This current post is the last of this series of “Manifestos.” The following story was scheduled for near the end of the Keep Your Knees Loose book manuscript. Does eveyrbody like green icing?
* * * *
A STORY IN KYKL I’VE BEEN SAVING TILL THE END OF ITS MANUSCRIPT
(The sweet green icing flowing down)
A couple of years before Shep died, a number of us Shepherd cuckoos contacted his childhood friends Flick, Dawn Strickland, and Wanda Hickey, and we all made regular pilgrimages to his home, maintaining contact with him despite our shyness and his justified grumpiness. It helped if we could get songwriters Jimmy Webb and Gene Raskin, and Chicago White Sox first baseman “Banana Nose” Zeke Bonura, to tag along. I’ll never forget those times we spent with Shep in his later years on Sanibel Island, when the temperature on those cool winter evenings had plummeted to 130 degrees above zero (centigrade), and the crappies were jumpin’ out of the swirling steam. Just as when listening to his nightly radio broadcasts, we thought those times would go on forever.
Ol’ Shep sometimes entertained guests by serving us highballs of meatloaf and red cabbage, if he could find the recipe. (I’m telling the truth! I’m not exaggerating!)
He would tell stories that inevitably began, “I was this kid on the north side of Juneau, see….” Then he’d go on to relate how, “With both hands tied behind my back [Laughs.] I’d wrestle alligators.” He referred to these anecdotes as his “Crock Tails.” If one of his old radio engineers was present at the gathering, he’d fix the guy with narrowing eyes, grab a 6SJ7GT mike and, daring him to cut him off, add, “Or I call these my Tales of Crocks of…” and let the unuttered word hang in the air like the stench of an abandoned latrine.
Inevitably he’d take us to his ham radio room [“shack”], where he’d have us listen while he tapped out some Morse code, and then, on what he called his “Victrola,” he’d carefully put on LPs, one by one, and scat along to “Boodle-Am Shake” and “The Bear Missed the Train.” He could often be persuaded to get out his jew’s harp and, with his inimitable way with a tune, but straining it a bit, he would render “Escargot” to the consistency of consommé.
It is said that he retained within a crystal case, on the rump-sprung remnant of a red chenille bathrobe, a fragment of broken table lamp in the shape of a woman’s well-turned leg. This is one of those Shep-myths it’s my duty to expunge from the record—the remaining shard is more likely part of a slender calf, or a hunk of inner thigh.
He would occasionally clear his throat—”HARUMPH!”—and could be heard to mutter, “What a gallimaufry! Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.” Finally, he would haul out an old wooden crate with a label, tattered and torn, that read, MADE WITH PRIDE IN HOHMAN, INDIANA. Within, he had a preserved, well-worn knee-handle, nestled on a bed of purest excelsior (you fathead!).
During those days and nights it seemed as though it was always raining. Maybe that’s why ball-bumbling Banana-Nose Bonura would drop another easy pop fly and Jimmy, nowhere near MacArthur Park, in his stripp-ed pair of pants, would go bounding out into the downpour screaming that he’d “never have that recipe again.” Yes, the recipe died with Shepherd. Those were the days, my friend, we thought they’d never end, we’d have our Shep forever and a day. But Jimmy (“MacArthur Park”), nostalgic songwriter Gene Raskin (“Those Were the Days”), and steadfast writer Gene Bergmann (“Excelsior, You Fathead!”) were wrong–he’s alive. Fortunately, Shep had baked us thousands of recorded broadcast cookies to savor, whether on our brightest, sunshiny days, or during a deluge.
* * * *
Thank you, cousin Raymond B. Anderson, for content and editorial advice on this entire project, leading to what I believe is a better book. Thank you to my friend Margaret Cooper, for her eagle eye and sharp mind not only for editorial corrections, in what might have appeared to be only gentle nudges and minor suggestions, but which were important comments resulting in a much stronger result.
Of course Jim Clavin’s www.flicklives.com continues to be the best source of Shepherd information. Members of the email shepgroup sometimes post new Shep-related news and respond to my queries, for which I’m grateful. Contacts from people who were aware of EYF! and my own detective work led to much new material, and I must also thank my able research assistant, Serendipity—hugs and kisses, doll.
Several people have provided powerful jolts of important revelations for our knowledge of Jean Shepherd. I thank Lois Nettleton, actress and third wife of Shepherd, for her enthusiasm for my first Shepherd book and her offer to invite me to visit her when she returned to the New York apartment she’d shared with Shepherd. She carefully read the book and wrote extensive notes—notes that provided much fascinating information about her and Jean’s personal and professional life, all of which contributed greatly to Keep Your Knees Loose! Thank you to director and producer John Bowab, Lois’s long-time close friend and her executor, who gave me two hours of his time in her New York apartment, and who rescued her notes from probably inaccessible university archives and generously gave them to me. Thank you, Doug McIntyre, for providing me with a copy of Lois’s year 2000 interview with him. Thank you Barbara Tiedermann Simerlein for the background information regarding Leigh Brown’s early years and for providing many letters from Leigh to her, written during Leigh’s early contacts with Jean. Thank you Tom Lipscomb for providing much important commentary regarding his friendship with Jean and Leigh. Thank you, Shepherd fan Mark Snider for providing contact with his brother, Dee Snider of Twisted Sister, and thank you, Dee Snider, for the great discussion and interview. Thank you also, Dee, for your cool blurb for my Shep’s Army book.
