SHEPHERD maybe with Tom Hanks, Alan Alda, or who?! [D]

play cover 2play scene 3

(The lights come on as SHEPHERD enters, stage left, wearing his jacket.  He grabs the back of his chair and pushes, rolling it forcefully to stage right.  The table no longer has the 7” reel tape boxes— but there are many more of them stacked and scattered on the floor behind and to the left and right rear of the table.  He climbs onto the table, takes a small pen knife from his pants pocket, opens it, and cuts the smaller signs down, placing them on the table.  As he does this, the larger sign slowly revolves, so that facing the audience are now the words,  I’M AN ENTERTAINER.  He turns around, notices the maroon radio, zenith 2.26.13squats down and gently turns it face down onto the table, leaving the tape recorder in place.  He gets off the table and, from the pile of objects on the floor, picks up and puts on a black beret.  He picks up a megaphone and places it mouthpiece-up, on the table.  He picks up the wood and cloth director’s chair and places it where his desk chair had been.  On the back of the black cloth is stenciled in white a large star and JEAN SHEPHERD.  He looks up at the ON THE AIR sign, which slowly rises out of sight.  He pulls his director’s chair toward the front of the stage, still with the back with its sign facing the audience.  He sits in it, straddling the back with one leg, the other leg at the front, so that by twisting his body, he faces the audience.  Sometimes he does this facing stage left, sometimes stage right.)

SHEPHERD    I’ll give you a word of advice—I’m beginning to produce a small booklet in my mind called “Keep Your Knees Loose—The Education of a 20th-Century Man.”  I thought you’d kind of like to know how it is out there, gang.  Just keep your knees loose, keep your eyes open, and—like they say in the infantry, “Give them you-know-whats a low silhouette.”  That’s right—keep everything low and move slow and easy down there among the roots.  That’s right—don’t—you know.  I don’t have to tell you.  You’ve gotten this far—you must know sumpin’.

(He laughs.  He rests his forearm on the cloth back of the director’s chair as he speaks to the audience.)

SHEPHERD     I’m an entertainer.  I used to talk on radio—now I hate it.  Smothered to death by commercials and kid fans.  For god’s sakes, don’t talk to me about radio!  I got better things to do.  It’s mostly a medium for boobs. Think I’m kidding?  Think I don’t mean it?  Look me up in People magazine—I’m quoted.  A very authoritative source of information.  It’s where most people get their news, right?  I’m a very good writer.  Two dozen stories in Playboy.  Best selling books.  Television series, films for PBS.  And of course you know my movie, A Christmas Story. a film from the works Oh, come on, you know!  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. boot in face Hilarious.  Leigh, bring a stogie.  Where’s Leigh?  (Pause.)  Okay, I’ll get it myself.  (He pats his jacket and pulls a long cigar from the inside jacket pocket.  He unwraps it and puts it in his teeth without lighting it.)  As my producer and new bride, you’d think she’d learn how to do these things right.  My every whim and so on.

( The phone rings and SHEPHERD rises out of the chair quickly and starts to rush for it, then slows down and casually picks it up.) 

SHEPHERD   (Talking into phone, cigar still in his mouth.)  Shepherd here.  Stories, films, TV, performing for all occasions.   Have Jokes, Will Travel— Anniversaries, Weddings, Banquets our Specialty.  Super Market Openings by Job Lots.  Honest, Reliable, Sober, Industrious, Square-jawed.  Oh hello.  Listen, I know Public Television has a rarified audience, but my stuff has been exceedingly popular.  Commercial television audiences are ready for me and I’m ready for them.  I strike a nerve with my humor.  Okay, okay, I get you.  Sure.  Maybe some other time.   Bye.  (Puts down the phone.  He shifts the phone to the front of the table so that he can just reach it from the director’s chair.  He pulls the cigar from his mouth and holds it, using it to punctuate what he is about to say.)

SHEPHERD    (He paces stage left to stage right and back several times as he talks to the audience )  Listen, is Huckleberry Finn popular with a mass audience or not?  And Huck isn’t just a kid on a raft, right?  Twain had something more in mind, right?  Saying something important about our society, right?  Old Sam Clemens sort of like a one-man Greek Chorus?  Moving back and forth—strict, realistic storytelling and then drawing back like a Greek chorus—drawing back and making a comment on what you’ve just seen.  If I play any role in our society, my role is a Greek chorus.  I am not a featured player, I’m not a star, I do not raise the dagger and plunge it into the heart of the enemy.  I stand in the back, and once in a while after the dagger has been raised and plunged, I sing the long dirge, “Oh woe, oh woe, oh mighty, mighty woe, oh time and man.  Oh revenge, thou art sweet, and oh revenge thou shall destroy all of us.”  And then the chorus rises and the lights go up and again the action takes place.  And this is a very necessary function.  We have in our society—we have somehow been able to bypass the Greek chorus—the chorus which both explains the action to the audience and to those who have just acted.  This is what the Greek chorus always did.  It provided an interesting frame to what was going on.  Not only an interesting frame, it provided a focal point to it.

(SHEPHERD looks at the cigar in his hand as though wondering what it is doing there, and flings it away, picks up the megaphone from the table and puts it to his mouth.)

SHEPHERD   (Turning slowly a full 360 degrees, megaphone held to his mouth at a high angle.)  Okay, break’s over.  Leigh, baby, wrangle everyone over this way.  Good!  What would I do without you?  Maybe we can get you into this next scene as an extra.  Would ya like that?  Let’s get the show on the road, people.  See if you can get it right.

(SHEPHERD sits in the director’s chair again so he is facing the audience.  Pause.)

SHEPHERD   (Yelling into the megaphone.)  Cut!  Cut!  Not the way I wrote it.  Leigh, show it to them in the script.  (He sets the megaphone on the floor and talks to the audience.)  Am I the only one who knows what the hell he’s doing here?

SHEPHERD   (The phone rings and he stretches from the chair, picks up the phone, answering it a little more quickly than the last time.  As he listens for about 15 seconds, he stands up and begins pacing, then holds the phone about a foot from his mouth and yells into it)  You’re not the only network in town!  F**k you!

(He slams down the phone and paces up and down, stage left to stage right and back several times as he talks to the audience )

SHEPHERD    Have you seen my stuff?  Have you seen Jean Shepherd’s America?  Breaks the standard TV format.  Each episode different, and I narrate all of them.  I know how to do it.  I take chances.  Like a music improvisation.  Who else has the balls to do that with television?  You never know what’s going to happen.  Im-pro-vi-sa-tion.  It’s dynamic.  Like America itself.  “On the Road with Shep.”  Jackson Pollock.  It’s Mingus.  You know what I’m creating?  It’s the great American TV documentary.  America in a couple hundred half hour mosaic fragments.  This PBS series is going to outlast Sesame Street.  Look, I don’t expect the shitheads who watch commercial TV to understand it or get past the first five minutes.  We’re peddling other stuff to commercial television.  Do you remember the stories of my kid-hood?  Remember them from Playboy?  Remember them from my best-selling novels?  I did them first on radio.  Remember how I would talk and it would just pour out of me and I’d be really moving with it?  Out of nowhere weaving filaments of gold!  Hairs on the back of my neck standing up.  We’re combining some of them into TV films, ninety minutes each, and I appear from time to time and I’m narrating.  My style—makes it really personal, like I’m really telling the story just to each of you—get it?  It’s what I always did on….  (He turns his back to the audience.)  Hairs on the back of my neck.  Shit.  (Pause.)  No.

(He goes back to the table and picks up the phone and dials, standing, leaning with one hand on the table.) 

SHEPHERD   Shepherd here.  Yeah, get him on the phone if he’s still my agent.  Hello, Charlie, Shep here.  How’s it goin’?  Damn, these commercial network guys don’t know what they’re doing.  They steal my stuff but they won’t give me the chance to do my own stuff on my own show.  You see The Wonder Years last night?   WonderYears  Paul, Kevin, and Winnie

THE WONDER YEARS

Paul, Kevin, and Winnie

Now they’re not only stealing my techniques, they’ve stolen my plot lines!  Don’t the f**kers know I can write my stuff better than they can pirate it?  Don’t give up.  Keep working on them.  Thanks.  Bye.  (He slowly hangs up the phone.)

(He looks up at the audience and walks to center stage front.  He points at the audience, swinging his arm back and forth to encompass everybody.)

