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

“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


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.



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