Thank you, Nadine Metta Bordogna and Charles Bordogna for alerting me to the Jerry Seinfeld comment about Shepherd on Seinfeld, Season 6 DVD set —I use the quote at every opportunity—and thank you, Jerry Seinfeld, for saying it.
Thank you Jeanne Keyes Youngson (“The Vampire Lady”) for telling me about your friendship with Shep and his early New York radio days. Thank you, Joyce Brabner for attempts to locate Jeanne’s misplaced and long-gone box of tapes from Shep’s overnight broadcasts. Many will recognize that Joyce was co-creator of some of Harvey Pekar’s “American Splendor” graphic novels and that her essay on I, Libertine remains available on the Internet. I discuss in my graphic novel reproduced in my early blog posts, her help on that project.
Thank you, film director Raul daSilva for providing me with a copy of the heretofore undiscovered 1973 half-hour film, No Whistles, Bells or Bedlam, narrated by Shepherd (one gets to see him a bit, too!). Thank you Robert Blaszkiewicz, for permitting me to quote from your column about the JSMIGWTAOPC Tollway (described in an earlier post). Marc Spector, an associate producer at WOR in 1975 contacted me with his observations regarding Shep’s later period at WOR Radio. Thanks to Bill Myers for helping to expand on the meager information regarding Shepherd’s Cincinnati radio days. Thank you, Murray Tinkleman for alerting me to Shepherd’s commentaries in the 1987 PBS program “Norman Rockwell: An American Portrait.” Thank you George Irwin for providing a video portion of the TV panel show “I’ve Got a Secret” showing Shep musically thumping his head.
When’s the last time you saw Shep with a jacket,
white shirt and tie–and a crew cut?
(Photo captured from http://www.flicklives.com)
Shepherd drove many different kinds of cars, a scooter, and at least one motorcycle. He and others have described their experiences aboard his Cushman. He apparently liked to drive fast. Reports suggest that the experience was thrilling–and somewhat scary for his passengers. I transcribe some of his broadcast about riding it in my Excelsior, You Fathead! Here’s what he had to say:
I’m riding along on my motorcycle. I’m just going along, and there’s a car behind me and to my right–you see–you know where everything is–and we’re on a one-way street. Namely Second Avenue. And we’re gooing down Second Avenue. Just light to light, and without any warning my ears pick up this pshish-hihihi–the sound of tires doing it–and sure enough, out of the corner of my eye I see this coming like a bat out of hell across my bow! These chicks are just cutting me off for the sheer kicks of it! they go WHOOO! And I go SCHHOOO! I’m pretty good on that little motorcycle now, so they couldn’t really do it–they couldn’t throw me up on the sidewalk. And these chicks are: “Marlon Brando, buddy?”
And they: “All right!”
I was ready to go! Sadly enough they chickened out. It would have been the first true fistfight!
Helen Gee, founder and first owner of The Limelight cafe (which was, at that time, a photo gallery) In a personal interview with me in her Manhattan apartment she described her experience:
He invited me to ride on his motorcycle. What a mistake. I thought he was going to kill himself–or me. [He drove] very fast…he’d swerve and I was hanging on. He did have an accident at one point, and he also didn’t see too well. He was wearing contacts.
Lois Nettleton, Jean’s girlfriend and then wife (1956-1967 in total). She read the inscribed copy of EYF! I’d sent her and wrote many notes about the book to discuss with me, but her final illness prevented such a meeting. Her executor gave me the several dozen small, hand-written sheets. On one she described her memory of riding with Jean on his motorcycle:
We went all over on his motorcycle–even in the rain or dressed formally.
Tanya Grossinger, author and PR person for Playboy. friend of Jean’s in the 1960s:
My relationship with the master storyteller and radio personality began on two levels. His late night radio show on WOR drew an audience similar to avid Playboy readers and with my prodding, he made it a point to mention the magazine, including his own short stories, quite often. He was described by many of his peers as an oddball, detached, and downright bizarre. I, on the other hand, delighted in his idiosyncrasies. Our relationship was platonic from the start and unusual to the end. I never knew when I would hear from him but when I did, I knew the outcome would be unforgettable.
One night very late at the Playboy Club where I periodically entertained him, I received a call. Jean had just finished his radio show; did I want a lift home? Anyone on the corner of E. 59th St. that night couldn’t possibly have missed me. Straddling his waist, not sure where to put my legs and hanging on for dear life, there I was hugging Jean and screaming my head off as we careened down Fifth Avenue, the first time I was ever on a motorcycle. It was late summer and Washington Square Park was bustling. As we approached the famous Arch on lower Fifth Avenue, I let out a cry. “Ouch!” Someone in a nearby apartment house had flung an egg, a raw one, at my head (protective helmets were not mandatory at the time.) Jean turned to check that I wasn’t injured and accelerated to full speed. Two blocks later he pulled up to a local diner. “I’ll be right back.” It took close to ten minutes before he returned, a container in his outstretched hand. “Some bacon to go with your egg, Madame!”
In December, 1958 and early 1959, Shepherd produced (with Lois Nettleton, Shel Silverstein, Herb Gardner, and a few others), his off-Broadway theater-piece, “Look, Charlie.” It only had about a half-dozen performances. Shel drew the folded playbill, on the front of which, as it’s reported, that’s Shep riding up the letter K of the title, so Shep and his motorcycle are immortalized there. (I bought a copy of the program on ebay from Lois’ estate. The first offered for sale went for many hundreds; this one I got for about $60. This cropped image reproduces with a toned background instead of white–the tone is the light brown stain obviously caused by a newspaper clipping on top of it as it had been stored for decades):
Shepherd, Cushman, chirpers, and barkers.