SHEPHERD    Only in America!  Only in America could you people get it so wrong.  Listen.  Understand what I’m telling you.  Do you realize who I am and what you are?  I’m your Mark Twain, maybe some of your Walt Whitman and you’re America—each one of you.  (Exasperated.)  You don’t get it do you?  (Bends over stage, hands on hips.)  Fools, fatheads!  I’m not a comic with funny lines.  ‘Eisenhower ha ha!  ‘Reagan’ ha ha!  You laugh now and you forget what they say before you leave the theater or change the channel.  I’m telling you about yourself—us!  I’m giving you back to yourselves—all your diversity, your silliness, your foibles.  How can you watch the crap you watch and not watch me?  You don’t deserve me, that’s the problem, but what choice do I have?  I’m stuck with you and you’re stuck with me—I’m your Will Rogers, your—.  I’ll go down in history.  (Pause.  He straightens up and turns his back abruptly on the audience)  Ignore me at your peril, damn fools!!  (Pause.)  Do I have to rely on campus gigs for a bunch of pimply-faced kids from Jersey to make a living?  (Pause.  He quiets down almost to a whisper.)  Leigh baby.  Silver threads among the gold.  Bring me a drink.  A stiff one.

(He stands still for a count of ten.  His shoulders slump and remain so for a slightly shorter time.  He straightens up and glares at the audience.  He walks defiantly back and forth across stage front, looking down at the audience as he speaks.)

SHEPHERD     I’m big!  I’m big in every goddamn medium you can name.  I’m a best seller.  My name on books!   My name in TV.  My name on top of the credits in goddamn movies for Christsakes!  The silver screen, people!  And the theater.  My A Christmas Story is a theater piece across the country and my name—my name is on the marquee of this goddamn theater you’re sitting in right now, isn’t it?!  You’ve paid good money to sit down there and look up at me, Jean Parker Shepherd—here—up here on stage.  Who the hell are you down there?  I’m up here.  Up in the limelight!  The limelight.

(He yanks at the director’s chair and sits in it, back to the audience.)

directors chair back

SHEPHERD    (Yelling at the audience but facing away.)  Excelsior, you assholes!   (The lights dim out.  While the lights are out, he softly sings the first few lines of the song, “After You’re Gone.”)  After you’ve gone, and left me crying.  After you’ve gone, there’s no denying, I’ll feel blue, you will too….”  Leigh baby.  Leigh.

 

JEAN SHEPHERD and me–an obsession

SHORT PLAY INTERMISSION BETWEEN SCENES

During this short break you might hum to yourselves:

“Video Killed the Radio Star”

or

bahn frei

__________________________________

I’ve been especially focused on the world of Jean Shepherd since he died in October, 1999. The obit reminded me of his importance in my life. So much so that my wife is jealous. I keep most of my Shepherd-related material objects cloistered in my study, which, as it expands into adjacent areas has become known as my “Shep Shrine.” However, at her suggestion, we maintain, all year long, in one of our front windows, a small version of the infamous “leg lamp.”

small leg lamp

As  you may know, I began listening to him in the fall of 1956, and met him during a gathering of his listeners in April, 1957:

 1957-04-08_010_signing_genes_libertine_front1957-04-08_010_signing_genes_libertine_back

But it was in the beginning of 2000 that I began focusing my thoughts and energies on writing Excelsior, You Fathead! The Art and Enigma of Jean Shepherd.  To show you that it wasn’t all serious pen-to-paper and keyboarding, what follows are a few of my other Shep-related projects. (These images of my stuff I’ve gathered from the extraordinary postings of all things Shep on Jim Clavin’s http://www.flicklives.com site):

ink_stamp

I designed a rubber stamp to brand my correspondence. See above.

I designed and made a couple of my version of Shep’s “brass figlagee with bronze oakleaf palm”:

010_Brass_Figlagee

I branded my car, sort of, with Shep’s immortal word:

010_Gene_Berg_Plate

I gathered my Shepherd material into my “Shep Shrine” and I never stopped writing about him, as my various publications, several book manuscripts, and this blog attest.

MUCH MORE TO COME

!

(For example, the next scene in my Shepherd play.)

“EXCELSIOR” a play about JEAN SHEPHERD maybe with Dustin Hoffman, William Hurt, or who?! [C]

play cover 2

play scene 2

(While the lights are still out, music begins—it is The Dixieland Jug Blowers playing “Boodle-Am Shake”.  It begins with banjos, and jugs playing musical farts—then lyrics, including the words, “I know these words don’t mean a thing….”  The lights come up and SHEPHERD slowly enters stage left and sits at his table, which now has several tall piles of 7” tape boxes next to the tape recorder.  He tilts his head to listen to the music.

SHEPHERD    Hey Jim, play that part again.

(The music replays,  “I know these words don’t mean a thing….”)

SHEPHERD   Yeah, one more time there, Jim.  (He raises his hands like an orchestra conductor as the same words of the lyric repeat: “I know these words don’t mean a thing.”  He laughs and nods his head.  He swivels his chair and talks to the audience.)  See that sign up there? (He points to IN HOC AGRICOLA CONC.)  In hoc agricola conc.  One of the world’s great sayings in which the words don’t mean a thing.  It was the motto of the Warren G. Harding Elementary School where I festered as a kid.  They got it from an old radio program you probably never heard of called “Vic and Sade,” about little people with real but little thoughts on real but little stuff.  Vic’s dumb-ass lodge proceedings were full of such pompous, meaningless, ersatz Latin.  For me it gives a certain phony class to the illusion that optimistic twaddle will get you somewhere in life.  In hoc agricola conc.

(He gives a thumbs up sign to the engineers’ window and the ON THE AIR sign lights.  The overhead sign slowly revolves so that HIT THE MONEY BUTTON is now facing the audience.)

on the air

SHEPHERD    (Turns on his tape recorder and his “Bahn Frei” theme music begins.  He speaks into the microphone)  Okay, okay, come on, come on, that’s it.  Out, out!  Cut it, cut it.  That’s it, that’s it.  (The music stops.  He pauses.) I hear that thing sometimes and it drives me out of my skull.  You ever had something hang on you—for like, 4,000 years—and you wonder why you keep it around?  I got a letter from a kid.  “Have you thought of changing your theme?” he says.  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.  And what’s so good about how bad it is—get this—it always sounds like it’s going to break into something better—but never does.  And it has a certain nutty insouciance which—uh—in some ways like that blithe I-could-care-less-about-mere-disaster of the late great Don Quixote!  Let’s just say it gallops off in all directions.  It arrives at none of them!  How like life itself, ah, kid?  How like what it’s all about, right, 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, Jim?  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—it’s filled with portent!  And then—the sound of a thundering orchestra—galloping endlessly over the plain!  (A few moments of the theme music continues, then stops.)  It’s all of us!  And that’s exactly why I use it!  (He laughs.)  And it’s timeless.  And it’s also a failure!  How like all of us.  I mean a failure in the ultimate sense of course.  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, and keeping our knees loose.  And once in a while, when we’ve got the chance, kicking a little butt.

(He pauses, then slowly swivels around, facing the audience and raising one finger to his lips, smiles conspiratorially.  He swivels back to his microphone.)

SHEPHERD     Let’s kick a little butt.  (Pause.)  Once again the science of electronics brings deeper and richer meaning to your lives.  Listeners, put your radio on the window sill.  In an unprecedented act of good will towards its listenership, in realization of its deep responsibilities as a purveyor of public good, WOR makes this service available to you exclusively.  This is the only station where you’ll find an outlet for your aggressions, you’ll find expressions for your repressions.  (He speaks in low, conspiratorial tones)  Put your radio on your window sill now!  Do it now!  (He pounds on the desk.  He picks up the red radio and, swiveling around, swivels forward to the edge of the stage and puts the radio on the floor at down center facing the audience, then swivels back to the desk and his microphone.)  Now!  The loudspeaker pointed out—toward the neighborhood.  You know that crowd out there.  You know that gang.  Of course you do.  Put it out there.  That’s it.  And when I give you the cue, turn that radio up as loud as it will go!  We’re going to use a very special kind of invective tonight.  This is known as the “disquieting, with a touch of morbid curiosity” type.  Which is type 6SJ7GT, and a very difficult type to use.  You can drop out now if you feel it’s a bit too strong.  Okay—radio on window sill now!  (Whispering)  Turn it up!  Lights out!  For heaven’s sake, turn the lights out.  (All lights go out except for a dim spotlight focused on the radio.)  Turn the radio up.  Pretend you’re looking at television.  Pretend you’re asleep.  Okay.

(There is a moment of silence, and then SHEPHERDs voice comes out of the radio, extremely loud with the harsh sound of cheap loudspeakers)  OKAY YOU RATS!  YOU THOUGHT YOU WERE GOING TO GET AWAY WITH IT!  WE’RE ON TO YOU!  GIVE UP BEFORE YOU GET ONE BETWEEN THE EYES!  (There are a few moments of silence and the lights come on again as SHEPHERD is placing his radio back on the table. Then he reaches for the microphone.)

