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

“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,


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,


(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.)



(Three momentous scenes to come!)



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