THIS POST OF THIS GROUP OF COMMENTS CONTAINS
A LISTING OF THE PROPOSED CONTENTS OF
KEEP YOUR KNEES LOOSE
WITH A SHORT DESCRIPTION OF PARTS
(WHICH, SOME WILL RECOGNIZE, FOLLOWS THE FORMAT OF MY FIRST BOOK
AND INCLUDES SOME MATERIAL ALREADY USED IN POSTS)
AN ANNOTATED CHRONOLOGY
For all the descriptive material out there discussing the work of Jean Shepherd—for example, the Wikipedia article before I had a chance to correct it— other than a similar chronology found on www.flicklives.com, this is the first attempt that I know of to cobble together a reasonable overview of ol’ Shep that, in a few pages, gives a sense of what he did with his life and career. Ah, cohesive brevity! (THIS WAS PREVIOUSLY POSTED.)
ASPIRATIONS: Quest Toward a Book.
Which treats of the writer’s prototypical, yet singular, struggles to become that wondrous thing—a published author.
FEATS OF DARING-DO: Quest Toward Fame and Fortune.
Which treats of the author’s schemes and adventures in the world of publishing. We meet the dramatis personae of our glorious quest.
We discover further foibles in the life of Jean Parker Shepherd.
Part I: Formative Years
The famed storyteller reveals the true story of his attitude toward his kid stories. An Army story—we track down his secret World War II radar location and discover why it matters. A lesson in art. More tadpole days.
Part II: Heritage and Endowment
We encounter a mere dollop of trivia here.
Part III: The Great Burgeoning Great Happenings!
A. More “night people,” jazz, and hip connections. Shel Silverstein and Jean Shepherd—joined at the hip. And the Vampire Lady Story.
B. Lois Nettleton—Her Shep Story Lois Nettleton, actress, “The Listener,” and wife, tells (almost) all. (Much of this appeared recently in posts.)
C. The Leigh Brown Gossip Story A heart-tugging tale in her own words. The hippie chick from New Jersey arrives on the scene and prepares for a major assault on our not-so-innocent Libertine. (Much of this appeared recently in posts.)
D. Oh, Dusty, Holy Grail! I quest, therefore I am.
Part IV: Tools in Hand
Surrounded by sounds and furies: “Ahhhs;” “Head Thumps;” search for Beatles in a haystack; a crescendo; and an ersatz Latin—“Ip extra-curricular feep;” followed by the kind of puzzle Shepherd engaged in daily. (HERE’S THE CROSSWORD PUZZLE WITH ALL THE SHEP REFERENCES!):
Part V: Encounters and Contentions
Delving into philosophy, this episode concludes with a disastrous fish tale. (Fish-hook in ear!)
Part VI: Refinements and Conversions
In hot pursuit of the written word, Norman Mailer, and Garrison Keillor. An outrageous assertion, involvement with The Syndicate, and at long last revealed—the true meaning of Jean Shepherd’s not-so-silly concoction, “Cowboy X,” done for Sesame Street. (See “Cowboy X” post.)
Part VII: Summing Up to a Boodle-Am Shake
More sad endings and that confounded movie A Christmas Story again! Plus me and Shep forever.
Part VIII: Holy Grails
Oh!, quests, where are thy grails?
PART IX: A Doozy of a Story
Shep, is that really you? (The fake interview.)
APPENDIX : Excelsior!: A Play About Jean Shepherd
Free ticket to an exhilaratingly dramatic encounter with momentous events. (See previous posts for this entire play of mine.)
APPENDAGE: Story as the Tape Runs Out
Unexpected family fun. (This is the tale of my parents recording Shep and their little joke on me.)
A few years back, under circumstances I can’t remember, I was asked to write a 20-minutes-or-less radio play about Shep. I did. It was not used. So here it is. (The radio play, as one might expect, did not include the images seen here.) One might note that the present script includes some segments of my longer Shep-play I’ve previously exposed to the light of day. Other segments are original to this radio effort.
A RADIO PLAY ABOUT JEAN SHEPHERD
Eugene B. Bergmann
Cast: JEAN SHEPHERD A performer/creator on radio
Time: The play takes place in the present
Place: A radio studio
Length: One act in about 15 minutes.
The play is a monolog for one male performer,
using the conceit of him reminiscing on the radio about his career.
SHEPHERD’S VOICE Okay, I’m ready. Is this mike on? (Sound of tapping on the microphone.) Are we rolling? Three, two, one. Take one. Jean Shepherd career retrospective capsule summary. (Pause. Voice is now pompous to the level of parody, with the sound of a standard professional announcer.) Now it’s time for Jean Shepherd, humorist— raconteur and wit—genius and first master of talk radio, who created a style—who influenced decades of comedians and radio talkers. Shepherd began talking—improvising on New York radio without a script—from one a. m. to five-thirty, five nights a week. His ability to connect with the minds and sensibilities of tens of thousands of listeners created a dedicated cult of “Night People” that included students and many leaders in the creative arts in 26 states, his programs syndicated and pirated elsewhere. For 21 years he tickled the better parts of intelligent minds.