SHEPHERD     That ought to shake them up for a while—all those crummy rats out there in the stygian darkness!  (Pause.  SHEPHERD laughs.)  Listeners, we did it!  We’re back on the air and we have a sponsor!  Listeners, go out and buy more of their soap!  Thank you Sweetheart Soap, you’re a great sponsor.  I appreciate your support when the going got a bit rough.  And you get stuff clean too.  It’s nice when you can get the boss to back down.  Shows the boss who’s boss.  (He grabs the microphone in one hand and cups his other hand around his mouth, raising his head as though looking toward heaven as he calls out loudly.)  Hey, Ledbetter—ha ha ha ha .

(SHEPHERD slams the mic loudly down on the table, picks it up and begins talking into it again in his normal voice.)

SHEPHERD   Hey, why do I enjoy doing this show so much?  What’s the matter with me?  I can’t figure it out.  You know?  Why—why—you know I—it bothers me sometimes because—you’re supposed to, you know, you’re supposed to look at your work as work.  No, I’ll tell you this is, uh—you know, the Protestant ethic—causes me a little problem at this point and—really.  The other day this guy interviewed me.  He says, “You must get very tired.  Always thinking of new things or trying to do stuff every night on your show and all that.”   And I said (he is speaking in mock solemn voice) “Yes, that is true.  I get extremely tired.”  (He begins singing.)   Yes sir, that’s my baby.  No sir, don’t mean maybe.  Yes sir, that’s my baby now.  (Stops singing.)  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!”  I would like to know how many untouched watercolor sets there are—in this town—of guys who once—of women who once were going to take up painting.  Thousands of tons of caked, hard, rock-like oil paints that haven’t been touched since the Christmas of 1939.  And the cracked guitars that are hanging in basements covered with dust, that haven’t been strummed since 1947—after the second lesson.  I have a feeling that these things are holding us down.  (Pause.)  Speaking of things that are holding us down, this is WOR AM and FM in New York.

(SHEPHERD grabs his microphone and swivels around so he is facing and speaking to the audience as well as to his radio listeners.)

SHEPHERD  I have a suspicion that these are the things that if somehow we could clear the decks—get rid of all the glop—and admit once, to ourselves, we’re not going to do it—and throw all this stuff out.  We ought to have a Dream Collection Day.  You know how they 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, the ancient watercolor set, and puts it out in front of the house.  As a kind of public recanting, you see.  Puts it out in front of the house for the salvage people to finally come and get.  And everybody of course would have to do it together—all together, we’ll clean out all these broken, old, sad, poor, wonderful, idiotic, debilitating, defeating dreams.

(SHEPHERD looks over his shoulder at the engineer’s window momentarily.)

SHEPHERD   ‘Cause you know what happens, Jim—is that every time you go into the closet and you see that lump of paper back there, it looks out at you.  Every time you go down to the basement you see that guitar, it looks at you.  And it says, “Aha!  I am your past.”  This is what Scrooge’s ghosts, you know, were based on.  “I was a dream once.  Look what you did to it.”  That pair of hockey skates, that in a moment of impetuosity you rushed out in the fall of 1951 and you bought.  You wore them twice—both times realizing that you had weak ankles that went all the way up to your ears—that are still hanging down there in the basement.  “Aha!”

(SHEPHERD stands, microphone still in hand, and walks up and down the front of the stage, leaning over toward the audience, gesticulating to them, very animated)

SHEPHERD  Let’s clear it all away!  Let’s have Dream Collection Day!  Let’s get behind it and get rid of all this stuff!  It’s killing us!  It’s like dead tissue growing on us.   Let’s get rid of all those portable typewriters—that’ll never write that novel.  Let’s get rid of all those yellow sheets with all the notes for all the poems and plays.  Let’s get rid of those old guitars.  We’ll declare it a city-wide holiday!  Dream Collection Day!  And we could all—we could all sit behind our windows and we’ll watch these wagons go past loaded to the gunnels.  Loaded to the gunnels with all the old glop and all the old, sad, decayed, past moments of glory.  All the old—all the old, staring, vacant faces of the rusted ice skates that were never worn.  Dream Collection Day.  What a magnificent idea!  Magnificent moment.  Maybe if we got rid of all these cigar boxes—full of charcoal pencils, those battered pads—from the life classes of years ago.  Maybe it might start again.  But what would happen, of course would be this.  The day after Dream Collection Day, there’d be a guy walking down—walking down Fifth Avenue somewhere—maybe in the 90s—walking along there, the wind is coming out of Central Park—he smells just the touch of that sere, brown winter greenery with its strange excitement.  And he would say to himself, “You know, what I oughta do is learn how to play the guitar! ” And it would start all over again.  It would start all over again.  The whole business.

(SHEPHERD returns to his chair, sits, and swivels in it, facing away from the audience.)

SHEPHERD  Three hours later, some guy would go into a stationery shop on 8th Street and buy four pads of yellow second sheets, two pencils, and he would go home and he would start to write. (He raises an outstretched hand toward the engineers’ window and soft jazz starts in the background)  The first line would say, “The youth sat looking out over the town that lay like a small paper clip curved in the bosom of creased green earth.”  And it would start all over again.

(SHEPHERD scats along to the soft jazz for a few moments and then he and the music stop.)

SHEPHERD     In hoc agricola conc.  (He sings the line from “Boodle-Am Shake” “I know these words don’t mean a thing.”  (Stops singing.)  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.  (Looking up at the engineers’ window.)  Commercials?  Hey, it’s commercial time. Time we hit the money button.  The button that keeps us alive.  Speaking of singing, do you have my favorite beer commercial ready there?  All right, let’s go gang, before we get seriously involved.  Yeah.  Hey, listen, friends, it’s the weekend coming up, and that is—a very serious time if you believe in beer and that means you don’t want to be caught like about the middle of this weekend without any suds on hand.  And if you’re gonna lay in a real trough-full of genuine, vibrant suds, we can only recommend one.  And you can get it in the magnificent champagne golden can—which makes a nice clink when it hits the sidewalk.  And while we still got you quivering out there, we’ve got another little ding dong for you—real quick.  Hit the money button.

(SHEPHERD looks to the engineers’ window and raises his middle finger toward it.  There is silence as SHEPHERD swivels around like a kid, several times in his chair.)

SHEPHERD   Yessir, that’s my baby.  Speaking of bringing it back into perspective, there is nothing brings us back into clearer, cleaner perspective in this world than a good blast of commerciality.  Believe me, I have learned long ago—when you are living in the land of Caesar, you render—by George—unto Caesar what is Caesar’s.  Ya pay the piper.  And so, now, get ready to pay the piper for 120 seconds.  Caesar is just around the corner.  Here he comes with the message, by George.  In hoc agricola concHit the money button.

The ON THE AIR sign goes off.

 (Silence as SHEPHERD swivels around several times in his chair, not like a kid any more.)

SHEPHERD    (Looking at and talking to audience.)  Speaking of idlers here we have the—commercial people around—hanging around by the coffee bar there, ready to leap in and make a couple of bucks—and so, we will render them 120 seconds of their due.  Stand by, friends—hang onto the handlebars, and hope for the best.  Keep your knees loose.  We’ll be back in two minutes.  The longest two minutes in radio.  (SHEPHERD laughs and swivels in his chair.)

(The phone rings and SHEPHERD answers it, listening to it for a few moments)

SHEPHERD  (Speaking into phone as he swivels around, facing the audience)  Goddammit Ledbetter, these fucking commercials are killing me!  I can’t get a word in edgewise.  (He listens for a few moments)  Oh yeah, sure I asked for it, like hell!  Live with it, shit!  Easy for you to say—you don’t have a style to be cramped.  Anything interrupts whatever you’re saying is an improvement!

(He listens for a few moments, then opens his mouth to speak, but doesn’t.  Slams down the phone.  The ON THE AIR sign goes on.)

on the air

SHEPHERD  (He swivels again, back to audience)  Shepherd had to stop that one, boy!  He was gettin’ scared because if they ever backed him away from his radio show—what would he have left?  So to prevent that disaster happening, let us give the commercial people their due—for the next 120 seconds—let’s listen to the beauties, the glories of getting out and spending that cash.  Right, friend?  Next two minutes belong to Caesar.  Hit the button.

The ON THE AIR sign goes off.

 (Silence.  SHEPHERD stands up and paces back and forth.  Looks up at the small overhead signs.  Paces.  Sits down at the table.)

 He signals to the engineer and the ON THE AIR sign comes on. 

on the air

SHEPHERD Hit the money button.  Hit the money button.  Hit the money button.  Hit the money button.

  He makes the cut sign to the engineer and the ON THE AIR sign goes off. 

He picks up the phone and dials.  He swivels around, facing the audience, talking on phone.)  This is Shepherd.  Get me my goddamn agent.  (Pause.)  Hi, Charlie.  How’s the video deal going?  How’s the film deal going?  (He listens a moment.)  I know things take time.  I want it now.  I deserve it.  We’re using my published stories.  Tell them to read ‘em.  I’ll buy them all the copies of Playboy they’re in.  I’ll send over my book.  I’ll autograph it for them.  Just get them on the stick.  (He slams down the phone.)  Charlie, they tell me you’re the best and they’re killing you—they’re killing me, Charlie.  (Pause.)  Nothing but a bunch of troglodytes—of Ogs and Charlies.

