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.