SHEPHERD (His voice changes to that which he uses from now on. He is overly self-satisfied and proud.) Yes, folks, that was me. Let me introduce myself. I’m Jean Parker Shepherd. I’m an entertainer. I used to talk on radio. And this little gig here is just a one-shot deal—reminds me of what I used to do. For forty years, in addition to my radio broadcasts, I produced fine work in other fields. I’ve performed live at Carnegie Hall, Town Hall and I created that holiday favorite movie, A Christmas Story, in which the kid nearly shoots his eye out with his BB-gun present. Yeah, I’m the one who did that! And now, here I am, the one and only creator of talk radio, unparalleled creator in every damn field you can think of, Jean Shepherd! Hit it big, Herb!
Music starts. It is a bright, bouncy tune begun with a fanfare. It is Shepherd’s theme song,
“Bahn Frei.” Boston Pops version.
SHEPHERD (His voice is slow, knowing, irony-tinged) Have you ever thought that you were in a play—maybe a short radio play and you have no idea if there’s anyone out there listening, ‘cause all you see is your microphone in front of you and you’re in your lonely studio and there’s a guy behind the glass pushing buttons. Stay tuned, friends. You’re out there, aren’t you? And, of course, you are my friends, right? I’ve only got a few free moments, friends. I’m waiting for a call with the biggest deal in my career. Ah, the thrill of anticipation! Even bigger fame about to jingle-jangle itself from this black, plastic, antediluvian, land-line gadget they call a phone.
(Music fades out)
Yes—Excelsior! Stay tuned. We’ll be here for a few minutes pursuing what mankind has always pursued. Now that, of course, has been the problem that many of us have pondered back and forth—this business of what mankind has always pursued. We’ve gone through all the surface things. And you’re out there in radioland listening to the radio. We can only extend our hand in quiet, sympathetic good will to you. Here we sit. I’m here and you’re there. I’m in studioland.
And you’re out there in radioland, where things are lush and green, where things grow—out there where people do things—like send in box tops, answer questions, write letters of protest. You’re out there in radioland—the real world. The real world. Ever occurred to you that what you have out there is real? What we have here is like a dream. But you gotta cling to something. To dreams—belief or two. Jean Cocteau said, “Destroy the dream, you destroy the man.”
(SHEPHERD plays kazoo for a few moments in a
rousing performance of “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby”)
SHEPHERD The world of dreams and of excelsior. Excelsior you fatheads! Excelsior—my most famous saying. You’ve heard me say it a million times. Have you ever heard me read the “Excelsior” poem by Longfellow? It’s a great piece of glop, I’ll tell you. Magnificent glop!
(With exaggerated drama and enthusiasm he reads beginning.)
The shades of night were falling fast,
As through an Alpine village passed
A youth, who bore, ‘mid snow and ice,
A banner with the strange device,
You know how it goes—the villagers warn him repeatedly but the damn fool continues, verse after verse, climbing up the mountain in a blizzard! Until the inevitable—until he ends up just like the rest of us.
A traveler, by the faithful hound,
Half-buried in the snow was found,
Still grasping in his hands of ice
that banner with the strange device,
Excelsior Excelsior! You see what mindless glop? All you innocent believers in that onward and upward crap. That if you “give it your best” you’ll succeed against all odds. What crap! H. W. Longfellow, you fool! (Pauses.) You know something? I’m part of you too. I don’t exclude myself, you know. See why it’s my favorite expression? We’re all doomed to dream we’ll win—and then be defeated. Ha! But no matter what you do, don’t let it get you down. Savor it all! Ah, yes, folks, don’t give up that dream. Even though you know it won’t come true.
Play me some more of my theme.
(“Bahn Frei” plays for a few moments, then stops.)
My cherished theme music! I hear that thing sometimes and it drives me out of my skull. I got a letter from a kid. “Have you thought of changing your theme?” he asks. No!— No! I couldn’t conceivably do that. Now the reason I have this theme—are you listening, kid—is not because it’s a good piece of music. But for exactly the opposite reason—which to me makes far more sense. This piece of music, kid, is probably the most mediocre piece of claptrap that has ever been perpetrated on the listening public since Marconi. It always sounds like it’s going to break into something better—but never does. It gallops off in all directions and It arrives at none of them! How like life itself, ah, kid? Well then, how could I conceivably think of doing away with this piece of—uh—claptrap—which, by the way, I think is a great word. Would you please play a little more of that claptrap, Herb? Just hit it there.
(Beginning of the “Bahn Frei” theme music starts.)
SHEPHERD Listen to this—it starts with a bugle! Oh, man! Anything that starts out with a bugle is, you know—filled with portent!
(A few moments of the theme music continues, then stops.)
It’s all of us! And that’s exactly why I use it! (He laughs.) And it’s timeless. An unrealistic dream! And yet, kiddies, we carry on, don’t we? Marching ever onward—and having fun if we’re smart, enjoying every moment we’ve got in this nutty fruitcake existence, keeping our knees loose and following our dreams.
Speaking of dreams. You remember we were speaking of dreams. We’ve all got dreams, right? I suspect that at least fifteen percent of the population of New York City—particularly Manhattan—concealed someplace in a pile of papers—the beginnings of the eternal novel. A poem, a play, “A thing I was gonna write once. And I am going to write it yet—you just wait and see!” And the cracked guitars that are hanging in basements covered with dust that haven’t been strummed since 1987—after the second lesson. I have a feeling that these things are holding us down. (Pause.)