(He turns back to his desk and motions to the engineers’ window.  The ON THE AIR sign comes on.)

on the air

SHEPHERD    You know there was a historic moment that was recorded by one of the great physical anthropologists—at the University of Pennsylvania.  And he has reconstructed it.  I thought you might like to know about it.  It was one of the great—it was the time that man became man.  It was a very important moment.  These two guys are sitting on the shores of this antediluvian lake.  For the purposes of discussion we’ll call one of them Og and the other’s Charlie.  We do not know their actual names.  It’s been that long.

(SHEPHERD stands up and turns around with his microphone in hand and approaches the front edge of the stage.  He leans over and, speaking into the microphone, he also is speaking directly to the audience.)

SHEPHERD    And eternally, every twenty years the sky has fallen down and killed at least fourteen million.  Now we like to pretend that we are 20th-century man.  This is, of course, modern civilized man.  It’s interesting to note that more civilized, modern men have died from the hand of his brother—civilized modern man—than in all recorded history prior to 1900.  I mean, we are getting to the point—of course it’s true that technology has its own particular fascination.  Particularly when we apply it to the things that we really want.  Like killing everybody.  This is true progress—maybe.  (He laughs.)  But these two guys were crouched down.  They were looking out over that dark, dark and placid sea.  And they were crouched.  And then, one fateful afternoon, just after Charlie had come back from gathering a few clams down at the waterside, Og turned to him—looked at him for a long instant that went on for maybe six or seven years—just looked at him.  Things moved much slower in ancient times than they do today.

(SHEPHERD begins pacing back and forth across the front of the stage, still speaking into the microphone.)

SHEPHERD    And then, without saying a word he reached down, picked up a large stone, raised it above his head, and brought it down with a telling, fatal crash between the eyes of Charlie. (He has acted out the picking up of the rock and killing Charlie.  Long pause.)  In that instant, man became man.  He ceased being a beastie of the field.  He no longer could return to the world of flowers.  Never again could he pretend he was like the clams.  That moment modern man was born.  That instant!  It was the great, great turning point.  And Charlie fell in a pool of blood.  Og settled back on his haunches, and continued to look out over the lake.  But they were seen—by another man, who crouched by his cave.  He picked up a rock and moved into the shadows.  And waited.  Modern man had begun to progress.

(SHEPHERD sits back in his chair facing the table.)

SHEPHERD    (He turns his head away from the microphone and speaks to himself.)  Back into the shadows—that “only The Shadow knows.”  Into the shadows where evil lurks—with the slobs.  (He turns and speaks into the microphone again.)  Speaking of slob art, this is WOR—friends—in New York.  Hey Leigh, honey.  Leigh Brown.  (Shouts.)  Leigh, honey.  Are you my producer-lady or what?  I don’t care what you’re doing.  When I’m on the air you are also a listener.  Listen!  All you guys and you gal behind the glass are my minions.  You do as I say when I say it.  I don’t care if you’re not feeling well, honey.  Be ill on your own time, babe.  Speaking of sickness, this is WOR in New York.  Speaking of sickness, did I ever tell you about the time I was working for this crummy radio station in Cincinnati?  One day, one of the sneaky, rotten engineers—I’ve noticed that the engineers have the truly corroded minds.  Something rotten—something basically rotten about many engineers.   (He points at the engineers’ window as he speaks)  They sit there and they—oh yeah—I mean, year after year they look in through the glass and they watch shows being done, and eventually they are totally immune to anything.  Absolutely, I’m serious, I mean if Moses came down out of that—out of that mountain—but you don’t want to hear about rotten engineers, do you?  (He shrugs his shoulders.)  In hoc agricola conc.

(He stands, holding the microphone and faces the audience, paces back and forth across the front of the stage several times, saying nothing.  At far stage right he stops and looks at the audience.)

SHEPHERD (He paces back to far stage left, stops and looks at the audience.)  Speaking of evil ideas, this is WOR, New York.   (He paces back to far stage right, stops and looks at the audience.)  Speaking of intimations of disaster, this is WOR in New York.  (He paces back to far stage left, stops and looks at the audience.)  Speaking of wild offers and the timberline, this is WOR, New York.  Boy, we are in the wilderness.  That’s another story.  Another kind of wilderness, you know.  Just as there are many mansions, there are many wildernesses and many gods.  And boy, we are in a wilderness now!  I mean, it’s a dark, dark one.   (He paces back to far stage right, stops and looks at the audience.) George Ade said that fun is the few moments that you can forget that you’re growing old and are about to die.  And there’s much truth to this.  (Pause.)  And speaking of death, this is WOR, New York.

 (He returns to down center and signals a cut to the engineers’ window. 

The ON THE AIR sign goes off.

SHEPHERD    (Talking to the engineers’ window.)  Leigh, honey, we’re eating out fancy tonight.  (He pauses, listening.)  I don’t care—you can be tired tomorrow.  Perk up.  And wear that sexy red dress I like.

(He signals to the engineers’ window, and the ON THE AIR sign comes on.)

on the air

SHEPHERD   (Sings while pointing at the window.)  I’m the Sheik of Araby.  Your love belongs to me.   (Stops singing.  Blows a kiss.  He reaches around with both arms, giving Leigh a big imaginary hug.)  Speaking of trouble, this is WOR.  Holy smokes!  (He gives a single blast from his kazoo)  This is WOR in New York.  Wouldn’t you like to have a station signature that’s really angry?  You know they have—they always have these pleasant little ones—you know (Sings.)   “WOR, your friendly station.”  You know that kind.  You hear these singing station breaks all over (He sings in jazzy, scatty way)  Who oh da da da da alr da dada da wa waawawaw—your station for news badadawawa.  (He plays a few moments on his kazoo)  I’d like to have a station signature—I’d love it just once if some station had a sense of humor about it.  WOR.  What a cacophony, gallimaufry, which reminds me, this is WOR, New York.  Silly, idiotic radio station!  If only it had engineers and producers who did what they were supposed to do.  And Leigh, you can’t wear that tacky rayon outfit out to eat.  You wouldn’t know a silk dress from a sow’s ear.  (He looks at the engineers’ window.)  Hey, give me another commercial quick.

SHEPHERD signals cut, and the ON THE AIR light goes off.

(He stands and walks around to the engineers’ window and looks in.)

SHEPHERD     Leigh, honey, I hate to seen a grown producer cry.  You know I love ya.  No more tears.  I shouldn’t have said that on the air—but I’ve got to say what pops into my mind when it hits me.  It’s what I do.  I can’t always do instant edits.  Okay, okay, little-producer-mine, come on home and I’ll re-dress you for dinner.

(SHEPHERD walks back to the table and sits.)

SHEPHERD     Give me my “Boodle Am” music under my next bit. It’ll be a shorty. Then bring up the theme and end it. I’ve got a date with my honey tonight. Hit more money buttons–see if I care.

(He signals and the ON THE AIR light comes on.)

on the air

(“Boodle Am” music in the background as he speaks, then fading out.)

SHEPHERD     By the way, how are you doing with your bailing? Heh? Has it ever occurred to you that life is one long succession of work with the bailing can? Your own private bailing can–down there at the bottom of the boat–trying to keep the water that’s coming in from lapping up around your knees. And is it water? That’s another question we’d like to ask.

 (There is silence as SHEPHERD stands and takes off his earphones, putting them on the table. 

He makes the cut signal and the ON THE AIR sign goes off. 

(He turns off his tape recorder and removes the tape, placing it on the table, grabs his jacket from the table.  As he walks off stage right, the lights dim out.  While the lights are out, SHEPHERD sings and plays the kazoo to a recording of “I’m the Sheik of Araby.”)

“EXCELSIOR” a play about JEAN SHEPHERD maybe with Bill Irwin, Nicolas Cage, or who?! [B]

play cover 2

(The orchestra lights dim, the curtain rises and the stage is dark)

play scene 1

SHEPHERD’S VOICE    Okay, I’m ready.  Is this mic on?  (Sound of tapping on the microphone.)  Are we rolling? Three, two, one.  Take one.  Jean Shepherd career retrospective capsule summary.  (Pause.  Shepherd’s voice is now pompous, 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.  Coming out of Chicago, Cincinnati, and Philadelphia, in 1956 Shepherd began talking—improvising on New York radio 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, mostly in late weeknight 45-minute segments, Shepherd told stories, related anecdotes, and expressed opinions—he tickled the better parts of intelligent minds.