I have a suspicion that these are the things that, if somehow we could clear the decks and admit once, to ourselves, we’re not going to do it, and throw all this stuff out, we’d be better off for it. We ought to have a Dream Collection Day. You know how they used to have rag collection days, and old metal collection days? We ought to have a Dream Collection Day. Where everybody takes the half-finished model airplane out of the basement, the half-finished novel, the cracked guitar, and puts it out in front of the house. As a kind of public recanting, you see, for the salvage people to finally come and get. We’ll clean out all these poor, wonderful, idiotic, debilitating, defeating dreams. What a magnificent idea! Magnificent moment.
Me complaining? Oh, Shepherd’s not complaining, not at all. There is not one single word of complaint you’ll hear from me about life. Not one. I mean, I sit here looking at the raisins and I sit here looking at the dried apricots, I sit here looking at the vast, steaming, bubbling, hissing caldron, the fruitcake of life, and I realize—I realize I’ve hardly scratched the surface. Maybe one day I’ll grab that brass merry-go-round ring—that Dream!
And then one day back in the ‘80s, I really did hit the jackpot. After the jazz scene, the Playboy stories, the TV series, and all those other, lesser dreams, we made a movie that went all the way. At least it did on cable TV. Over fifty million people watch my movie every holiday season when it’s shown for twenty-four hours straight. Oh, come on, you know! A Christmas Story. The one where the kid almost shoots his eye out with the BB gun. The one where good old Santa kicks the kid in the face with his big black boot. Hilarious.
And it’s not just a silly kid’s Christmas movie and it’s good despite the fact that it’s popular. 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? You know my Christmas story is an anti-war parable? And the kid has the opposite of the “Christmas spirit.” He just wants stuff—presents—and the ultimate present that can shoot his eye out. Except for the sappy ending, that’s what the movie’s about. And right now I’ve got two irons in the fire. A major movie deal and a network TV show. Just waiting for my agent to call with the final deal. Isn’t the phone supposed to ring now?
The big deal. But do you remember when I just got started? 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 combined some of them into A Christmas Story 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…. Hairs on the back of my neck. Yeah, radio. No. (Pause.) Radio, radio. Wherefore art thou, radio?
(Pause. He quiets down almost to a whisper.)
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! My A Christmas Story. In the limelight. And oh, what a limelight, and the problem is that most people don’t even know I created it—that it’s all mine—that damn, famous, family, holiday movie everybody loves! And people used to say that Garrison Keillor might someday be as good as Jean Shepherd. Oh, that was the day! (Pause)
The limelight. And where am I now? Some kid, some Shep-kook, took the time to transcribe a lot of my radio stuff and he sent it to me. Here.
(Sound of paper rustling as he opens pages to read)
Quote: “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.“ Unquote.
Yeah, folks out there in radioland. One last little transcript from my great old radio days. Quote: “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.” Unquote.
(The sound of him crumpling the paper.)
SHEPHERD You know how I always talk about our poor little dreams? Dream Collection Day? Well, folks, I gotta admit it, I never tossed out every last one of my little dreams. I can still make it much bigger than I ever have, can’t I folks? Of course I can! My fantabulous, out-of-this-world celebrity agency, Flimflam and Hornswoggle’s closing the deal as I speak. You see, my agent’s talking to Spielberg about a major film deal. (Pause) Okay, so where’s the damn phone call? Only a few of us are lucky enough to have the phone ring-a-ding-ding. Dreams fulfilled.
Aha, I told you!
(We hear Shepherd pick it up.) Hey, Marty, how’s Mr. Flimflam and how’s Mr. Hornswoggle?
(Pause. Sound of phone being crashed down on receiver.
Then Shepherd speaks in a slow, sad voice.)
Folks, I can’t believe it. The whole deal down the toilet. So much for my own stupid dreams! The Spielberg deal and the TV extravaganza didn’t work out. But I’ve got a firm offer to be Garrison Keillor’s gofer. (Pause.) That’s supposed to make you laugh, folks.
(For a moment, Shepherd is angry.) Cherish your illusions, folks, like I’ve to do—make ‘em work for you—what else ya got?
(Now he sounds self-consciously upbeat.) Not to worry, folks, Shepherd isn’t serious—no tears now, madam. He was just joking around—just making little funnies. After all, he’s still got all his lovely dreams!
SHEPHERD (Speaking loudly and full of joyous energy.) Okay, Herb, now bring it up big!
(His theme, “Bahn Frei,” comes on loud.)
SHEPHERD Hi ya, dreams, and hello, reality. [Pause] And hello,…delicious, …nutty…fruitcake of life!
(He scats along and plays a bit of jazzy, manic kazoo,
and as time runs out, the volume decreases to silence.)
Fruitcake for your gustatorial pleasure.
Cropped close, darkened, and with raised contrast
to increase your perception.
This Part includes more front matter from my unpublished
Keep Your Knees Loose, as well as additional stuff.
Because so many describe my Excelsior, You Fathead! as a “biography,” I thought it might serve to include near the front of Keep Your Knees Loose, a notice setting the record straight (as though that might do some good):
There! That gets that off my mind! HA!!
What follows are a version of a Preface and, probably in forthcoming Part 4, short titles/descriptions of the proposed chapters of KYKL! As I’ve mentioned, some of this material has already been cannibalized from the manuscript and used for this blog. “Cannibalized” is such a horrific word–let’s just say I’ve served it in a civilized manner and cooked it up with a bit of extra seasoning after seeking it out in the fertile soil of the manuscript in which it grew, and then tearing the living matter out by its roots.