As he talks, the stage lights come on.  White horizontal signs—about 5” high by about 30” long—slowly lower from the ceiling to about seven feet from floor.  These are sayings that Shepherd frequently used, and are incorporated into Shepherd’s later monologues.  They say:    EXCELSIOR     in hoc agricola conc    CREEPING MEATBALLISM    NIGHT PEOPLE   BRING IT UP BIG !     KEEP YOUR KNEES LOOSE     FLICK LIVES.

SHEPHERD (Continues talking, and, with microphone in hand, he enters stage left and stops before reaching the window. We see that he has been announcing himself.  He does not look at the audience.  He is wearing a white shirt, chinos, and a sports jacket,For forty years Shepherd, in addition to his radio broadcasts, produced fine work in other fields.  He created a great twentieth-century literary hoax, promoting a non-existent novel which was banned in Boston, I, Libertine; he published 23 stories in Playboy magazine; wrote popular books of stories and articles; made recordings, television stories and series including Jean Shepherd’s America; performed live at Carnegie Hall, Town Hall, and other venues nation-wide; and created that holiday favorite movie, A Christmas Story, in which the kid nearly shoots his eye out with his BB-gun present.  (He looks at the audience and turns toward them.)  And now, with the news and weather and station identification out of the way, gather around, ladies and gentlemen—here is Jean Shepherd!  (He points at himself with mock pride, a big smile on his face.  He bows from the waist, his arms outstretched, hands waving, encouraging the audience to applaud.)

(The general light level decreases, a spotlight directly overhead intensifies, lighting the chair. The ON THE AIR sign illuminates.)  

on the air

(Music starts.  It is a bright, bouncy tune begun with a fanfare.  It is Shepherd’s theme song, “Bahn Frei.”  He listens.  When its two minutes is about half over, he continues walking, crosses behind the window, looking through it at the table (this indicates to the audience that the window is clear).  He starts the tape recorder, sits in the chair, facing the audience only for a moment, and, giving the chair a turn by pushing on the floor with one foot, turns with it so his back is toward the audience.  Some of the audience see his face reflected in the window.  Shepherd puts on the earphones and listens to the music, then begins speaking over it.  Whenever he is speaking on the air, even when he walks up and down, he wears the earphones.)

SHEPHERD       (His voice is slow, knowing, irony-tinged)  Yeah, and high on the mountaintop, the giant voice rings out, “Stay tuned.”  Oh, oh, what a come-on—what a message from the heights of Parnassus.  And a tiny figure, tattered and torn, can be seen moving across the barren landscape.  A giant load being pushed before him.  And a sign reads enigmatically, “Will Travel— Anniversaries, Weddings, an Occasional Banquet our Specialty.  Super Market Openings by Job Lots.  Honest, Reliable, Sober, Industrious, Square-jawed, Weak-kneed, Lily-livered.”  Stay tuned, friends.  (music ends)  Yes—Excelsior!   Stay tuned, the lily-livered of the world.  We’ll be here until one o’clock tomorrow morning, pursuing what mankind has always pursued.   In the fashion that he best sees it at the moment.  Now that, of course, has been the problem that many of us have pondered—this business of what mankind has always pursued.  We’ve had enough trouble with subjects, predicates—we’ve had enough trouble with—you know—the surface things.  We’ve gone through all the surface things.  And it seems to me that we can do something else tonight—we can—it’s summer, you know.  It’s summer, really (Old jazz has begun slowly, under.  It is “Blues I love to Sing” by Duke Ellington, 1927-1928, the singer, Adelaide Hall) and it’s too bad that you’re listening to the radio.  It is, really.  We can only extend our hand in quiet, sympathetic good will to those of you who are forced to, you know—ahaaa—look at—all this wonderful time, all this wonderful weather, all this stuff all around and here we sit.  I’m here and you’re there.  I’m in studioland.

(SHEPHERD, holding the microphone, slowly swivels 360 degrees, looking around as though studying everything)

SHEPHERD    Studioland has a peculiar kind of sterility about it—which we will discuss later on, after 11:15, when we touch upon the sterility portion of our program.  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—is all artificial!  False!  Ridiculous!  All of this stuff!  Don’t you believe any of it!  Any of them!  You’re out there in radioland, aren’t you?  You see, that’s what I mean—all this is unreal—false—sterile!  How can I escape—how can I become one of you?  Out there?  I’ve heard all kinds of stories about what goes on in the outside.  All sorts of stories.  I don’t believe any of them, though.  I can’t.  I can’t let myself believe them.  If I do, everything I have here will crumble here in studioland.  Gotta cling to something.  To dreams—belief or two.  Jean Cocteau said, “Destroy the dream, you destroy the man.”  So, you know—hang onto a few things.  I have to think that nothing happens out there.  But I know it does, little box top sender-inners.  All you people out there in radioland.  It’s too bad it’s the way it is.  I’m here and you’re there.  Ah, gladly would I, indeed—oh, but yes.  (He pauses, then begins with mock enthusiasm.)

Who’s for beach lotto tonight? This is a great beach lotto night!  Who’s for beach lotto tonight?  About 4 o’clock in the morning.  Seven thousand five hundred and eighty-two people—we might even make the sports pages.  Can’t you see yourself in the lineup.  The lineup—16 columns long.  There you are, you see.  You scored two goals last night at Jones Beach in beach lotto.  Ahooo!  (He spins around in his chair, holding the microphone, now facing the audience.  He is back in a contemplative mood.)  Isn’t it pitiful the way I sit here and spin these poor little glass dreams?  (song ends)  Oh!  Play it over again, fellows!  Once again!  That’s it, play it over.  We have nothing but time here.   Spinning all those poor little idle dreams.  You know?  Sort of?  It’s sort of like it’s a jigsaw puzzle.  And they took a couple of the pieces once—you know—and didn’t bring them back.  Heh—don’t you miss magic?  Really?  Weren’t those the great days when we used to have magic?  Am I still insufferable?  Huh!  You people don’t know the meaning of the word—yet.

(SHEPHERD quickly swivels the chair so he is facing the window, motions to window and music starts, low volume.  It is “Boodle-am” by the Dixieland Jug Blowers.  Music continues under his talk.  He picks up a jew’s harp from the table and plucks a note.  Then puts it down and picks up a kazoo.)

SHEPHERD       No head thumping tonight.  Did you know that I am one of the world’s foremost thumpers of head?  Ha!  You’ll have to put up with kazoo.  I’m only second best with kazoo.  Put that in your pitch pipe and smoke it.

(SHEPHERD plays kazoo, accompanying music for a minute, then stops as music continues to end of song. He turns in his chair, speaking into the microphone as he speaks to the audience.)

SHEPHERD       Musician, humorist, jazzy wordsmith. Know what else I am? I should tell you now, before we’re too far into the night. (Pause.) You know, that eternal darkness we’re all headed for. Headed for along the rut-filled trail in our rickety Conestoga wagons. Now the only reason I’m bringing these things to you is because I am perfectly aware that–oh–I’d say almost all of the people–the percentage of people who are not involved in daily brouhaha hullabaloo pursuit of whatever it is that makes it possible to buy a new breezeway–you know, and etc., etc., etc., etc., ad infinitum ad nauseam you know, the whole jazz–the rigmarole, the brouhaha, the hoopla. Well, most people are involved in that, you see. Well, by a lot tricks of fate and inclination and probably–probably even inherent-ness, I fine myself not really involved in that.  And so I am, and have been enabled by the very nature of the slot into which I have fallen–I have been able to examine minutely, millions of things which most people–if they even see them at all–don’t have the time to fool with–they just throw it aside–they don’t go into it, you know. You know what I mean by this? This is the role, I suppose you might call it loosely, “the gadfly.” Just fools around, you know–hollers. Sits in the bushes and watches the stuff go by and shouts, you see.

(SHEPHERD stands up with microphone in hand and, facing the audience, goes behind the pile of material to the side of the table, mock-hiding behind it.)

SHEPHERD        Well, the thing about the non-gadfly—I concede this, is that he is involved—I mean he is walking along the trail, you know.  It’s like a great big wagon train and they’re all plubbing along there and suddenly he’s out there in the bushes—who’s not really part of the train.  Somehow he got off somewhere along the line and he’s valuable because once in a while he sees the Indians coming, you know.  “Hey—Indians!”  And everybody else all busy hitting the horses and you know—fooling around with the water and stuff.  And he keeps hollering, “Indians!  Here they come! Ohoo!”  Well, that’s his job.

(SHEPHERD walks back to center stage front, continuing to speak into the microphone and to the audience.)

SHEPHERD       Now, it’s a very important job, albeit, I can say, very unpopular, particularly if you happen to be an Indian.  Oh—very unpopular.  And also it’s very unpopular to the guys in the wagon train because half of them are asleep.  It’s easy to be there, you know—asleep and fooling around with the oats and stuff, and this guy keeps hollering, “Oh, it’s no good—look at what’s happening.  It’s startin’ to rain!  It’s coming down!  Get up the tops!  Look out!”  Well, he’s unpopular on both sides.  There’s no question about it.