Gentle reader, I’d like to relate to you my adventures in a Shepherd-world of both reality and illusion (one may observe here rogues and heroes, whores and heroines, beggars, and noble primitives neither better nor worse than you or I in the vast heart and mind of American culture), adventures told by this scribbling picaro. Hark back to that knight-errant Don Quixote, as you think of me, a modern, though less-saintly adventurer. I unsheathe and raise on high my rusty falchion (a quaint word for sword used by none other than our own Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in his immortal ditty, “Excelsior”). Seeking glory and the incorporeal embrace of my Muse, the lusty slattern of my dreams whom fatheads might call Dulcinea del Toboso, I, on my wobbly nag, galumph headlong in all directions.
In a certain town on Long Island, New York, which I do not wish to name (but it may slip out), there lives this scribbler—one of those who always has a lance and a ballpoint pen in the rack, a battered shield and serviceable computer on his desk, and an obsession with literature and the creative life. Only a few years past, this muddleheaded gent managed to publish a book whose title exclaimed, with its very first word, “Excelsior,” his own reckless optimism. Despite trying to make that first book as complete as possible, he knew that many details about Jean Shepherd’s life and work were hidden in dusty minds and forgetful attics throughout the land, just waiting to be made manifest, in part after being nudged into consciousness by Don Quixote de la Massapequa.
My original intention for KYKL! was merely to describe the new material that had accrued both through happenstance and by my ferreting it out. The material would be a permanent part of the recorded history of our culture. But my best friend and severest critic complained: “This book could and should be more. Write a book about your fascinating adventures in the world of Shepherd and Shep-kooks! What’s it like to live in a world surrounded by Shepherd mania? Have fun with it or it’s not worth doing.” Yes, I must have fun and create a work of art— nothing-but-the-truth picaresque adventures through the land of Shepherdiana.
(Remember that quests for grail tend to be never-ending and that
“the journey is the destination.”
That’s why unexpected encounters, such as mine in ShepQuests
can be so appropriate and enjoyable.)
EXAMPLE OF THE UNEXPECTED
Unexpected: my unexpected hearing of Shep’s story about the film “Play ‘Misty’ For Me” and claiming that he’d been stalked, leading to six deaths. I kinda believed this despite my general attitude that Shep’s stories were almost all fiction. I posted several essays on Shep and the film. Tom Lipscomb, who’d known Leigh and Jean well and been their editor and publisher, and whose intelligence and perception I admire, comments:
I’ve heard them ALL, and Shep and OTHER authors tell these stories when they are trying to impress someone they are doing business with like ME and he had plenty of opportunities… and he repeated them… He told me about what a s[**]t Herb Gardner was “stealing” 1000 Clowns about 1000 times AND I NEVER HEARD THIS ONE…. Shep acutely felt that he needed to drop names when he was feeling unimportant…. Otherwise he didn’t. He was filled with resentment at times about people he felt were more important than they deserved to be when he hadn’t broken out yet.
I don’t believe the story.
The key is that he NEVER wrote it down. Don’t you think he pushed Leigh to push that story a Zillion times….? And it never appeared… Tells me Leigh didn’t believe it either and was able to keep Shep from pushing it and embarrassing himself. But once he is on the air, there isn’t a damned thing she can do about it.
Oh me, oh my!
They’re slippery, inseparable maneuvers.
Who can pry ’em apart?
Back to KYKL in Part 4
(August 16, 1927-January 18, 2008)
Lois Nettleton was an important part of Shepherd’s early days in New York, as can be seen in my earlier valentine post to her. I trust that it will be obvious from this current post that I feel a strong attachment to Lois.
[I’ve had several correspondences with one of Lois’ biggest fans. She wondered if I was thinking of writing some sort of script about Lois, and I said I was not, but just wanted to gather all info about her that I could that related to Jean Shepherd. She said she would send me copies of correspondence between Lois and Jean, but despite my entreaties, she never has. I’d hoped to have them by Lois’ birthday, August 16. Time after time I have found that information regarding Shepherd that I’m told exists just is not forthcoming. Maybe some day. The image below is of the first page of a letter from Lois to me.]
the sun dangerously approaching Earth.
Jean and Lois soon after they married (early 1960s).
Lois and Frank Sinatra in bed together.
In a scene from “Dirty Dingus Magee” (1970),
several years after Lois and Jean divorced.
One might wonder (as I do) what Jean might have thought/felt upon seeing this and knowing that Lois and Frank Sinatra were a couple for a year or so in the early 1970s.
Only a couple of years ago I found out that Lois, among her hundreds of film, theater, and television roles, had appeared as the centerpiece of a Golden Girls episode, “Isn’t it Romantic?” (November 8, 1986). In the story, Lois plays a lesbian who develops a crush on Rose. Lois’ character name is Jean. Isn’t that curious? Kinda makes one wonder how/why she got that name for such a part.
Lois in the Seinfeld episode, “The Gymnast,”
(The one where George picks a pastry from a trash can.)
In Seinfeld’s commentary regarding that episode
in the Season 6 DVD set, he says,
“That’s Lois Nettleton. She was married to Jean Shepherd.
He really formed my entire comedic sensibility.
I learned how to do comedy from Jean Shepherd.”
Above, two of the later photos of Lois.
Lois in her final acting role, in “The Christmas Card,”
a Hallmark television story (2006)
Lois in 2007.
I don’t have a date for this lovely image below. Apparently it was taken in about the 1970s. It captures the special, sexy little corners of her mouth seen in a couple of the images above, very prevalent in many publicity photos of her.