(He pauses, thinking about what he has just said, He sits in his chair, facing away from the audience.  He reaches into the jacket he threw on the table and pulls out several typed pages.)

SHEPHERD       (Speaking into the microphone.) Excelsior. Excelsior, you fatheads! Have you ever heard me read the Longfellow poem? It’s a great piece of glop, I’ll tell you. Magnificent glop!

(He stands again, facing the audience with microphone in one hand, papers in the other, rattles the papers loudly close to the microphone.)

SHEPHERD (He reads parts of the poem to the audience 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,

Excelsior!

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!

(SHEPHERD turns back to the table and moves his hand across his throat in a “cut” motion to the engineers’ window.)

[The ON THE AIR sign goes off. ]

SHEPHERD    (Turns off his tape recorder. He turns and looks at the audience, speaking to them.)  Excelsior!  You see what mindless glop?  All you innocents believe in that onward and upward crap.  That if you “give it your best” you’ll succeed against all odds.  What bullshit!  (Pauses.)  You know something?  I’m part of you too.  I don’t exclude myself, you know.  Now you know why it’s my favorite expression.  We’re all doomed to think we’ll win—and then be defeated.  Ha!  But no matter what you do, don’t let it get you down.  Savor it all!  One man’s shit is another man’s manure.  (Pause.)  Don’t get it madam?  (Speaking to someone in the audience.)  Work at it—I’m not going to explain it.  Ask the guy next to you—maybe he can help.

(After a  few moments of silence, the phone rings and SHEPHERD swivels around, answers it, swiveling his chair back so he faces the audience as he talks into the phone.)

SHEPHERD       Ledbetter, you again?  No, I will not play more music.  How many times have we had this discussion?  I don’t care if you can pull the plug on me.  Being general manager does not make you General Jehovah.  I play music just to set a tone.  I don’t play the top ten or the bottom thousand.  (He listens for a few seconds, then breaks in heatedly)  Listen, Ledbetter.  I know my stuff’s not your cup o’ gin and I know you never listen to my show, but let me tell you something about what I am.  My listeners include the cream of current arts—contemporary jazz, modernist music, avant-garde writing, abstract expressionist painting, independent film making.  (Pause.)  What do you mean, “So what?”?  Nobody has ever done what I do with spoken word.  Ever hear of Charles Mingus, Jackson Pollack, Jack Kerouac?  I do what they do—creative improvisation nightly on your goddamn radio station!  I’ll go down in history with them, I swear it.  (Pause.)  Say that again.  (Pause.)  “Tomorrow’s history books don’t have today’s sponsors.”  What kind of bullshit is that?!  Give it time, give it time.  If I don’t have sponsors now, that’s your guys’ fault.  Tell ‘em to work harder.  Plenty of walkin’ around type consumers listen to me.  And they’re true believers—I extemporize in their ear and they follow me anywhere—and they buy stuff.  I’m famous—relatively speaking.  I’m the only f***ing genius you’ll ever meet!  Shit!  (He slams the phone down.)  General manager—general asshole!

(The ON THE AIR sign comes on.)

on the air 

SHEPHERD       (Long pause.  Turns his back on the audience, turns on the tape recorder, and sits down at the table and speaks into the microphone.)  Excelsior, you fatheads!  Hey listeners out there in the stygian darkness, do you know what “sustaining” means in the radio biz?  It means you ain’t got no sponsors and aren’t about to get any—so the station keeps you on as a charity case.  Until one day they decide not to be so charitable.  They say you Night People out there listening don’t buy stuff—you just sit there and fester.  So they’re gonna take me off the air.  Going to replace me with five hours of Pabulum and Montavani Strings.  Say I don’t play enough music.

(SHEPHERD  Swivels chair, facing the audience, microphone in hand, leans toward them) 

SHEPHERD       Who’s for five hours of Howdy Doody Time? (He raises his voice, almost yelling.)  I will not play Montavani strings.  I’m not a disk jockey, I’m a humorist.  You want me on the air?  There’s a guy named Ledbetter who says I can’t sell anything and he’s canning me next week.  We’ve got two hours to go on the air tonight, listeners, so go out and buy something.  Anything.  (Pause.)  No, not anything.  Buy…Sweetheart Soap.  That’s a good one.  Makes you clean all over.  Empty the shelves of Sweetheart Soap at your local soap store.  Tell ‘em ol’ Shep sent you.  Buy Sweetheart and tell them “Flick lives,” but don’t, for god’s sake, tell them what it means.

 

(The ON THE AIR sign goes off.)

 

(SHEPHERD swivels quickly back and looks at the unlighted ON THE AIR sign.) 

SHEPHERD       What the hell!  (He stands and goes to the engineers’ window and puts his face to it, yelling.)  What happened?  (Pause, as he listens.)  “Mr. Ledbetter says Sweetheart is not a sponsor.”  Yes, we all know that, don’t we?  For this he knocks me off the air?!  Ledbetter, you son of a bitch!  I’ve got two more hours!  (He looks up at the ON THE AIR sign for about ten seconds, but it remains out.)  I’m out of here!  (He grabs his jacket from the table and walks quickly off stage right as the lights go out.)

END OF SCENE ONE

______________________________

(Three momentous scenes to come!)

 

“EXCELSIOR” a play about JEAN SHEPHERD maybe with Kevin Spacey or who?! [A]

play cover 2

March 16, the sixth anniversary of its originally scheduled opening night.

In addition to my other writings about Jean Shepherd, early on I began thinking independently about how the essence of Shepherd might be done as a play.  The following, Excelsior!—A Play About Jean Shepherd gives an impression of his creative life, beginning in New York City, the “Great Burgeoning” phase, in 1956.  There are four scenes. 

Such a play might be done as it is (somewhat like the nearly-one-man play about Richard Feynman, QED, by Peter Parnell, staring Alan Alda several years ago), or in some expanded fashion form the basis for a film or television series.  One might remember the popular sitcom about a radio station, WKRP in Cincinnati, originally broadcast in 1978-1982. 

Those who, in my dreamer’s world, might play Shepherd: Kevin Spacey, Bill Irwin, Nicolas Cage, Dustin Hoffman, William Hurt, Tom Hanks, Alan Alda, Stephen Wright.

authorsplayhouse signI’ve only submitted the play to a couple of outlets so far.  (“Over the transom” submission of a play—lots o’ luck!)  The premiere production, without media hoopla or the arrival of famous glitterati, was at “Authors Playhouse,” a very small theater in Bay Shore, Long Island, New York.  Actor Jack West did a good job portraying Shep.  David Hinckley, entertainment columnist of the New York Daily News, gave it a notice, and Jim Clavin gave it prominent spots on his www.flicklives.com site.

As far as the triumphant occasion?  My wife, two sons, and my cousin attended a performance, joining me in my moment of theatrical glory.  Among those I met in the audience were several Shep enthusiasts and radio producers including Laurie Squire and her husband Herb Squire, Shep’s favorite engineer.  The tiny theater was nearly filled to capacity—my remuneration consisted of two free admission tickets.  The scheduled performances were for March 16, 17, 18, 2007, and as was the case for other productions, a couple of shorter plays were also on the bill.  A snow and ice storm cancelled opening night.  Regarding the total run, you do the math.  Yet, the frozen fist raised out of that snow and ice still holds high my Excelsior! banner.  Maybe highly perceptive Broadway producers were there!  Some day I’ll get the call—The Great White Way!  Alert your important friends in show biz.  I’ll favorably consider offers for whatever level of production comes along—I’m easy.

I designed the art you see at the top of this post. In hopes of it someday appearing on a Broadway Playbill. [Figure with banner from the 1959 record album “Jean Shepherd and Other Foibles,” cover art and liner notes by Jean Shepherd’s best buddy, Shel Silverstein.]

____________________________________

“Video Killed the Radio Star,” by the British group, Buggles is a 1979 one-hit-wonder pop song.  (It’s credited with being the first music video shown on MTV.) It has a catchy sound and a strong and simple beat, with lyrics that could form an ironic background to accompany audience members as they enter the theater  for a play about Shepherd, and subsequently leave  :

 

I heard you on the wireless back in Fifty-Two

Lying awake intent at tuning in on you.

If I was young it didn’t stop you coming through.

Oh-a oh

They took the credit for your second symphony.

Rewritten by machine and new technology,

and now I understand the problems you can see.

Oh-a oh

I met your children

Oh-a oh

What did you tell them?

Video killed the radio star.

Video killed the radio star.

Pictures came and broke your heart.

Oh-a-a-a oh

And now we meet in an abandoned studio.

We hear the playback and it seems so long ago.

And you remember the jingles used to go.

Oh-a oh

You were the first one.

Oh-a oh

You were the last one.

Video killed the radio star.

Video killed the radio star.

In my mind and in my car, we can’t rewind we’ve gone too far

Oh-a-aho oh,

Oh-a-aho oh

Video killed the radio star.

Video killed the radio star.

In my mind and in my car, we can’t rewind we’ve gone too far.

Pictures came and broke your heart, put the blame on VTR.

You are a radio star.

You are a radio star.

Video killed the radio star.

Video killed the radio star.

Video killed the radio star.

Video killed the radio star.

Video killed the radio star. (You are a radio star.)

__________________________________________

EXCELSIOR, A ONE-MAN PLAY ABOUT JEAN SHEPHERD

CAST:    JEAN SHEPHERD                             A performer/creator on radio and other media.  In Scene One he is in his thirties, and by Scene Four he appears much older.

(SHEPHERD HEARD ON TAPE)                   (Tapes of the character’s radio broadcasts.)

Time:  The play takes place in the 1950-1990s

Place:  A radio studio and a TV or film set

Length:  One act in four scenes, about an hour

The play is for one male performer, who is on stage throughout the performance except as the scenes change.  Besides a minimal set, there are titles hung from the ceiling, all but one of which are cut down at a designated time during the play.  There are some lighting changes, and audio tapes with words and music.

When the stage lights come on one sees a large framed window—behind which the engineers would sit—dark behind it, so it acts like a mirror.  It is tilted a bit so the top is closer to the audience—this allows Shepherd, when seated at a table in front, to be seen reflected in it.  Some of the audience can also be seen reflected.  [No, the large framed window did not appear in the original production.]

At the top edge of the window is an electric sign about 4” high and about 12” long that reads ON THE AIR.  When it goes on, it is bright red. [The one I created for this production is artwork on cardboard. It does not electronically glow. It stands on the table, visible to the audience.  As he begins broadcasting, “Shepherd” picks up the three-sided sign and flips it over so that it reads “on the air,” and turns a blank side facing out for time off the air.]

on the air

At stage front is a long, white, formica-top table holding  large earphones and a microphone, its cord going across the floor under the window.  Also on the table is a pitcher  of water, an empty glass, and a maroon plastic Zenith AM/FM radio with a big simulated gold dial.  There is an upright reel-to-reel tape player, a small pile of 7” reel tape boxes, and a black dial-style telephone.  A comfortable desk chair is centered in front of the desk, on the audience side, facing the audience.  To one side next to the table is a small pile of objects.

An open box-work construction with four horizontal sides (about 9” high by about 4’ long), is suspended about eight feet from the floor.  On the white background is large black lettering, each side representing a scene of the play.  On the side facing the front at the start it says HIGH ON A MOUNTAINTOP.  The side to the right, a bit of which is visible on that side says HIT THE MONEY BUTTON.  On the back side it says I’M AN ENTERTAINER.  On the last side, seen a bit from the left side, it says DREAM COLLECTION DAY.  [Although I made those signs, the director cut them from the production.]

In addition to appropriate Shep-music on a CD, I provided the props: microphone, radio matching the one on which I’d originally listened to and recorded Shep, tape player and tape boxes, director’s chair I bought, Shepherd’s name in self-stick vinyl letters on the back I bought and stuck on, megaphone bought for the occasion.  I contributed more than one kazoo to the grand production. [ The back of the set and some furniture remained on stage all evening, no matter what the play in progress–note flowered drape in the photo–mentally blank that out as best you can. This can be accomplished as easily as following the directive, “Don’t think about a pink elephant.”]

play scenery

Part of the stage set for “Excelsior.”

Megaphone on directors chair,

tape player and tape boxes on table.

_______________________________

As you enter the theater and take your seats, enjoy the haunting strains of “Video Killed the Radio Star.”

Stay tuned for Scene One]

JEAN SHEPHERD, Crosswords and Will Weng

Jean Shepherd, on his March 17, 1972 program, said that two days before, the New York Times in their crossword puzzle had referred to him in half the acrosses and downs. Using the microfilm facilities of my local library, I found the puzzle (and not being good at these things, I found the following day’s answers to it)  Exaggeration is the sincerest form of self-flattery, but the truth isn’t chopped liver.  Shepherd, your fame knows no bounds:

ACROSS

1  Nitwit FATHEAD

8 Midwestern city HAMMOND

16 State of 8 across INDIANA

44 Word for word VERBAL

46 Jean of radio and TV SHEPHERD

70 Pool game CHICAGO

_______________________

DOWN

1 Light movement FLICK

6 Expose AIR

21 Packing material EXCELSIOR

24 Sideshow man SPIELER

34 “Private—-” LIVES

Shep in crossword

Take that, Norman Mailer!

JEAN SHEPHERD–and Harry Shearer, sort of

THE PARADOXES BY WHICH THEY LIVE AND DIE.

Harry Shearer, radio broadcaster, actor, “Simpson” video-cartoon voice, has been in and out of Jean Shepherd’s life–sort of. Way back in December 1963 SATYR MAGAZINE published an article titled “I, Libertine–SATYR Meets Jean Shepherd.”  The subhead says: “Edited by Harry Shearer.”  One wonders what that means, but we’ll get to that later.  Soon after Shepherd died, National Public Radio did a two-hour tribute to Shepherd, “A Voice In the Night,” which was narrated by Shearer. (I’d found out that the show was in production and contacted them, saying that I had some early tapes of Shep. They invited me to their NYC studio, where they copied parts of my tapes.  The first audio on that tribute, about being a museum specimen in the future, is from my tapes.) Around 2003, when I was working on my Excelsior, You Fathead! I twice tried to contact Shearer for an interview, but got no response. I guess that,  in regard to Shepherd’s life,  Shearer’s gatekeepers felt he should be not in but out.

Regarding the 1963 SATYR magazine, the contents page lists that article thus: “Satyr speaks with Jean Shepherd.”  The article itself reads like a Shepherd radio broadcast, with italicized comments by someone else, presumably Shearer. So, whether the Shepherd part was transcribed from an interview or transcribed from a radio broadcast, is unclear. (No, I’m not gonna try contacting Shearer again–zilch twice, a decade ago, is enough. Even though I’d be delighted to talk to him.)

The article, which I encountered on the http://www.flicklives.com Shepherd site, is accompanied by an undated and unattributed photo I like a lot, because, like the iconic Fred W. McDarrah shot, it  shows Shep the way I  envision him:

1963-12-xx_022_Satyr_photo

The first page of the article has an italicized comment that includes, “Master of Psychology,” suggesting that Shepherd had a masters degree–this is very unlikely, and so far it’s unproven that he had a bachelors degree. What follows, starting with the italicized paragraph, presumably written by Shearer, followed by the Shepherd part, is of special interest to me because it deals with some creative Shepherd issues which make him special:

In a small, dingy radio studio in New York City, an Indiana-born Master of Psychology sits for 45 minutes each late weeknight, broadcasting his opinions about satire, advertising, politics and most everything else into the East Coast air. He is Jean Shepherd. What he does, or is, is hard to define–not just because few people outside New York have ever heard anything remotely like him. In a country where mildly funny superficial routines are acclaimed as piercing satire, Shepherd is a unique phenomenon: A social critic on a mass medium.

I guess I primarily want to amuse people. The word amusement sounds very light, but there are different kinds of amusement. There are people who get their amusement by watching other guys hit each other with pies. My idea of amusement is presenting the paradoxes by which they live and die. Some people have called me a satirist, others have called me a humorist, but that’s again a hard thing to say.

I don’t just talk on the air. I perform. I take different parts and characters. It’s like a little one-act play, or monologue.

Jean Shepherd does not frequently talk about the nature of his art, but when he does, I enjoy realizing that he is so conscious about how his creativity functions. Regarding the idea of amusing people, I like to say that he tickles the better parts of one’s mind. It seems as though he wants everyone to be aware that he is not just casually rambling on–that he is an artist. Also, he would like a lot more recognition from his listeners and the rest of the world, that indeed, they recognize him as a creative artist on a high level. As he puts it once, quoted in my previous blog about Shep’s creative issues,  “That’s all I want.  Just one little word here and there, of encouragement.” He says it in a  way that mocks himself for thinking and saying it, because it is the only way he can get away with expressing it–by making fun of himself. But he means it!

____________________________

Not sufficiently recognized in his own time–they* done him wrong!

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*they= me, you, and other fatheads everywhere.

JEAN SHEPHERD & HARVEY PEKAR a graphic novel Part 3

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It’s me

This is the third and last volume of my “graphic novel,” Excelsior. The holy grail of early New York Shepherd overnight broadcasts has still not emerged (although a well-known jazz authority several years ago claimed he had some.  I wonder if they have flaked to pieces or ended in a dumpster yet.) I had great plans for volume four!