This final image below represents how she usually signed her name on photos and elsewhere. She wished for happiness for everyone, just as one would like to think she experienced it herself. Even decades after she parted from Jean Shepherd, she still wished the best for his legacy and his genius.
Jean Shepherd’s personal life is not of prime interest to me. Yet his relationships with four women in his early days in New York City have some connection to the nature of his work, and much of this has been unknown to the vast majority of Shep enthusiasts. Some unexpected and interesting facts have come my way in my quest to learn as much as I can about his creative life.
As I began to seek new information about the important early years in the New York area, I began to realize that the interconnections in Shep’s life, regarding some important women, were becoming too involved for me to keep clear in my mind without a chart.
Many are aware of Joan Warner, to whom Shepherd was married before they came to the New York metropolitan area in 1955. According to those who knew Jean and Joan before they came to New York, they had a son, Randall. At about the time they separated, their daughter Adrian was born. Although the Cincinnati newspaper clipping below has been circulating for some time now, many may not be aware of it. Note how Shep’s radio persona was being described in the paper even before his New York days. Joan refuses to be interviewed about Jean.
JEANNE KEYES YOUNGSON
Soon after my Excelsior, You Fathead! was published in March of 2005, I received an email from Jeanne Keyes Youngson (of whom I was not aware), saying she had encountered my book and that she had been a “romantic interest” of Jean’s before he began dating Lois Nettleton. Jeanne told me she had participated in the I, Libertine hoax and the Wannamaker protest in 1956. At some time I will describe my meeting with her. I refer to her (not in any negative sense of the term) as “The Vampire Lady.” The recent photo of her below is from her website.
Young actress Lois had listened to Shepherd during his overnight phase in 1956. I made contact with her after my Excelsior, You Fathead! was published. I’ve had much to tell about her and her relationship with Jean. She was a very important part of his early creative life in New York. See some of my previous posts.
Lois as Miss Chicago of 1948, and another early photo of her.
As attractive as she appears in these images, after she began work in Hollywood, she transformed into a strikingly attractive woman.
Leigh Brown, it’s said, was introduced to Jean by their mutual friend, Shel Silverstein. Eventually she began working at WOR, became an important part of Jean’s career, and became his fourth wife. There is much more that I’ve had to say about Leigh–see some of my previous posts.
Leigh Brown (Nancy Prescott) in high school
There is more information to come about Jeanne, Lois, and Leigh regarding Jean’s creative life. Stay tuned for more posts down the road. Meanwhile here is my two-part chart (click to enlarge the parts):
JEAN SHEPHERD—would he praise or damn?
[An all-for-the-fun-of-it photo
I had taken in 2004–at the same time
as my “author photo” for EYF!
I’ve spent a good part of my waking hours for the last 13 years thinking and writing about Jean Shepherd. When my EYF! was published in 2005, I was asked by an interviewer whether I thought Shepherd would have damned or praised me for what I’ve written. My answer is both (I’d hope).
Just as his third wife Lois Nettleton thanked me profusely for having written that first book in praise of Shep and all he’d created, I think Shep would have been happy to see some sort of book published about him—books, you’ll remember, were extremely important to him since he’d been a grammar school kid, even before he’d first gone to a library. So I believe that Shepherd would have been happy to find that so much of his work in all media, objectively described, would have a relatively permanent place in the printed word.
Of course my written and spoken words about him consist of more than objective description—there’s subjective description, interpretation, appreciation. Besides all that, regarding his personal life, there’s a bit of description and a tad of suggested interpretation.
Of course, there’s the times I put words in his mouth: my play, Excelsior! and my fake interview of him in the blog. But I make clear that I’m—in the field of artistic interpretation and playing around—giving my own view of what his thoughts might be.
Despite my focus on his creative works, I do devote a bit of time to his treatment of his kids, his damning of radio, his unpleasant treatment of others: engineers, wives, children, fans, etc. He would intensely dislike much of the plain descriptive nature of putting parts of his life in print for the world to see. But there is a certain logic to this in my mind as his very personal style of radio persona—telling of himself and his ideas—lends one to examine to what degree these represent a truth to his life as he himself suggested.
LET’S ADMIT IT–HE’D HAVE HATED LOTS OF IT!
There’s my questioning and musing on some parts of his enigmatic nature. For example my educated guess/interpretation of what I believe his motto “Excelsior” is all about. Joel Baumwoll and I have had some interesting interchanges about ways his life and art regarding “Excelsior,” as well as about other matters. Sometimes there is not quite an obvious answer.
[Two of my designs for potential covers]
KEEP YOUR KNEES LOOSE!
EUGENE B. BERGMANN
This book is dedicated to my wife, Allison, and our sons, Evan and Drew,
for their boundless forbearance during my work on the book.
And to the memory of two women who were so important to the life and legacy of Jean Shepherd,
Lois Nettleton and Leigh Brown.
I’ll give you a word of advice. I’m beginning to produce a small booklet in my mind called, just simply, Keep Your Knees Loose! The Education of a Twentieth-century Man. —Jean Shepherd, humorist
Keep your knees loose. If you lock your knees, you will eventually faint and fall over.—Online advice for proper posture while singing.