 Recently a box o’ tapes did see the light of day.  Jean’s third wife, Lois Nettleton, who had been recording his broadcasts in the late 1950s and early 1960s, had labeled a small box “antique dolls,” so they were not discovered until her executor opened the box several years after she died.  He contacted me and I picked up the tapes from his NYC apartment. So we now do have a few more examples of Shep’s long-form extemporaneous talk from his November and December Saturday and Sunday night shows that followed the “overnights,” which had lasted from January to mid-August 1956.

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“As you clamber up the icy slopes, reaching forever, reaching,

grasping eternally, forever, at that shifting cloud of reason,

that chimera that seems to just drift out of your reach

each time you grasp for it. And it moves further

and further away. Excelsior!  –Jean Shepherd

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What happened in Volumes 1 & 2:Go read ’em and find out! This whole 3-part gallimaufry is the caper of misplaced 1950s tapes of radio humorist Jean Shepherd.  For dyed-in-the-fleece Shepherd cuckoos the box ‘o tapes is the HOLY GRAIL.

CAST OF CHARACTERS

Jean

Jeanne who had the tapes.

Gene who wants the tapes.

Joyce who may find the tapes.

Harvey whose example inspired this graphic novella.

‘We assume many of you out there have been searching endlessly, have been searching throughout all of your time and existence for that great white light of truth and beauty which lies at the end of the golden rainbow of existence. Hot dog! Well, tonight, you may just find it.’ –Jean Shepherd, December 11, 1967

JEAN SHEPHERD

March 25, 1977

Tonight’s show has a sinister overtone

which may prove offensive if not downright

disturbing to may of you deep-typ

thinkers out there….

I turn on this television set. It goes gwaaaawaaad,

awaaaaay–you know how the sets go, and the

picture flops over about twenty-eight times

and suddenly it stops.

I’m lookin’ at it. Oh my god NO!

Out of my ancient past–Count Dracula!

I’M LOOKING AT DRACULA!

Now I wanna tell you sumthin’ about

this Dracula bit. I was affected very heavily

at the age of about nine by watching

“Dracula.”

And I can’t honestly tell ya that I’m ever

scared by a horror movie. But horror

movies to me have a peculiar

fascination because of the

way they do things….

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Kent State Archives

Subject: Re: Youngson collection

Dear Joyce,

Unfortunately. after an extensive search, we were unable to find the sound recordings of Jean Shepherd.

______________________

Gene,

The end of the trail, I guess. I am sure they put forth their best efforts. I’m sorry this didn’t work out. And thanks for Volume II of your comic book. Do we start shaking down vampire museums in Transylvania now, or what?

______________________

And we can always hope that some long-forgotten jazz musician (one of the only types of Shepherd listeners who had private tape recorders in those legendary days) had recorded, and has kept, that elusive audio Holy Grail.

As we stride into the future with our Excelsior banners still held high, we predict that our planned trilogy will conclude with a gloriously triumphant Volume 4. Look for it!

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Jean Shepherd on Bubbles

“…and a goal, perhaps, a point. We have to have a point to pass. And look–one thing you got to learn–don’t, for crying out loud–don’t catch up with that–with that electric rabbit–this week. I mean, it’s only a two-furlong race, and you catch up with that electric rabbit and all you’re going to do is to get a shock, that’s all, right down in your fanny. That’s no good. So keep that old dream going, you know? I’m forever blowing bubbles. Bubbles in the air. How high they fly. Never reach the sky [Shepherd is reciting these song lyrics slowly, pensively. Concluding theme music comes up under his voice.] And like my dreams they fade and die. I’m forever blowing bubbles. Bubbles in the air. They fly so high–nearly reach the sky. And like my dreams they fade and die.

This program was sent to you by the International Dream Bubble Bath Corporation of the Western Hemisphere….”

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“He really formed my entire

comedic sensibility–I learned how to do

comedy from Jean Shepherd.”

JERRY SEINFELD – Comedian

______

“I don’t think any sense of humor is funny.

Rarely.  Jean Shepherd is funny.”

ANDY KAUFMAN – Comedian

_____

“What I got from him was a wonder at the world

one man could create. I am as awed now

by his achievement as I was then.”

RICHARD CORLISS – Time Magazine

_____

“It’s hard to imagine my growing up without Shepherd.”

BILLY COLLINS – U. S. Poet Laureate

_____

“Ain’t no one ever gonna come close to what the man

accomplished…In the dark…with a microphone,

a kazoo, and 50,000 watts!”

VIN SCELSA – Radio Broadcaster

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(For making sure we are all centered)———->

 eb c. 2006 (With an editorial assist from Raymond B. Anderson)

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joyce and harveyJoyce (seen here with longer hair than in their film), and Harvey.

Harvey Pekar died July 12, 2010

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THAT’S ALL, FOLKS!

(Innumerable posts to follow. Look for ’em.)

JEAN SHEPHERD & HARVEY PEKAR a graphic novel Part 2

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Hi, me again, E. B. B.

Here’s part two.  I managed to change all the graphics in part one and the ones that follow to a scanned, much higher resolution.  I don’t see that it makes too much difference, so I’m adding my footnotes, replicating the smaller type sizes in the graphics. [As for the double-page spreads, in part 1 I easily got them butted together, but in this part two, though there’s no space between them in the editing, they appear a bit separated  when posted. Damn!]

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Recipient of the Brass Figlagee with Bronze Oakleaf Palm

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What happened in Volume 1: I went to a comic book convention to meet graphic novelist Harvey and Joyce, both Jean Shepherd fans.  Joyce volunteered to help me locate copies of radio humorist Jean Shepherd’s earliest and presumed lost New York broadcasts–THE HOLY GRAIL for Shepherd enthusiasts.  It turned out that an old flame of Shep’s, Jeanne (Founder and President of the Count Dracula Fan Club), believed she had given the tapes to Ohio’s Kent State  University. But all may not be as we believed. Once again doubt has reared its ugly head. Jeanne now says she’s not so sure what happened to the tapes.

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[The seven (count ’em carefully) small bits of type indicate where the box of tape might be.]

Kent State University Storage

under optimum archival conditions

Lost

Deaccessioned–in somebody’s basement, crumbling to dust.

In a drainage ditch in Dismal Seepage, Kentucky.

In a dark corner

of Jeanne’s closet

Eternal limbo

It’s probably roughly 15 inches by 15 inches by 30 inches, folks!

Yikes! Maybe it’s in a landfill somewhere!

Landfill somewhere

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Jeanne’s email–doubt’s ugly head:

Jerry has been through all the papers in his files but having discarded stuff through the years (he waits at least seven), he can find no record of when the materials were picked up buy Kent. He does, however, recall those tapes being in a different cabinet (there were a number of steel ‘closets’ chock full of films, books & etc.) and he is sure the tapes did not go to Kent.  If they were sent to Vienna along with the contents of the Dracula Museum in the late 1990s, they are now in permanent storage and there is no way to get at them….The only very slight hope would be that Jerry is wrong and the fellow who emptied out Robert’s film collection did take them to Kent.

Let me know what your friend finds out. I will be travelling extensively for the next several months but do manage to get on the computer from time to time.

All best, Jeanne

It cannot be that my box o’ priceless tapes is irretrievable locked in a vault somewhere in middle Europe–and not far (shudder) from Transylvania!

_____________________________

She was Jean’s friend during the “Night People” era of the priceless tapes, and she possessed them. They were in a box in a cabinet (a coffin in a tomb). She is queen of those who live by night–the Founder and President of the “The Count Dracula Fan Club and Vampire Empire.”

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When you want sumpin’ bad enough, TRUTH AND ACCURACY go down th’ drain AND THAT’S TH’ TRUTH’ And it goes for everything from seeking ARTISTIC TREASURES   to STARTIN’ A WAR–right, folks?

Do Jeanne’s Jean tapes still exist? Does Kent State or Transylvania have them!?

Check out the third issue of EXCELSIOR COMICS, you fatheads!

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Jean Shepherd on “Night People”

“You see I worked late. I had a radio show I used to wind up about two o’clock in the morning [Actually 5:30 AM] It was then I began to know something about the night world of the–of the whole panoply of it all….I’m talking about people with that wild tossing in the soul that somehow makes them stay up till three o’clock in the morning and brood. They might get up at seven the next morning and go to work–but that isn’t what their life is about. Not a bit of it. And I began to know something about this world and be a part of it–as a matter of  fact, always have been philosophically and finally I became not only philosophically, but every other way involved  in it.”

“There’s a great body of people who flower at night, who feel night is their time. Night is the time people truly become individuals because all the familiar things are dark and done, all the restrictions on freedom are removed. Many artists work at night–it is especially conducive to creative work.”

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back hi res

(For making sure we are all centered) ———->

eb 2005  c. (with an editorial assist from Raymond B. Anderson)

At this size my linework

gets real heavy, but I think

it makes me look kinda cool.