I really want him to be recognized for what he was—a brilliant genius. The wonderful, wonderful unique—the wonderful thing that he was. —Lois Nettleton, actress, wife (1960-1967)
Knowing ANYONE is hard enough, but Jean is an unusually complex man, and his needs go much deeper than the average non-aware clown. I do not know if I can give him anything of value.—Leigh Brown, lover, producer, wife (1962-1998)
He really formed my entire comedic sensibility—I learned how to do comedy from Jean Shepherd. —Jerry Seinfeld, comedian
I wonder how many kids are young Jean Shepherds running around out there. [Laughs.] I’m serious. They’ve got a jews harp in one pocket, a kazoo in the other, and a smart remark on their mouth. And a fat eye. —Jean Shepherd (July 27, 1965 broadcast)
You are Shep stuff as are we all. Do not fight your Shepness but rejoice in your Shepittity. —P. T. Bartman, Shep fan
MY BLOOD DANCED IN ME
…and never yet
Had heaven appeared so blue, nor earth so green,
For all my blood danced in me, and I knew
That I should light upon the Holy Grail.
—Alfred, Lord Tennyson, from Idylls of the King, (1869)
The author beseeches all those potentially munificent fatheads who harbor miscellaneous Jean Shepherd holy grails to come forth with them now before their ignorant heirs toss them in a dumpster.
Some parts of the Keep Your Knees Loose manuscript have already appeared
in this blog. As I don’t expect those two manuscripts to be published in
anything like their current form, it should be understood
that the blogs are an overview plus much
new material of post-Excelsior, You Fathead! subjects
that have kept me busy (and off the streets) in recent years.
I believe that all this material extends our
understanding and appreciation of Jean Shepherd’s life and art.
(on AM and FM on your dial)
SHEP AND MARK TWAIN—THE INNOCENTS ABROAD
Regarding American humor, Jean Shepherd has always been proud of his lineage going back to Mark Twain. In 1869 Twain published his book, The Innocents Abroad, a quirky, true/fiction commentary.
Twain’s experiences and the ironic tone he took toward American and European culture, plus his characterization of American tourists faced with far-off oddities and treasures, makes his and Shepherd’s takes on travel mostly unlike each other—not the closest of kin here, they seem rather like distant cousins.
Yet, Shepherd would probably be pleased to find a link between himself and his revered forebear in a sentence from Twain’s preface to The Innocents Abroad. Shepherd might have written it for his own travel tales: “I offer no apologies for any departures from the usual style of travel writing that may be charged against me—for I think I have seen with impartial eyes, and I am sure I have written at least honestly, whether wisely or not.”
With his own distinctive brand of wit, Shepherd shares with Twain
his sharp-eyed observations and a penchant for truth.
“If our lives are dominated by a search for happiness, then perhaps few activities reveal as much about the dynamics of this quest—in all its ardour and paradoxes—than our travels. They express, however inarticulately, an understanding of what life might be about, outside the constraints of work and the struggle for survival….[travel] whose study might in modest ways contribute to an understanding of what the Greek philosophers beautifully termed eudaimonia or human flourishing.” –Alain Botton (The Art of Travel, 2002.)
Jean Shepherd, on his broadcasts, told many travel tales. I’ve transcribed quite a few of them and I hope that they will someday be published in print. They make a fascinating handful of far-off experiences told in Shep’s familiar style and turn of mind. And, I believe, they are almost entirely true to life (as opposed to the basically fictional nature of his kid and army stories). They range from his bus-trip to the “March on Washington”; to delivering cough drops and candy to Peru’s Indian natives, previous headhunters of the Amazon; to his week as a “fifth Beatles” in Great Britain for his Playboy interview of them; to much more around the world.
There is much more to say about Shep’s travels.
“Mr. Shepherd, “Excelsior,
I assume?” you fathead!”
Oh, Eugene, as you have so much material on Shep, and so many topics to discuss that you can go on every third day for well over a year, why haven’t you gathered all these loose ends and tight middles accumulated after your EYF! and published them as a book themselves, rather than delivering them here willy-nilly ?
You may well ask. Why not indeed?
Whereas I have gone through decades of hassle trying to bring my book manuscripts to publication—including two Shepherd books eventually published after too much blood, sweat, aggravation, and miscellaneous etceteras;
Whereas I have several additional Jean Shepherd book manuscripts ready to go, which have already been rejected by several publishers, and without the desire to spend much of my remaining years full of frustration in case of non-publication, and stress in the event of more satisfactory possibilities;
Whereas I believe that the material in these manuscripts is of historical value regarding the work of Jean Shepherd;
Whereas, nevertheless, I would agree to publishing contracts should they drop from the sky into my lap;
I could no longer abide that situation and I chose to do the following:
Whereas regarding my two book manuscripts of miscellaneous follow-up material gathered after my EXCELSIOR, YOU FATHEAD! went to press and sold better than its publisher had expected, in part I have been cannibalizing them for my blog. I’m happy to say that the majority of the material incorporated into this blog has been newly minted rather than cannibalized, created as I’ve been blogging in the last 15 months. [Isn’t “blog” a ridiculous, awful word?!]
Despite all of the above, yet I still carry that idealistic EXCELSIOR banner upward into the blizzard of the commercial publishing world.
So far I’ve been pleased with what I’ve managed to do in the blog and I’ve been gratified at the responses from others.
→NOTICE: BESIDES THE 2 BEING CANNIBALIZED,
I HAVE 2 ADDITIONAL SHEPHERD MANUSCRIPTS
(not being cannibalized) AT MY PUBLISHER
WAITING FOR THE WORD!←
→Gene Bergmann, you Fathead, onward and upward I say!←